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Human Parts
A publication from Medium about humanity: yours, mine, and ours.

Death

In Human Parts. More on Medium.

LIVED THROUGH THIS

Memorial Day feels different when you’re actually mourning a veteran

My oldest brother is much younger than I.

He was 19 years old when he was killed in Vietnam. I was 13. At the time I felt the sorrow was too much to bear and I would crumble. But here I am five decades later, standing on the precipice of old age while my big brother remains forever young.

My perspective has changed a thousand ways since 1970. Things happened that I could never have imagined possible. For one, I met a man who befriended my brother in the army. That contact eventually led to a score of others who…


This Is Us

What it’s like to mourn the living

Watercolor-like illustration of a person standing on a snowy field with their back to the viewer, watching the sun set over a cluster of trees on the horizon.
Watercolor-like illustration of a person standing on a snowy field with their back to the viewer, watching the sun set over a cluster of trees on the horizon.

Over the winter, I got the urge to travel to my hometown, Pittsburgh. If you’re familiar with my writing, you know I have a love-hate relationship with that place. Two things bring me back home: holidays and funerals. But this time, neither was the reason for my trip. Before shutdown began, I was battling what I thought was depression.

I was preoccupied with the passing of my parents, who I could still pick up a phone and call. I began to obsess over the pain of their passing, almost to the extent that I could already feel it. I would…


This Is Us

Bridges between me and those I’ve lost

Black and white stepping stones in a river.
Black and white stepping stones in a river.

When I got through the cold they made me swim in a river, and I forgot his name. I forgot all the names. — Sarah Ruhl, ‘Eurydice’

I cared for both my boyfriend and my mother in my house. My boyfriend died in his hospice bed in my living room. Afterward, whenever I stepped onto my patio, I passed through the physical space where he sighed his last breath as I held him in my arms.

Most nights, after helping my mother to bed, I’d stand in the salty air, staring out at the lights reflected in the marina. If…


This Is Us

The year of ghosts and dreams

It is early in a year in which I can’t remember how to sleep at night. I do my job in between naps, so often pinned to the bed or the couch by fatigue and grief. Frequently, I find myself awake at 3 a.m. here in New Jersey, texting with friends in Los Angeles. When I do fall asleep, long after they’ve finally gone to bed, the sun is on its way up, the blue-gray light of morning slowly brightening the blanket of snow. Sometimes I can hear the first birds chirp as I drift off, wrapped in my warm…


This Is Us

The quiet, crushing weight of Alzheimer's

For the first 12 years of my life, the idea of a “dad” was pretty esoteric. I knew I technically had one, but I’d often go years without seeing him. He was off-limits, “broken.” He had something called “alcoholism” probably because of his experiences in a place called “Vietnam”—neither of which I really understood at age five. All I knew by age 12 was that I’d given up on him. I’d spent too many afternoons sitting on the front porch waiting for him and now understood he just wasn’t coming.

During those years, my mom raised six of us kids…


This Is Us

She doesn’t pay rent, but we’re doing okay

My dead roommate broke a dish the other day, so we had to have a talk. I’ll call her Annie, since she’s a ghost and can’t consent to being included in this essay. I like to ask permission for things like that. But I will tell you about our chat.

Annie decorated this home, when she was alive. She was the original owner and purchased the place about 30 years ago when this suburban New Jersey development was built. It’s a very nice apartment with a soaring three-story great room, two bedrooms, two full bathrooms, and one half-bath. It’s got…


This Is Us

On losing, and finding, my son

The first days after my son’s suicide were punctuated with question marks. Words uttered in library whispers by well-meaning relatives or friends hinted at the questions that always swirl around suicide. None of them were answerable, except to say that my son was fiercely private about his inner struggles. He didn’t want to burden anyone by sharing his darkness, so he hid it all behind smiles and laughter.

I preferred the questions I could answer, the simpler ones related to the business of death.

Who is writing the obituary?
I am, with input from my family.

Where do you want…


This Is Us

A letter to my son

A Pietá figurine, striped dog plushie, letter from a child, and other personal items.
A Pietá figurine, striped dog plushie, letter from a child, and other personal items.

Dear Paul:

One of your sisters asks, “What happens if I shake his box?”

It is one thing to walk by the table with various keepsakes, notes, and photographs dedicated to the dead brother who came before her. It is quite another to realize the small, brown paper-wrapped box contains his ashes.

Even that term — ashes — works to ameliorate an unpleasant thought, to gloss over the act. His dead body—your perfect little dead body — was placed into an incinerator by someone and set on fire. This someone, who I will never meet.

I will never fully get…


This Is Us

A lifetime of memories in and about the place where we rest our heads

In bed we laugh, in bed we cry;
And, born in bed, in bed we die.
The near approach a bed may show
Of human bliss to human woe.
—Isaac de Benserade

When I was little, I was so afraid of the dark that I begged my sister to let me sleep on her floor. I didn’t care that it was a hard surface, as long as I wasn’t alone.

Now I’m not afraid of the dark, but I’m very picky about my mattresses. Oh, how we grow and change and choose different things to fear.

“One little blanky for…


This Is Us

I watched my husband go through different stages. Here’s what to expect.

They told us my husband’s cancer was terminal: He had months to live. Maybe as long as a year. From that moment in the doctor’s office, we waited for death.

One day, Brock napped for an extra hour. Was this the end?

He woke up with a cough. Was this it?

With both of us in our late thirties, we had never witnessed death up close. On television, we watched Steve Jobs and Jack Layton (a Canadian politician) become skeletal as their cancers progressed.

“Will that happen to me?” Brock asked. We didn’t know. I patted his healthy tummy, assuring…

Human Parts

A publication from Medium about humanity: yours, mine, and ours.

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