What if in the end

What if we fall like leaves,
released,
sometimes pulled by a gust,
sometimes pushed by our tree because it’s time?
Slow somersaults through air
cushioned landing and a tumble across the brown grasses,
until, in stillness and decay, we break down,
sinking to the roots,
feeding the tree that held us for a season.
In the end,
would that not be beautiful?
Would that not be enough?

What if we shoot like stars,
sometimes dust, sometimes rock,
bursting through the atmosphere,
falling in streaks of wonder,
Wow, look!! Did you see that?
echoing in waves, cheering our final brilliance,
our trail of light,
as we burn away in the dark sky
or plummet heavily into the soft earth.
In the end,
would that not be beautiful?
Would that not be enough?

What if we’re more than we can understand,
more than words and creeds,
more than books can teach?
What if we’re both
ancient and young,
timeless and transient,
connected to the trees and earth,
the stars and the milky way?
What if in the end
we’re everything and everywhere?
Or maybe just this once, this place?
Would that not be beautiful?
Would that not be enough?

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2019

Eulogies for living

I did a thing. I wrote five eulogies for living friends.

Why I speak

This eulogy thing started in 1994, the year my son was born and my grandmother died.

In April, my grandmother went down quickly and unexpectedly. For many in our family, the timing was awkward. Awkward for me because my parents were out of the country; my husband out of state; and I was alone with three young children. We were all caught off-guard. Unready.

Just like that, we were all gathered for my grandmother’s funeral. The minister, who had never met her, stumbled through some niceties (good Christian woman), maybe one other speaker read her very traditional obit: survived by all these people sitting here. I felt a strong desire to bolt to the podium : “I have a few things to say . . . ” but I sat, stewing between my daughters on the pew, holding my baby.

How did we let this happen? The service didn’t honor her memory. No one talked about her mad sewing skills. Not a peep about her chicken and dumplings or biscuits and gravy. No reference to her heart-warming smile. Not a single story about her terrifying switch bush. No one who spoke at her service knew her, ate her food, wore an outfit she had made, or lurched in a circle around her as she gripped an arm with one hand and swatted a switch with the other. I was furious, I was sad, and I walked out of that experience determined.

Feeling determined: Part 1

Less than a decade later, my grandfather died. I asked my family who would speak at his service and answered my own question: I will.

At his service, I shared tiny memories: the coins he rattled in his pockets, the rubber bands he kept handy to snap playfully at a grandchild, the VO5 hairstyle, and the long-sleeved shirts.

Nine months later, my cousin died. I spoke again, reading memories and messages from all the cousins. We remembered our youngest cousin well, with sad but warmed hearts.

Giving voice to the memories felt right, necessary, so I continued to speak at services of family, especially if no one else was delivering a personal message.

Almost nine years ago, I eulogized a friend. My friend Dela was dear, complicated, brave. She was a beautiful mess. Her brothers and some friends judged her for the mess: the piles of interests in her home, the messy relationship, the untidy career. But as I watched her battle leukemia for ten years, I grew to appreciate her messes and spoke about it at her service.

. . . there was beauty, openness, acceptance, and love in her chaos. The mess, really, was reverence for the moment. There was presence when she was present.

After the service, another friend approached me.

That was beautiful. I want you to write my eulogy when I die.

Feeling determined: Part 2

That request haunted me for several years. Losing friends is hard, sorting through who might go first is unpleasant, but the notion that haunted me most was why do we wait until the person is gone to find those beautiful memory crystals?

After gnawing on the question for a few years, I decided to write pre-eulogies (I call them preulogies) for a handful of friends and give them as birthday presents. These were unannounced and I asked each recipient not to say anything to future recipients until I made the cycle through the birthdays, closing the circle with the friend who initially requested: write my eulogy.

Writing a regular eulogy can be challenging, not only because the moment is packed with emotion and loss, but also, the eulogist struggles to capture a lifetime, a personality, the giant journey of a person in a few well-strung words. I discovered that preulogies are no less challenging.

Crystals remembered

To find the words, I dragged my mind into the grief of the friend’s absence, across the experiences we shared, and also through the myriad of ways she may have touched others as a parent, friend, child, or co-worker. I struggled to crystalize a friendship in three or four sentences.

Here are a few of the crystals I dug up in this process:

Kathy: I felt a peace wash over me every time I watched her draw in a deep breath after listening to me, lift her hands out and forward as if opening a giant instruction manual, “Here’s what you need to do . . . “

Patti: Sometimes it seemed she was drifting, but she always seemed anchored. [. . .] Wishy washy? An anchored drifter? Hardly. All along, she’s been the anchor. The glue. The strength of the bonds.

Mim: Mim is to blame for many joyful occasions. Girl Scout trips to transplant sea grasses and dance around in medieval attire. Krewe meetings, workdays, and parades. Excursions to hear live music, splash around in shallow streams, explore the flip side, dig our toes in the sand, and paddle across a lake. Latke parties, dinner parties, and girls’ gatherings . . . my house at 6!

Jackie: That act of friendship, that model of taking control of chaos, changed me. It wasn’t about the furniture. She also modeled this for me as an artist, as a scorned lover, and as an explorer. But moving the furniture drove it home for me: take what’s before you, make it yours, make your peace in it, make it work for you.

Betsy: I always felt small next to Betsy. Not in a bad way, in fact, I loved being next to her because I felt complicit, like maybe I could get a little cred when she made the room roar with laughter or when the audience joyfully rattled and shook along as she played her music.

The crystals that capture the friend as I know her are only half of the story with preulogies. I also needed to project: where would my friend go from today, how would she die, who would she be.

Crystals imagined

This might be the trickiest part for me. What if I imagine it wrong, that is, what if she has a totally different outlook for her future? Will this made-up death upset her? What if she hates me for this?

Thankfully, I’m still friends with all of them. Maybe their futures were full of the plausible joys and rewards. Kathy went up in flames in the elbow of the effigy at Burning Man. Patti passed at her beach home, draped across her favorite beach towel, head resting on a thick novel. Mim took her final slumber at a campsite by a lake, Scrappy nearby, a photo of Skip in her hand. Jackie took her last breath drifting through the bayou on her paddle board. And Betsy . . . I didn’t include the details of her death in the preulogy. Maybe because she’ll actually outlive me? Or maybe because we’re so focused on her three long overdue Grammies.

Find the words

Not everyone wants to stand in the absence of a friend to find the words. And not everyone needs to. I certainly couldn’t do this for everyone in my life because the process can be gut-wrenching. But I move forward from this experience mindful of what my family and friends mean to me and open to opportunities to share that with them.

Your friend should know why you’re drawn to her company, why you feel inclined to call and catch up, what memory of her makes you giggle. Maybe stand for a moment in these questions: What will I most miss about her? What well of sorrow will her absence leave?

Remembering Betsy, I wrote:

What I wouldn’t give to hear her tell one more Marie and Boudreaux joke. Right? I’m sure everyone has a favorite. Mine? Marie, the coffee, the oatmeal, and the hot flashes. Ha! You’ve all heard it. Your laughter, that joy that just rose up in you as you remembered her tell that joke, that’s the gift, that’s what we take with us today. That’s the joy in this well of tears.

Friendship is a gift. Take a moment while your friend is living and find that joy, share the words.

©Pennie Nichols All Rights Reserved 2019

A Funeral, a Birthday, and a Drop-Dead Party

What do a funeral, a birthday, and a drop-dead party have in common? Everything and nothing. We all have a birthday. We’ll all drop dead. Some of use will get a funeral.

Last night I went to a former neighbor’s funeral who died too young. 53. Today is my birthday. 58th. And tomorrow I’ll have a drop-dead party (explained below). All three “events” are happening on consecutive days during a palindrome week (dates are the same front- and backwards: 71317, 71417, and 71517).

I could dive down a numerology rabbit hole to chase the seven (a number I’ve adored since childhood) or the palindromes, but today is not about numbers. I’m still sorting out what it’s about. The sevens? The palindromes? The shocking news about a man who had been a neighborhood hero during four (yes 4!) hurricanes? The birthday plus drop-dead party?

I’m choked up because until a few days ago (another palindrome date) I thought my former neighbor was fine, living his life with his wife in his new house about 20 miles away. I was wrong. This last eleven months, he endured a flood, cancer, surgeries, chemo, and so much pain. He wasn’t “just fine.”

Don’t assume anyone’s fine.

drop-deadMy throat has been dry for several weeks (months even). I haven’t been able to write, not so much due to writer’s block (I don’t feel blocked), but rather some sort of paralysis: a complicated mix of politics, work, and family. Attending the visitation unchoked my voice just a bit. This week’s string of events floated at least one of my nostrils above the mire that’s kept me under, and I want to share something important.

You’re going to drop dead.

Well, perhaps you won’t drop but on some date (maybe not a palindrome date), you’ll be dead.

Some of us will see it coming, like so many friends of mine, and my recently deceased neighbor.

Some of us won’t.

But it’s coming. Winter (the end of the cycle) is coming.

Be kind about dropping dead.

We’re having a drop-dead party to organize our check out papers.

My friend’s mom gets the credit for this inspiration. One of the sweetest things she did before she checked out was keep a notebook filled with drop-dead information. She inspired me to start my own folder. I have started organizing information about my things, my accounts, and what to do with my body when I drop dead.

The point of the drop-dead party is to talk about checking out, share ideas about what to include in our notebooks/folders, how to make the transition for those who survive us easier, and exercise a little control over a situation in which we’ll have none.

My dad has asked, “Don’t you find that macabre?” My response was no. It’s more morbid to hole up in a corner somewhere and try to figure out what you should do to be kind to your survivors when you check out. Or worse, make no plans at all leaving your survivors to figure it out on their own. Talking about it with friends, writing information and messages, and making plans feels less macabre. It feels like adding a little kindness to an unhappy occasion and taking a bit of control over what we can’t.

I would emphasize that control isn’t the point. The point is making it easier for our survivors: information about our accounts, our ideas for a memorial, memories that are important to us, and what to do with that bag of bones!

Throw a drop-dead party with your dearest friends. It’s not macabre. It’s kind.

© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

Body donation

The mail we receive is rarely “real.” Mostly phishing, junk, and flyers. Today I had a dose of adult mail: a note from the insurance company, state tax department forms, a jury summons, and confirmation of my body donation (“after death,” they do specify on the form!) to the Department of Health and Hospitals Bureau of Anatomical Services.

Yeah, that last one.

My Body Donation

My first inspiration to take this route was a piece on NPR that featured med students and the appreciation they expressed for this gift. The more I looked into it, the more I understood the academic, scientific, and investigative importance of cadaver donations to the medical profession. 

Barring something truly horrific, I’m going to become a cadaver anyway. Why not donate it? I was already signed up as an organ donor, but the more I thought about donating my body, the more I felt this was more appropriate as my body’s last hurrah.

I dawdled for years before I found the correct contact information. I confess I wasn’t searching diligently. Who does for these things? I dallied another one or two years to fill out and send in the form. And, just like that, after years of dillies and dallies, I have my yellow body donation card. I know it will feel just like that when it’s time to turn it in. And just like another that, my surviving family will receive my ashes once the med students have finished their lessons.

I share these slightly macabre reflections in case you don’t already have special plans for your body when you’re done with it. This article on Parting (a funeral home site), which I didn’t read before I filled out the form, explains some of the advantages and disadvantages of cadaver donation. Even knowing the disadvantages, I feel good about putting this card in my purple folder.

© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

Life Lessons from Pets

We learn life lessons from pets.

Responsibility, unconditional love, training and discipline, scheduling, … The list is endless.

This week one of my cockatiels gave me a lesson in pushing myself around a curve I avoid.

Annie

Annie (Anastasia), a white-face pearl cockatiel


I’ll begin my explanation with a confession.

I’m a little lily-livered.

I say “a little” because I do manage blood and injury when I’m the only adult. Something kicks in and I just do what needs to be done. But, if there’s an adultier adult in the room where injury or blood is introduced, I run to fetch. I will fetch anything for that other adult!

  • “Towels? Coming right up!”
  • “Peroxide? I’ll be right back with some.”
  • “What?  No, that’s OK. I don’t need to look. I trust you. Can I get you something?”

Death is pretty much the same story. I manage when I have to. For example, I was home alone when Delilah (one of our cats) brought in a rabbit before the battle was complete. She finished him off, up and down the stairs and through most of the house. At first, I locked myself in my room, banged on the door, and screamed at Delilah: “Stop it!!!” I knew I was being ridiculous, so I came out, collected rabbit bits (they were gifts after all), and began the impossible task of cleaning blood from the wall and carpet.

In most cases, however, I keep my distance from dead.

  • Dead rat at the front door? I tell Steven: “Honey! Meaux left a gift for you”
  • Animal injured or dead on the road? I’ll wait in the car while the other adult checks on it.
  • Funerals? I’ll visit the open casket and linger to reminisce and pray, but I never, ever touch.

Blood, injury, and death don’t have to be real or realistic. I own the “walking” in show title The Walking Dead. During every gory scene, that is, during 90% of the show. I jump out of my seat and, walking frantically around the kitchen and TV room, I ask: “What’s happening now?”

Cockatiel pair

Annie with her mate Dorian: She loved millet and the baby bird formula we would prepare for her chicks.

Back to this week’s lesson

On Wednesday morning, Steven noticed that Annie, our mama bird, didn’t look well. She was on a perch but leaning against the cage. Birds decline quickly when they’re sick or dying. Annie was at least 10, but for all we knew, she was 20 years old.

My inner battle began. “What if she dies while you’re gone!?”

“It’ll be OK. Just keep an eye on her,” Steven said as he left for work.

And just like that, I was the only adult in the house. Please, please get better. 

I checked on Annie after five minutes. She had changed perches. Maybe that was a good sign. Ten minutes later, another perch, and higher. “Maybe you should take her out of the cage,” Steven had said. Annie looked wobbly, and I knew I should.

Our cage is tall and the fall is far. Annie was on the top perch when I reached in for her. She was too light, droopy. I knew this was the end. After five peaceful hours, some time outside for fresh air and birdsong, but mostly inside cuddled against my chest, Annie slipped away quietly. I am grateful Steven encouraged me to take her out of the cage. I feel some solace for having made Annie comfortable during her last hours, for saving her from an unnecessary fall.

Isn’t that all we want to do for our loved ones, pets and human, who go before us? Save them from an unnecessarily far fall? Offer a bit of cuddle, sunshine, and comfort in the end?

I don’t fear death or dying, but I am a little lily-livered about watching it. Thanks to Annie, I’m a little less lily-livered now. I’m grateful for Annie’s lesson. I’m grateful she helped me move past my ridiculousness. This week a cockatiel taught me to be in a room with death without jumping out of my seat and pacing frantically.

Thank you, Annie. May the air be ever bright and gentle under your wings.

Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2016

Penny Nichols: Why We’re Connected

Penny Nichols from Baton Rouge died yesterday.

I’m not referring to a metaphorical death. The death was real. But it wasn’t me. I’m P-e-n-n-i-e Nichols.

Penny Nichols’ heart stopped on April 12, and, although she was revived by paramedics, she slipped away on Sunday, April 18.

I’m sad. Some would say sadder than I should be. We weren’t close friends, yet I feel the loss as if we were.

We knew each other because of our names. It started when I received a phone call from New York in the era of clunky phone books with thin gray pages and 411 operators. I thought he knew me. He greeted me by name. Only after a few references to “that time together” did I realize he had the wrong Penny/Pennie. I offered to look up her number for him (after all, I already felt chummy with him). He was grateful. We laughed. I was pretty sure Penny would too.

After the second call for Penny not Pennie, I wrote Penny’s number down and pinned it in a place I could easily see. I learned things about her through the calls: her Pillsbury prize for a chicken recipe, antique linen upcycling, love of travel and wine, and more. I took to telling her friends as we would hang up, “Please tell Penny Pennie says hi!” I wanted to be her friend too.

One day she called me. This misdirection was for-Pennie-not-Penny: she had received a graduation announcement for one of my daughter’s friends. The misdirection gave us occasion to chat for the first time.

“We only live about three miles from each other!”

We laughed about the phone calls I had been receiving for fifteen years. We talked about the other two Penny Nichols in town.

“We should have a Penny/Pennie Nichols get together!”

“That would be lovely! Let’s do!”

Flash forward another five years, I was shopping at the farmer’s market. I was no longer receiving calls from Penny’s friends. 411 operators and phone books where Pennie Nichols preceded Penny Nichols entries were out of fashion. I gave a cheese vendor my debit card.

“Oh, you’re buying this for Penny?”

“What?”

“You’re buying this for Penny Nichols?”

“Sure. I’m buying it for me. Why do you ask?”

After a few awkward moments, I convinced the vendor I hadn’t stolen Penny’s debit card. She directed me to Penny’s antique linen booth, and I met Penny for the first time. I was sure I wanted to be her friend.

Although we became Facebook friends, and I felt like I knew her well, we never hung out or traveled together.

Maybe I’m sadder than I should be because we never had the Penny/Pennie party. Or because I never joined her for tea or wine on her patio.

Maybe I’m sadder than I should be because I’m projecting. One day there will be an obit for Pennie Nichols. Some acquaintances have already called my daughter, concerned.

The projection is not just a name thing. When something happens to a friend, I tend to imagine myself in his or her shoes. I don’t think I’m the only one. I remember, when I divorced, most of my married friends shared stories about their marriages, their fantasies about divorcing or their struggles to avoid it. My divorce opened a door to stories they hadn’t shared before. Maybe they projected my circumstance on theirs, maybe they felt connected to my story. I’m not sure, but I do know that when something happens to someone else, we tend to personalize it, connect it to our own experiences.

Maybe I’m not sadder than I should be. I had been connected to Penny for over twenty years, after all, starting with that first call when I listened to her friend’s story for five minutes before I realized, I’m not that Penny. We're connected

Maybe I’m not sadder than I should be because I did lose a friend.

I didn’t die this week. But Penny did. And a little bit of Pennie and of a friendship imagined was swooped away with her.

I will miss the connection. A connection that wasn’t young, but a friendship that was just budding. Peace, Penny, for you and your family.

Copyright © Pennie Nichols, 2016. All Rights Reserved.