When I first heard my dear friend Sybil was in hospice in February, I went to the page to process my emotions. The first thing I wrote was “How do you say goodbye to one of the only friends you could count on when you’re going through the biggest transition of your life?” I was preparing myself, hoping I’d be able to tell her goodbye on the phone. Sadly, I didn’t get that chance.
Two weeks to the day after she passed, I went to the 2023 Tucson Festival of Books at Arizona State University. After perusing the many new titles for sale, I left my partner browsing books in the festival tent. Something was pulling me to check out the rest of the festival. As an author, I was curious what else was offered.
I cruised perimeter. It’s a two-day writer’s heaven, with speakers, community resources, and writing groups in attendance. I made a mental note to attend at least one full day next year.
On my way back to my partner, I passed the indie author tent where I met Sandra Butler. The interaction I had with her touched my heart and I felt I met Sybil’s soul sister, an old Jewish queer. Sandra’s sassy title and her empathetic response finally gave me the framework for the piece I had been trying to write about our unconditional friendship. I’d also like to think Sybil had a hand in our synchronistic meeting.
So how do you say goodbye to a dear friend? By writing tribute to our friendship and the force of nature that she was. My essay was published May 1st on PrideSource.com and will appear in Between the Lines, Detroit Metro’s award-winning biweekly LGBTQ+ print publication on May 11th, 2023.
Thank you, Sybil Offen, for the gift of your unconditional friendship and being there when I needed you most these last 11 years
With the upheaval of 2020 behind me, I was so hopeful going into 2021. Who could have predicted the chaos in Capitol in Washington, DC on Wednesday…yet it’s not surprising given the rhetoric that has been spewed the last five years. A few years ago after the president’s tense exchange with a foreign leader not known to be an ally, I remember an early morning commute to my day job when I looked to the sky and wondered for the first time ever, if bombs were going to start falling.
It’s A LOT to process.
I couldn’t watch the live feed of the mob storming the Capitol because I started thinking Where are the police now?Surely they’ll stop this like they did the earlier protests this year. When that didn’t happen, my next thought was Is this the moment we lose our nation, the one I swore an oath to defend the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic?
My chest tightened, my muscles tensed, and my anxiety increased.
So I went shopping at Costco to avoid watching and I hoped for the best. But I’ve been hoping for the best for the past 50 months since the president was elected when I saw him for what he was…a failed businessman who had used the system and women for his benefit and pleasure.
When meeting high school classmates in Washington, DC in December 2016 to share the joyous celebration of a classmate’s retirement, I avoided discussions of the recent election until I could no longer. Two classmates starting talking about visiting the gift shop to buy inaugural kitsch for Christmas when the discussion turned to politics, “her emails”, and what a good job they were expecting him to do as a businessman.
“I’m not so sure,” I said.
“Well, he’ll grow into the job. I have faith,” one said.
“I hope you’re right, because you have more faith in his abilities than I do.”
Social norms have been shattered, there is reduced faith in our institutions, and a deep social divide separates our nation while Covid-19 kills more than three thousand Americans a day, the equivalent death toll of 9/11…every damn day.
Like so many Americans, I was glad to see 2020 come to an end and looked forward to a vaccinated future so our lives could return to some semblance of normalcy. I can only hope this is our darkest hour and the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t an oncoming freight train.
Yesterday I sought contemplative refuge walking a labyrinth. The gloomy, grey sky overhead seemed appropriate given recent events. With each and every mindful step, I focused on my breathing, the rhythm of my heartbeat, the honking snow geese overhead in their V formation, and the multitude of varied rocks thoughtfully placed on the North Dakota prairie by the Benedictine Sisters of nearby Annunciation Monastery.
As I navigated the winding path, I became aware of how similar a labyrinth is to life and world events. Each step takes you closer to the spiritual center, a goal, a more perfect union then a sudden shift finds you in the farthest ring, impatient and wondering when you’re going to arrive again.
At long last once getting to the center, you realize although you’ve arrived, your work isn’t done…but you walk out knowing you have arrived before and will again.
“We have to find find those things that make us feel most alive, and hold onto those.” Chris Fagan, Adventurer
The above quote is from a Mother’s Day episode of She Explores: Women in the Outdoors podcast with adventurer Chris Fagan who shares openly about the strategies she had for coping with her husband’s cancer diagnosis. Although the episode was recorded pre-pandemic, host Gale Straub encourages listening with a Covid-19 filter for resilience lessons.
What makes me feel most alive these days is staying active through treadmill walks on crummy weather days and hikes on good weather days. Today is Day 66 of social distancing and yesterday I took my 16th hike. Getting out on the trails and seeing nature springing to life reminds me that everything has a season, and this too shall pass. Right now, it seems endless…and hard.
I’ve always been a planner, so the ‘not knowing’ is what has been hardest for me: how we can safely resume working with others without fear of infection; when we’ll get an effective vacine; how and when we’ll have effective contact tracing; and when we’ll ever be able to heal the fissures of distrust and hate that have come to define our political discourse.
On my last hike, I listened to an On Being episode where host Krista Tippett and musician/artist Devendra Banhart read passages from When Things Fall Apart, by Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön. The first passage Krista read from the book was “Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
Although the book was written more than 20 years ago, it’s never been more relevant given world events. As Chödrön says later after that passage, “Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all.”
When I’m feeling anxious in the days to come, I’ll remember these take-aways…Give in to grief, because there is a lot to grieve now. Make room for every small relief you feel, the roof over your head and the food on your table, because so many are struggling. Move through your misery, because it too shall pass. And breathe in joy, that you are still alive in this moment.
I wrote fiction for NaNoWriMo 2019 because my memoir writing has been in a slump. During November, I noticed a February writing workshop in Portland, Oregon with two of my favorite memoirists, Pam Houston and Stephanie Land. Their topic? ”Getting the hard thing, the meaty thing, the painful thing, the unspeakable thing down on the page in a way that others can have emotional access to it.”
My mother passed 34 years ago succumbing to hypothermia on a frigid February North Dakota day. February also claimed the life of my step-brother who passed unexpectedly four years ago. The last straw was two years ago when my father passed on February 2nd. February has weighed heavy on my bones since my mother’s passing, but I once my father passed, the gloves were off. I dubbed the month FuckUary.
So when I saw the title of the workshop ”Getting It Onto the Page, Getting It Out In The World,” I didn’t hesitate. I signed up and made my travel plans.
I’m under no illusion that the skies will open and writing nirvana will commence, but I’m open to being a sponge. This weekend, I’m reclaiming February from the clutches of grief.
Regardless of the outcome, that will be a win in my book.
I tried writing a post for Thanksgiving yesterday, but I finally gave up. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty to be thankful for, yet I was filled with a sense of melancholy that I found hard to express.
This is that time of year when my thoughts inevitably turn to days gone by and those no longer with us at the Thanksgiving table. The memories surround me. I ate the Thanksgiving dinner my wife prepared at the sturdy ball and claw oak table that was my paternal grandmother’s. The same table where she changed my diapers, taught me to play Crazy 8s and Go Fish. The table that bears the dice dimples from countless games of 6-5-4 with my father.
I know I’m blessed to have had so many happy memories of holidays spent with loved ones. Lots of people are not so lucky, which I was reminded of when I saw a blog post from Sark called Happy Thanks~Grieving While Wildly Living. She beautifully captures the complex emotions many of us feel and shares her “love and transcendent wishes for people to be able to deeply grieve while wildly living.” Thank you Sark for helping put into words what I could not.
So on this, the day after Thanksgiving, I’m filled with gratitude for all that has happened over the last year and memories of past Thanksgivings. I also recognize that grief will sometimes sit beside me at the table and I’m okay with that…it reminds me of those who have loved me. I live wildly as their legacy.
I’ve learned grief isn’t something you get over, it’s something you learn to live with. You never know when a new wave is going to strike without warning.
My guilty pleasure is The Voice, and I usually watch it when I’m walking on my treadmill. Today I watched the Top 13 perform, and when I heard contestant Marybeth Byrd was going to sing the beautiful, heartbreaking “Go Rest High on That Mountain” by Vince Gill, I was immediately transported back to the days following my father’s death. I was one of the family members giving a eulogy, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get through it.
Every morning and evening that I drove his Subaru Forrester the 30 minutes to and from town, I had this song and one other on repeat so I could embrace and settle into the grief. It helped. I did some gut-wrenching, ugly crying and was able to deliver the eulogy my father deserved.
Which brings me to today, nearly two years later. When Marybeth’s tribute package rolled, she spoke of her beloved Grandfather who passed the night before she left for her blind audition. Marybeth no sooner began the song when grief rolled through me again. I damn near fell off my treadmill.
I recently attended a book reading by my friend Gordon M. Berg, author of Harry and the Hurricane. The book details the true account of his seven-year-old father living through the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926. His father rarely spoke of his experience, and Gordon only learned the details after his death, when his mother told him.
Gordon ended his talk imploring us to ask our loved ones “What is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, and how did you get through it?” That is one of the many questions I wish I had asked my father.
Who is someone you’d like to ask that question? Do it…before it’s too late.
My heart is in North Dakota today as they lay my Uncle Lester to rest at the Veteran’s Cemetary.
My mom’s youngest brother, his handsome military photo and those of his brothers in uniform graced a wall of honor at the home of my grandparents. It was that wall and their service that inspired me to join the military.
Rest in Peace Uncle Lester, and give Mom a hug from me. ❤️
Growing up I didn’t name inanimate objects and I’m not sure I knew people did that until my daughter named her first car. Turns out a lot of people name their possessions.
At one point over the past year and a half, I remember giving her a name. I was attracted to her curvy, voluptuous figure and she seduced me with her deep sexy voice. We began our journey slowly, my fingers unsure and my hands untrained. With practice and discipline, we began to make beautiful music together and my partner called me her Cello Bella.
I turned in my rental cello yesterday and was caught by surprise when tears came to my eyes. I hadn’t expected that. I had made peace with my decision to focus my limited time on writing. As I caressed her one last time and expressed my gratitude for being my musical companion for the past year and a half, I wracked my brain trying to remember what I named her.
“You took good care of it,” the technician said after the inspection.
“Thank you, she was my baby,” I replied.
After finishing up the paperwork, I drove away and was glad I couldn’t remember her name because leaving her would have been that much harder.
Today marks the one year anniversary of my Father’s passing. It’s been a year of firsts in what I’ve come to call my grief hibernation. I lost my Mother when I was 30 but that was different. I lost her to mental illness long before she walked out of a North Dakota state hospital on a frigid February day and died of hypothermia.
Pa was my rock, my go-to guy through out-of-state moves, joining the military, marriages, a miscarriage, the birth of my daughter, divorces, coming out, and finally marrying my partner. My Father fought for and won custody of my brother and I during the era where children were assumed to be the mother’s responsibility, regardless of mental state.
“Guess what I did Pa?”
He was never quite sure what I would say next, and inevitably, he would respond, “You did what?!”
Whether it was joining the Marines, skydiving, signing up to run a marathon, or getting a promotion, he was always my biggest fan and cheerleader. This was the guy who water-skied in the Missouri River for 12 straight months without a wet suit so clearly I was my Father’s daughter.
My Pa had prepared for his passing by writing his own funeral service and obituary in 2008. After writing them, he called each person he listed as pallbearers, asked them permission to include them, and then proudly read them his newly written obituary. To say my father was a character is an understatement. He ended his obit with “P.S. If you want to put in that he loved to gamble at Prairie Knights you can, also he loved to dance in his younger days.”
My Father also planned for his granddaughter and I to deliver eulogies. How on earth would I be able to stand in front of an audience of friends and family and talk about his life without sounding like a blubbering fool?
I listened to the song “Dance With My Father” on repeat and boo-hoo’d my way through the days until “the day” arrived. I really wanted the eulogy to talk about what he meant to me as my Father, but I knew everyone in the room had lost someone very special to them, for so many different reasons. So this is the eulogy I wrote and read:
On behalf of the family, thank you all for coming to help us celebrate the life of our Father, Don D. Sinness (as he liked to call himself).
My Pa impacted and touched the lives of so many people and a stranger was a friend he just hadn’t met and talked to yet. He had a great sense of humor and he loved to make people laugh.
He had this uncanny ability to uplift a person’s spirit just by being present and listening. The next time he saw you, he’d focus on how you were and what was going on in your life, even though he himself was often fighting a medical battle.
My Pa had charm, character, and compassion. He was many things to so many people…a fatherly figure with support and advice, a shoulder to cry on when you needed it, a brother and uncle who loved his extended family, a compassionate ally to transgender co-worker, a fun dancing partner to kick up your heels with, the old Goat roper you loved to party and smoke cigars with, a Grandpa who loved to play 6-5-4 and made you feel like the center of his universe, a best bud you looked forward to catching up with every day, a fellow MDU retiree you could reminisce with, a guy you knew you could count on to do what he could to help if you were having trouble, a loving partner and caregiver to his wife of nearly 45 years.
To us, his wife, kids and grandkids, he was our Rock of Gibraltar and we will miss him terribly.
One of the last things Pa said to me was “It’s time for you to be a brave Marine now.” Pa, it sucks that you’re not here anymore but I’ve got this. Thanks for being my Pa.
Father. Grandfather. Rare Gem.
My Rock. Confidante.
Love You Much. Miss You Always.
I’m not going to lie, 2018 has been a year filled with challenges. Between my grief hibernation and my partner’s job chaos, there were no adventures or camping in 2018. We vow to change in the new year.
So cheers to new dreams, careers, and side hustles…bring on 2019!