Category Archives: Loss


Today, I’ve deliberately stayed away from the televising of the memorial service, but in the last two weeks, I’ve watched three programs about the event. 

One was actually a series of several episodes on the Discovery Channel called “Rising”, about the building of the 9/11 Memorial.  It’s an unbelievable feat of construction, architecture, design, art, human imagination and the human indomitable spirit.  It focuses primarily on the construction challenges, and I found these fascinating.  Plus focusing on the mechanical aspects allows you to temporarily put aside the emotional aspects of 9/11–but not entirely. 

In one episode, one of the construction supervisors is permitted to visit the plant where the names of the victims are being engraved on bronze plates.  These plates are on the edges of the two reflecting pools.  These two pools are squares which sit on the footprints of each tower, and waterfalls cascade down each side of the cube.  This supervisor was playing a critical role in getting the pools completed in time for today’s memorial service–and they were successful.  He is allowed to start the engraving machine, then watch while it engraves the name of…his little brother, who died on 9/11 and whose remains have never been found.  When the engraving is done, they wash the metal with water to cool it down.  He touches his brother’s name through the water and says, “This is my brother now”.

The second program I watched was on The Learning Channel, and was called “Heroes of the 88th Floor”.  It focuses primarily on the survivors, who are somewhat of a forgotten group.  The trauma they experienced was extreme.  In one scene, they interview a subway train driver (who to my surprise, are still called “motormen”).  His train was under the South Tower at the moment the plane hit, which he could feel–it shook the train.  At the next possible moment, he stopped the train and ordered everyone off.  Then he left himself, abandoning his train.  This is probably unprecedented.  He had no idea what was happening, but somehow he had a sense of doom.  Since that day, he has been unable to work, due to PTSD.  There are many varied stories on this note.    Firefighters who were blinded and insisted on returning to work as soon as they were medically cleared, and many others like the motorman.  I think it’s wrong to judge who is “braver”.

Finally I watched an overview special on NBC News Friday night, narrated by Tom Brokaw. 

One of the things these programs have in common is the inescapable video of the plane hitting the South Tower.  (To my knowledge, there is no video of the plane hitting the North Tower.  So at first, they didn’t even know what happened.  It may have been an internal explosion.)  Fortunately, although it was mentioned, there was no footage shown of people jumping from the towers.  Those photos, more than those of the planes hitting the South Tower, are etched in my memory as the the real horror of 9/11.  I can’t bear them. 

I asked my good friend who is a doctor whether he would have stayed or jumped.  He said he would have jumped.  I would have stayed.  That’s a very bizarre conversation to be having. 

That day, they shut down and evacuated the two tallest buildings in Tallahassee–the Capital and the Education building.  I thought, how silly.  What terrorist would want to target Tallahassee?  Then it dawned on me:  The governor (Jeb Bush at the time) is the President’s brother.  At the time, who knew what the motivation was, or who might be targeted?  You didn’t have to be in New York or Washington D.C. to be plunged into fear. 

All that said, the main reason I’ve avoided it today is that the emotional impact is high, but that isn’t the main reason.  It’s that the constant repetition tends to dull that impact.  You start to get numb.  It’s inevitable.  It’s like hearing that another suicide bomber or IED killed X number of people in…fill in the country.  And I don’t want to become numb. 

The Fairy Finder

A few years ago, my friend Judith gave me a mobile for Christmas.  It’s nothing more than disks of mirrored glass, with a few wooden beads in between the disks.  Quite tacky looking, actually.  Probably cost about $1.99.  She bought one for herself as well.  (I can so identify with that method of Christmas shopping–one for you, one for me.)

I immediately hung it in the back yard, and I began to notice that when the light was just right and the wind was blowing ever so slightly, that the mobile throws little dancing circles of light on the ground. 

One day I was visiting her and spotted her mobile hanging on her back deck.  I thanked her again for mine, and she said, it was a pretty meager gift.  I said, Oh no, not true.  This is not just a mobile, it’s a fairy finder.  See, normally you can’t see fairies in the grass, but with this magic device, you can find them.  It’s like a fairy spotlight.  She completely cracked up, and said, Thanks–I can’t wait to tell my grandchildren about this.  We could just picture her grandchildren diligently hunting fairies.  What?  You didn’t find one?  You have to be quick!  Fairies are very fast-moving. 

Yesterday morning as I was making coffee, I looked out my kitchen window and the mobile was sparkling in the sunlight, in full fairy-finding glory.  I felt this sudden and indescribable stab of sadness.  Now I understand, why the word “stab” is used in this context.  That’s exactly what it feels like.  I go along with a sort of undercurrent of sadness about losing Judith, and then there is a moment like that one. 

Such feelings strike me once in a while.  Like when I’m at the grocery store in the frou-frou cheese section (usually buying Brie), I’ll spot a package of white Cheddar.  Judith loved white cheddar.  Before visiting her, I would stop at the store and pick up wine and crackers and cheese and fruit.  I can live with or without white cheddar personally, but I’ll spot a package of it and think, Well, I’ll never have to buy that again.  Stab. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I see that mobile every day of the world, and I visit the frou-frou cheese section of the grocery store at least weekly or more often.  My grocery shopping behavior is very European in style.  Buy two things today, and three tomorrow.  God forbid you should make a list and shop all at once for a week’s worth of stuff. 

So it’s only occasionally that I have these moments of stabbing pain.  I don’t know why some times and not others.  If I could figure that out, I’d put a stop to it right off the bat.  I have a sort of theory, which is that it comes from NOT thinking about something painful for a long time, and you think you’re conquering it, but it never really goes away.  It continues to collect, like water behind a dam, and one day, Poof!  The water wins, and a little break appears in the dam.  Inexorable seems like the right word to me. 

Anyway, they say (whoever “they” are) that eventually your loss is mitigated by happy memories; at least, that’s what you’re supposed to work toward.  I’d say I approve of that.  Wallowing is unhealthy. 

Judith died of breast cancer last July 21st.  I miss everything about her: her grace, her courage, her kindness, her intelligence, her curiosity, her extroverted nature, her occasional unapologetic opinionatedness, her fierceness, her contentiousness, her capacity for joy.  Yesterday I thought, I need to take that mobile down and put it away somewhere for a while.  I need a break.  But that wouldn’t work.  Sitting in the back yard at my picnic table, I’d still be able to “see” it, even if it were hidden in a lonely little cardboard box in the closet. 

I need that reminder of the happy times.  I don’t want to forget Judith, I just want it to be less painful to remember her.  And how could I do that without the Fairy Finder?

Bad Week Part 2: Death

Or, as my friend spencercourt would say, it was a good week since none of the bad stuff happened to me.  I didn’t die, nor did my house burn down. 

I’ve previously posted that my blog friend Jim Dougan, aka The Hippie Professor, died suddenly on Sunday (the same day as the fire!), only I didn’t know it until Tuesday afternoon when one of his friends posted the information as a comment on Jim’s last blog.  All week his friends have been posting photos of him on Facebook, including a couple of videos of him with his rock band. 

I first “met” HP, as I called him, on July 3rd, when he posted several comments on the blog I wrote about Ayn Rand.  I had just finished the latest biography of her, called “Ayn Rand and the World She Made”.  HP confessed that he often blog-surfed, looking for conservatives against whom he could test his wits.  He loved debate, and if he had a “flaw”, I’d say that was it.  I thought he took way too much abuse from the extremists with whom he engaged.  However, even those people could not help but be moved by his loss, and many posted comments on that last blog saying how much they would miss him, and how his enduring civility (though he could get mad on occasion) set an example we should all follow. 

So when he clicked on my Ayn Rand post, he found a kindred spirit and an ally rather than a foe as he expected.  The strength of my grief over his death has surprised me.  It seems sort of silly to be this sad over someone you never met.  I still can’t explain it.  Maybe it’s because I’m feeling more vulnerable than usual.  I lost my friend Judith in July and my dog Abigail in September, and it just sort of felt like the last straw.  I need everything to slow down for a while.  I don’t need anyone else to die right now, before I can gather up some resistance and immunity. 

On Friday, I had the marvelous experience of meeting another of my blog friends for the first time–ptfan1.  He said there were very few people in blogworld he would want to meet in person, which I recognized as the honor intended.  I certainly feel the same way.  Pt and I have butted heads on many an occasion, and I have at times completely exasperated him (and vise versa!)  But still…he stuck with it, and underlying it all, I recognized the essential goodness and complexity of the man.  So yes, he was a person I wanted to meet.  And he said, it sounds like Jim was one of those people you would have wanted to meet too.  Yes.  Now that will never happen.  I guess I am sad by the fact that his voice has been silenced forever, and so suddenly.

Below, I’m copying Jim’s obituary, which his friend also kindly posted for us blog friends.  It’s absolutely perfect, with one exception–my pet peeve, which is it didn’t tell how he died.  Since I already knew it was a heart attack, I’ll let that go.  Whoever wrote this had a sense of humor.  What makes it unique is that it mentions his blog!  How cool is that? 

“BLOOMINGTON — James D. “Jim” Dougan, 52, 13809 Shelby Court, Bloomington, passed away at 5:18 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 10, 2010) at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center, Normal.

A memorial Mass will be at 1 p.m. Monday at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Bloomington. Monsignor Doug Hennessy will officiate. Private inurnment will be at a later date. Visitation will be from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Calvert & Metzler Memorial Home, Bloomington, and the family will receive friends after Monday’s memorial Mass at their residence. In lieu of flowers, the family suggest memorials be made to the psychology department at Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington. Arrangements are being handled by Calvert & Metzler Memorial Home, Bloomington.

Jim was born July 5, 1958, in Seattle, Wash., the son of James and Marzelie Dudley Dougan. He married Valeri Farmer on Dec. 28, 1985, in Bellevue, Wash. She survives.

Also surviving are his mother, Marzelie Dougan, Normal; four children, Erin (Daniel Schiller) Dougan, Hornell, N.Y.; Emily Dougan, James McKay “Mac” Dougan and Ellyssa Dougan, all of Bloomington.

He was preceded in death by his father and grandparents.

Jim graduated from Seattle Prep School, Seattle, Wash., in 1976. He graduated from Whitman College, Walla Walla, Wash., in 1981, with a B.S. in biology and psychology. He received his doctorate in psychology at Washington State University, Pullman, Wash. Jim did his post-doctorate work at Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind. He had been teaching psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington, since 1990.

Jim was in a band “Cross the Dog,” Bloomington, which is a later version of “Knights of Crisis.” He thought he was a rock star. His passion was politics. He authored a blog, “The Hippie Professor.” He was incredibly passionate, kind and caring and never gave up on anyone. We hope he has joined a good band in heaven.

He was loved very much by his family, colleagues and students.

Online condolences may be e-mailed at http://www.calvertmemorial. com.”

Goodbye to The Hippie Professor

I learned this afternoon that my online friend HP died of a heart attack on Sunday, October 10th.  Best I can tell, his last comment was at 9:38 A.M. on Saturday, October 9th on his own blog.  While his blogs were almost unfailingly political, the last two were about bullying.  He’d been distressed by the suicide of Tyler Clementi, the young Rutgers student who committed suicide after his roommate and a cohort filmed Tyler with a webcam having sex with another man.  Then posted it on YouTube. 

It caused HP to think about his own youth and experience of being bullied, and he did two posts…his last two…about it.  They were painful, and honest, and searching. 

But HP was the cliche that the best revenge is success.  He was a university professor, apparently beloved by all his students.  On the side, he was in a band, and last played on October 2nd.  He had a family, and recently drove his daughter across the country to go to college. 

He was a relatively new “friend” for me, but I feel as much grief as I would if I had known him personally.  He was a kindred spirit.  I’m in shock.  I can barely say more at this point.  Maybe later.

Frogs and Wood Storks

I mentioned in my first post about Judith’s death that my goal is to work toward having the good memories overcome my sadness.  That isn’t working so far, but it will, even if it’s true that good memories are still bittersweet. 

In my second post I mentioned the many times we sat on Judith’s back deck, solving the world’s problems or merely communing with nature over a bottle of Pinot Grigio. 

There was a good deal of nature with which to commune.  Judith’s back deck overlooked a “lake”, a very ambitious name for it.  A moderately ambitious name would be “pond”.  What it really is is a “borrow pit”. 

Here’s how that works:  say you want to build houses in a low-lying area (e.g., a wetland, e.g. the Everglades).  You dig a big hole in the middle, spread the dirt around the edges and build houses on it.  Then you fill the hole with water and call it a “lake”.  It’s despicable, and her neigborhood today would never get permitted.  The thing is, eventually wildlife will return in some measure to your artificial creation; they don’t much care how the water got there. 

So at dusk, the bullfrogs would start singing.  On her deck, there is an overhang just over the door with aluminum drain spouts.  And small frogs would get inside and croak their little hearts out.  Judith said they were using the spouts to amplify their calls.  So picture this with me:  tiny little bullfrogs, Wizard-of-Oz-like, singing “O all ye Female Frogs!  Hear me!  I am a large, macho frog!  Come mate with me and be my love!  I can provide you with many, many superior tadpoles!”

Eventually the racket would become so fierce that Judith would bang on the spout with something, which quietened down the little Lotharios for only a bit.  It never scared them enough to make them leave.

On the lake itself, there were often the usual ducks and geese, but one evening I looked out and to my amazement there were fourteen wood storks.  Wood storks are endangered in the U.S. and the only known breeding colonies are in Florida, Georgia, and North and South Carolina.  I had never in my life seen a single one.  I don’t know if it’s because they’re rare, shy, or I just don’t hang out enough in swamps.  But fourteen wood storks at once! 

It was a true National Geographic moment; one that I would never have had without knowing Judith as well as being in the right place at the right time. 

Possibly a large, macho wood stork

Goodbye Judith, Part 2

Time:  You always think you’ll have a little more of it, but technically, you may not even have another 30 seconds.  Thankfully, our brains are not wired to keep that in mind all the time.  To live, we must proceed as if we’re immortal. 

The last time I saw my friend Judith while she knew it was about two months ago.  Astonishingly, she was preparing for a trip to Alaska.  Astonishing because she had had breast cancer that metastasized to bone 4 years ago.  She’d been through bouts of chemo too numerous to count and had had both hips replaced.  (Soon, there would be no more “good” bone to attach things to.  Plus, you can’t replace your whole skeleton.)

The Alaska trip consisted of a week’s cruise of  the Alaskan islands, followed by a week’s bus tour through the Canadian Rockies.  I’m not sure I even have the energy for something like that.  I made it a point to go see her just before she left.  Once I knew she was back, I kept meaning to go visit.  (A variation on the saddest words ever spoken:  “I kept meaning to…”).

On Monday morning, her sister Jill called me and said that last week, Judith became ill and was admitted to the hospital on Thursday.  She returned home on Sunday, but during her stay, they learned the cancer had also metastasized to the liver.  The doctors were giving her weeks to live at most.  Jill said if I wanted to see her again, I should come soon.  I asked when a good time would be–she said to come any time, that someone would always be with Judith at her house.  She said she also had put up a schedule at the house and if I could take any of the “shifts” I could sign up. 

I had a bad feeling about this.  I don’t want to assign this “bad feeling” the status of a premonition, because I don’t  believe in premonitions.  I think a “premonition” is a prediction people make based on actual information  stored in their brains, even if they aren’t consciously accessing that information as you would if you were, say, working a math problem.  So let’s call my “bad feeling” a sense of urgency. 

I wasted no time this time, and went to her house immediately after work.  Both her daughters were there, and so was…her lawyer.  Her daughter Gina apologized, but said they had just managed to get Judith back to bed after an exhausting and painful trip to the bathroom, and she needed to speak to the lawyer.  Gina thought this would take all Judith’s mental and physical energy, and asked if I could please come another time.  I assured her I knew I was taking my chances by just dropping by, and that I would try again the next day and that I would call before I came.   Gina said she would tell Judith I came by–I hope she did. 

When I called the next afternoon, there was no answer at the house and voicemail was turned off.  I called Gina on her cellphone, and reached her at… Hospice.  Later on Monday evening,  Judith was agitated and in great pain, but she lost the ability to swallow, so they could not get any of her pain medication into her.  Desperate, they called Hospice and asked if they could send someone to give her an injection.  Hospice recommended they bring her in.  So that’s what they did.  They called an ambulance at 11:00 P.M.

Gina’s next words were to apologize to me for “denying” me the chance to see Judith Monday evening.  I said, don’t say that.  I would have done the same thing.  She was just trying to take care of her mother and preserve what little strength and comfort she had left.  Like me and the meant-to visit, Gina had no way of knowing there would never be a later. 

So when I got off work that day–Tuesday–I went to a nearby bar and had two glasses of Pinot Grigio (one for me, one for Judith.  Many is the time we’ve sat on her back deck and solved the problems of the world over a bottle of Pinot Grigio).  Then I went to Hospice House. 

People who know me know this took something of Herculean effort on my part, emotionally speaking.  But I long ago decided I would see this through, no matter what it took.  If she was brave enough to endure dying, I was sure as hell not going to be a wimp about it myself. 

When I saw her, I knew she was dying right then and would never wake up.  My sole communication to her, which took a minute or less, was this:  I held her hand and said, “Hello Judith, it’s me Phyllis.  I just came to say hello.  Take care of yourself.”  There was not even an eyelid flicker.  She was breathing shallowly.  The problem for me was that as deeply sedated as she was, she was moaning.  I couldn’t escape the feeling that she was in pain.

On the drive home, I said to no entity in particular, since I don’t believe in “God” (and neither did she), “Please don’t let this continue.”  And I got my wish.  She was dead 17 hours later.  I don’t like to think about those 17 hours. 

I wish that I had gone to see her as soon as she returned from her Alaska trip.  So what I feel is regret, not guilt.  I did her no harm by failing to visit–the loss is all mine.  And we never ended a visit without saying I love you.  Whether I was there in person or not, she knew I loved her.  My regret is overshadowed by sadness, though.  As many good memories as I have, I am sad there will never be any new ones. 

I have a plan, which is that this New Year’s Eve, I am going to go to her “church” (if you can call it that).  Every New Year’s Eve, they have what’s called the Burning Bowl Ceremony.  You write something on a slip of paper that you’d like to leave behind in the year ahead, and then they burn it.  They also build a big bonfire in the yard where you can burn larger pieces of paper.

I spent New’s Years Eve in 2005 there with Judith.  My friend Art had just died, and I burned a long letter to him in the bonfire.  I’ll do the same for Judith.