books, grief


There are times when a book lands in your lap and as you being reading it, a sentence or a theme reminds you of a memory. The Lost Letter by Jillian Canton brought me to only page five when her recollection of her father’s love for collecting stamps promptly reminded me of a long rectangular box about three feet long and about eighteen inches tall residing in my third floor closet. A box I had never opened since it was delivered to me in December of 1995. Not even two months since my brother had died from a year long battle with adeno carcinoma of the lung at the too young age of 25.

I remember being in my mother’s basement after he died and we were going through some of my brother’s things that had found their way as storage there.

“Do you want Michael’s comic book collection? She asked.

There seems to be two distinct ways a parent may handle the intense pain of losing a child. Hanging on for dear life to everything and anything is one way, or purge all physical items that are distinct reminders of pain. My mother had chosen the latter and I was the lucky recipient of whatever I desired of my deceased brother’s. There was a part of me that wanted to hang on to every item possible so that he would not be physically forgotten so I accepted the box and placed it in my basement of the house I shared with my former husband. Four months later I found myself pregnant and the box became a temporary forgotten shadow of my brother as we made our way as new and busy parents.

Fifteen years later, the unopened and mega taped box followed me in the wake of my divorce to condo number 1, condo number 2, then a storage unit and finally making its way to its permanent home where I presently live. Placed in the closet of my son’s space on the third floor it sat with the idea that he would be the proud owner of the contents when he was ready to take a look. Likely long after I am gone.

Lately there have been some discussions with friends about comic books, can’t recall how the subject has come up, but I remembered the box thinking, “I should take a look in there to see if there are any Wonder Woman comics.” A planted seed perhaps waiting for some water so the shoot could peek from the soil.

When I finished reading Lilac Girls, I was so hungry for more that I read every comment on the back of the book and jotted down the author names and the books they had written. The Lost Letter was one of these books. I have never done this before- read a book and then head towards the back cover for more books but for some reason, I went with the notion that Like attracts Like and made the assumption that the authors who kindly gave their reviews for quotes would be similar in taste.

This is how The Lost Letter came to be my next book on my reading list and this is the book that made me walk upstairs this morning and bring the box down to finally take a look inside. It never occurred to me that there would be anything inside this box besides comic books. I am not sure if I had ever opened the box but I always thought that it was filled with comic books from a collection my brother had started in the late eighties. Every comic book in its own plastic sleeve protector along with the paperwork of the place he had ordered them from. Back before the internet when you ordered things by mail through mail on an actual order form and waited for the delivery to arrive in “4-6 weeks.” The order forms were along with the comics to remind me of this time in our lives when waiting was part of the daily act of living.

I perused the collection and not knowing anything about comic books, lost interest rather quickly when I realized there would be no Wonder Woman of yesteryear waiting for me as a nice surprise. Instead of Wonder Woman, I  came across a cardboard box filled with stuff, cards, letters, old advertisements and photos along with their negatives. (remember those?)

I walked it over to my couch and my waiting coffee cup and proceeded to go through the box where I found a chronological time travel of my brother’s world from before cancer to during. I found Happy Birthday, Hope it’s a great one! cards, Christmas? instead of Hanukkah cards, reminding me of the yoyo world we both lived in with my parent’s religious choices at any given time. Then there were the hope you get well soon cards, sorry I haven’t called but I don’t know what to say cards and finally the cards that tried all too hard not to mention the elephant in the room that an almost 25 year old strapping healthy young man would not be getting well soon after all. all handwritten, all encouraging and kind, filled with love. Names I never knew of friends at work, to family members who have since died, in their easily recognized handwriting. No emails, no text messages, only beautiful writing because that was the only option for regular communication back then.

I was in awe of the love pouring out, the well wishes and most poignantly, the hope. I got to read letters from my grandmother who always spoke and wrote detailed messages and my other grandmother who simply said, hope you get well soon. Letters from my Aunt Peggy who died a few years back and great aunts and uncles long since gone. There were cards from friends traveling and moving inviting my brother for a visit and letters from our cousins giving him their life updates in handwritten prose on personalized stationary.

Needless to say, not a dry eye from the moment I realized what I had come across and was struck by the power of grief creeping up on me again just because of a random book I began reading. There are times when something doesn’t feel quite right in my spirit, I feel a little off balance emotionally. When I do the infamous checklist- what did I eat, drink, have I been exercising, meditating? Is it a full moon, is mercury retrograde? When none of those fit the bill and I am still a bit off, usually it is some emotion that needs to be released.  I unknowingly needed a good cry and this was the entry ticket I needed to give some bottled up tears a little extra nudge to get them flowing up and out.

There will never be a time almost twenty four years later when I don’t miss my brother, the further away he gets from me, the more I am realizing this very simple and stark fact. He is no longer- and the trip down memory lane this morning jet set me right into the island of loss that has been a part of my adult life with me in the passenger seat. The further the years take me from my grieving this loss, the more it seems like it plays hide and seek with me, hiding in the darkest furthest away corners that I didn’t know to look.

Waiting to be found, Grief seems to sit lying in wait for discovery until it just can’t hide out any longer. Grief may soften or go back to its hide out, but at the strangest times, it needs its own recognition or else it leaks in a slow drip hard to decipher until the faucet gets turned on full throttle. A good cry on a random Sunday morning is the ironic gift that keeps giving. Despite its sadness, there is a release. Opening a box of comic books looking for Wonder Woman because of a book called The Lost Letter seems like no random coincidence. Once again my brother’s loss has brought me to my knees and he never stops teaching me to pay attention all these years later.



You visited me, finally, and I am grateful. I have missed you and there you were, out of the blue, the literal blue of the ocean. Have you been waiting for me to appear in the calm openness necessary, like you ever needed permission. But maybe it was me that needed the permission, the sense of peace I have worked on to get to the place where I could be open to your visit.

It was like you had never left, but at the same time like you had been gone forever. Forever. Soon you will be gone for more than half of my life. Those are the frames of reference I use to recognize your long absence from my heart.

The first time I knew you were ok was the first dream, the one where we were at the beach walking parallel to the shore and I was behind you, you kept falling because your leg was bothering you and I kept throwing sand on you which was causing you pain. Then in that fast forward way a dream propels to the next scene, I was sitting cross legged facing the waves. You were the wave lying in a resting pose on your right ear eyes closed, serene even, mouth slightly curved up but not quite a smile letting me know you were at peace, you were good. That dream has carried me for twenty four years.

Twenty four years later, I find myself in the midst of a deep dive down within myself eager and excited to find ways to simmer down and re-connect with my soul. I began a short meditation practice. Every morning while the coffee perks, 8 minutes or more depending on the size of the pot, I sit cross legged in silence facing the East like a religious Jew at the Western Wall, (my cousin beth corrected my compass as I thought it was west) and since I wake up at the crack of dawn facing east is probably more realistic , though I do enjoy the sunset and west feels right for some higher power reason I am unsure of and I sit and breathe in total silence. No music, no sound machines, nothing except me and my breath and the beat of my heart. My mind races and speeds and slows and floats then I remember where I am and like the magic that meditation is slowly one day at a time teaching me, I breathe. For the last thirty or forty days, just showing up to the mat wherever I am and I breathe. Calmly and collectively. Each day I go beyond the beep of the coffee pot’s sound and I find myself staying put- different.

When I first started I kept saying, is that coffee pot ever going to fucking beep? Now I am disappointed that it beeps so quickly and I am surprised that in such a short time span I went from waiting and tapping my foot like my skin was crawling to this miraculous pleasure. And I sit and breathe massaging my insides with the deepest and and calmest of breaths. Steady, In and out. Slow, easy. Connected. This is the miracle of the quiet. And wisdom moves inside of me and I come to my knees without ever moving.

Then just like the miracle of not trying, not forcing, there you were, there we were. At the beach, I was next to you as part of the same wave gently lapping at the shore, in and out like my own breath. I opened my eyes and felt you. Even though the visit was brief, I relished it because it had been so long. I accepted its shortness and went about my day. To the mat again the next day and in only two or three breaths you were back, but this time you stood up facing me looking like your pre-cancer, pre-death self, strong, muscular, tall, dark wavy hair and I was sitting facing the water watching you arrive, like a male character from a Greek myth, someone likely related to Zeus, I stood up knowing that you wouldn’t be staying, but just bathing in the moment. We danced and frolicked like brothers and sisters do and danced again. Then you turned around and walked back in the water, with your back to me and dove in, swimming away, never turning around and it was enough.

I opened my eyes knowing you were letting me know something but instead of trying to figure it out, just allowing the pleasure. I went to a yoga class that night with one of my favorite teachers, Mary and she did mini meditations throughout the gentle class. At the last part of the meditation, after the final Shavasana, Mary had us sit in that familiar cross legged position that is getting much easier to do. Within a flash of time you were back, but this time with Dad. You looked at me, Dad didn’t, though this didn’t bother me and the two of you uncharacteristically wrestled briefly. Shortly after you both dove back in the water swimming underneath and away. My eyes filled up with tears, happy to see you to be with you in this odd awakened state, you left me with the words Call Mom.

Typical. I felt a sense of urgency to call her. But I didn’t right away. That was Monday. I called her yesterday but had to cut it short because my friend arrived earlier then planned as we were headed to dinner with 2 other friends. One of them pushed the very familiar Ann buttons, but I didn’t react, like it was a test drive of a car before you decide to make the purchase. So I called my mother back today and allowed her to do her thing, keeping a safe distance from her fishing pole to my heart. And it was good.

People die. They die young. They die old but they die. Mary Oliver died today, someone who was a link for me to Provincetown and another old friend who is no longer.. Strange how people can physically leave, but you can still have visits from them even 24 years later just like it was yesterday. Relationships die too and people can depart emotionally and you feel nothing, like it was time for the departure and they did you a favor without you even knowing you needed one. Then there is Ann who comes and goes and comes again, like the nine lives of a cat. And I allow it because after all she is my mother and who knows how many more lives she has. This time, though I watch her line and hook fly past me. I watch a fish grab a hold and swim with the current full steam ahead not realizing who’s on the other side of the worm.

I haven’t had the dream again since Monday and I welcome the visit juxtaposed with my son, being away in Israel and on his way home too. Like you are part of this protection in his travels. Your presence makes his trip help me feel safe for some reason as I try not to feel like you and Dad are sending me some message or you are coming for me or something like some fucked up death premonition. There has been and is so much cancer and death in my young life. It is a struggle to not immediately go there because it has been so long since I have felt you, my dear brother. You are a warrior, Poseidon, all these years later and I hope (and pray too) it was just a lovely visit because you miss me too.




“Get Out!” my six year old brother at the time screamed at me. I was ten and in his room taunting him like any bored older sister would be doing. I can’t remember the weather, the circumstance or why he was trying to boot me and why I would not be booted. I just remember him yelling at me to get out of his room, reasonable in hindsight as he surely was entitled to his privacy. I was his older sister, though and I had to save face, after all, who is the boss here? I dug in and wouldn’t budge. This was around 1976 when to tell time, you actually had a clock by the side of your bed rather than a cell phone. And a small orange and white circular plastic clock was what came flying at me slamming into my face. Right below my upper lip causing the bottom long part of the stand to make a connection with my skin causing a nice diagonal slice.

I can still see his face, somewhat disbelieving he had done this coupled with total satisfaction that he would indeed have the last word at last. That was until I bolted downstairs to report to my unsuspecting father of his crime, bloody face to prove it. I am not sure what became of my brother’s punishment for this, but I am sure my father was upset by this. This is how it often went with my brother and I imagine many siblings have stories that fall into the theme of protagonist and antagonist between the stages of their lives. My brother though was usually the one who got into trouble, but at the same time, I was a fierce protector of him in the outside world. He was my little brother and I loved him until the day he died which unfortunately was almost twenty three years ago, one month to the day of his 25th birthday. Today would have been his forty eighth year and the age difference is not as great, but this is something I will never know. I remember like it was yesterday having the conversation with him about death because it was at the time where we knew he would not be getting out alive. He was obsessed with videoing his every waking move with those old big cantankerous video recorders that held a full size tape. I was interviewing him Oprah style, tripod and all. We were both baked, smoking pot out of some gigantic water bong, better for the lungs, he would say and I was asking him questions. 
 “Are you afraid of dying?” I asked him this so matter of factly like I was asking him to stop at the grocery store on the way home from work to pick up milk and eggs. It was a courageous question for a 29 year old sister to be asking her 24 year old soon to die of advanced lung cancer baby brother. He never smoked a day in his life other than marijuana once he was diagnosed to help the pain. Before medical marijuana became legal.

He paused, took a long bubbly hit off the water bong, held his breath to feel the soothing effects of the THC that would be a saving grace for him. As he released the smoke he said, “The one good thing about dying young is that people will always remember you at this age.” Always had a funny twist to his words, usually looked at the bright side, old soul for sure, my brother Michael was. I know these words almost verbatim because I videoed him and have the videos to refresh my memory anytime there is a chance I could possibly forget. Unless I got dementia this conversation is not something I will ever forget. No one gets out alive, but burying the love of my life when he hadn’t even started his was one of those moments in time that will never leave my memory.

My brother knew the idiosyncrasies of our inside lives as only a sibling can understand. When he died, so did my personal collaborator of the mom and dad stories that only he would be able to recall. I can see us in my fantasy world of sitting around the dinner table at my fantasy relationship with our mother recalling all of our childhood adventures that she never likely knew about, that mothers shouldn’t know about until this very time. Of course even if our mother would have known, she couldn’t have because we lived with my father for most of our adolescence, my brother when he was ten, me when I was fifteen. But that is for another story, this story is to celebrate his memory on what would have been his forty eighth year today.

He was the first white boy most of us knew to have dreadlocks, back in 1985 in Portsmouth, RI back when white boys didn’t have dreadlocks. He also had a tattoo of a wizard smoking out of a bong that covered almost the entire right side of his very muscular and long back that made my grandparents in Florida demand full t shirt coverage when he visited. Michael was charming, handsome, kind. He had a sense of humor and a pragmatism about him that made him a desired friend to have around. He also lived on the edge, taking way more risks that I surely did at his young age, diving naked off of Fort Wetherhill cliffs with his friends, tossing fireworks back and forth causing my father to have to take him to the hospital for a burn that could have been much worse, BMX racing and stunts, skateboarding all over Jamestown when he was little. There was always an air of mischief around him and he seldom got caught doing anything unless it was something with his older sister so she could blame him. He loved peaches and cottage cheese as a snack and white cake with chocolate frosting and frozen chocolate chip cookies just like I did. He loved Reggae music and Seal and Lenny Kravitz. Michael Andrew Horowitz was an amazing human being and since November 20, 1995, i have never had a day go by when I haven’t thought of him.

As my own son comes into his 21st year, I try to stay calm for the next few years as I watch him climb his early twenties praying that he sails through 23–25 unscathed, undiagnosed. I am fully aware that everything is out of my control, that worrying about this is not helpful, but no matter how much I breathe, write, meditate, it looms. Trauma is like this, scars heal, but they show up like a tattoo. Every time I look in the mirror, that scar from that clock under my lip is a tattoo my brother gave me and I smile every single time I look at it. I will never know what would have become of my brother and my relationship if he had the chance to age right alongside me, but I do know that the time we had is etched into my heart and my face until the day I die.

hard to believe this was taken in 1992 when Michael Horowitz was 22.



Big plans this morning as usual. I have a lot to get into my schedule because I have to work at 9 today. Gardening, writing and a bike ride are in the forefront of my plans. Waking up at 6am, a little late for this early bird, coffee already brewing thanks to Michael C. and I am off and running. Well not really running, moving. Brush my teeth, wash my face and oil it up, throw on my gardening dress and those trusty red plastic gardening Birkenstocks and grab my compost bucket to get my ass outside where glory awaits. If I don’t start watering and weeding at the early am, the computer calls to me and so does my writing. I love that part of my morning ritual, but my garden does not and life and the plants that are its bounty deserve my first awakening once gardening season is upon me.

I manage to balance my turquoise metal compost bucket on one wrist, my Life is Good black coffee filled mug in the other and make my way from my second floor habitat to the fragrant beauty that lies before me. I bring my bucket to the back compost area created in memory of my dear friend and compost expert, Ros and add to the pile, opening the homemade bin that works just fine now that I have some compost wisdom under my gardening belt. Buying a compost bin is almost laughable now that I have taken a gigantic trash bin, drilled holes everywhere for the air and water and for less than fifty dollars, I have a golden pile of joy steaming and working like nature simply does when you stop trying to control it.

But these are the lessons of nature and gardening. And life, actually. Leaning in, accepting, allowing and most importantly cutting back. I have noticed that the more I cut my plants, the more they come back with a vengeance as if to say, thanks for the haircut, I am stronger and more vivacious with the energy you have bestowed upon me. So I march forth to the hose and turn on the water while Michael sits on the back deck reading the NYT. The cardinals are quiet today as I begin my almost daily routine of watering my immense beds and pots. I am filled with peace as the shoots have tripled since yesterday, the soon to be bright red hibiscus is growing at a pace that I can’t comprehend. Where does their energy come from? Yes I know science 101, sun, soil, worms, light, water, oxygen = growth, but what makes this all work? I contemplate the workings of life and nature as I water happily, taking sips of my coffee that follows my path placing my cup on the various resting places when it is not in my hand. I bend to notice why some of my basil and tarragon is not doing so well when the oregano and bay leaf plant is growing at a rate that gardeners dream about. I am at peace, completely and utterly present to myself and I think back to last year at this time when I couldn’t really even bend to garden because I was recovering from a double mastectomy. Last year at this time, gardening was a chore, something that overwhelmed me and I had to allow it to just be what it was going to be along with the help I had to ask for. I reflected back on how I had made the commitment to be part of a garden tour for the Bristol Art Museum and somehow managed to pull this off. Was that only last year?

Each gardening season reminds me of last gardening season and the season that is ahead as I make note of what will be cut and moved for the fall. Divide and conquer more like it. Purple iris’ need to be shared in the back left where I could swear last year had a full bed. This year lots of empty space. My lambs ears, usually a super easy plant that makes me so happy decided not to return this year. To do, to do, to do. The lists are endless as I contemplate my day realizing that the porch and my writing will usurp my bike ride today as there is only so much time in the early morning to fit in all I desire.

Today I am reading a eulogy that I wrote for a young woman’s funeral who died from an overdose. Heroin. Another great spirit taken by addiction. I had known her since she was three and I dated her dad when we were both far too young to be doing anything other than dating. She was thirty nine when she died and I hadn’t seen her for well over twenty five years since her addiction became her best friend.

As I gardened this morning, I am filled with moments of poignant memories of a time in my life many people who know me now would not recognize. But these are the formative years that build the character of these later ones. The whys and the whats are all part of who I have become today. I sit here this morning rereading the eulogy for the tenth time to practice the momentum of its pace and its pauses so I can try to contain the emotion that it will likely bring as I look into the eyes of my past life. The unique view I have the privilege of being part of today is that I get to be a bookend for her life. I was there at the early days, like a new planting and I am here today at the end like a plant that can’t be saved even though you want it to come back next year. Sometimes nature has just run its course and it is time to go. Funerals are like bookends. They bring together the past and the present with the old faces from my childhood that were once young and breathless and are now filled with lines and etchings of the past thirty five years. Sadness coupled with the joy of seeing old friends are the only part of the funeral experience that make it bearable. I sit here today as I finish my writing with the bittersweet feelings of looking forward to going and also the intense sadness of the loss mixed up like the compost in my backyard. Just as I finish, the waft of the first smell of the blooming honeysuckle that reminds me always of my young life in Jamestown, makes its way into my nose and my heart. Besides this, there is silence. The cardinals and the birds are not singing to me today because it is like they know that a life has been taken too young to sing about.

Lesa with an E instead of an I in her earliest days way before her addiction. Yes that is Robert Plant she got to meet him in Newport as he was visiting and she and her Dad just happened to be there at the same time.