Concrete Angel

Concrete angelThe response to An Open Letter to Cindy Sheehan was more than I expected. I no longer remember what it was I thought the effect would be on others; it was a cri de coeur, one woman to another. Having now heard her voice a few times, I realize the effort was futile. Had I known that ahead of time, of course I wouldn’t have attempted such an undertaking.

But had I not done so, the letters and comments and responses on other blogs could not have done their healing work on me. I forgot: it is others’ response to our pain which allows us to endure — even to metabolize and process — the unendurable.

So my response in turn is, of necessity, a visceral gratitude. Wonder and gratitude that so many share my experience and were moved to their own epiphany in reading of mine. Words are indeed “the instruments we use to beat out tunes on broken drums…”

All those who have had someone beloved wrenched from them know only too well the nightmare of the first anniversary of that sudden bereavement. It is like another small death in itself; a fist which waits for you in the dark. Even though you know it’s there, you cannot avoid it, you can only wait for it to descend.

Shelagh’s brother, the Baron’s Boy, was a senior in high school when she died. About to graduate, about to receive his Eagle Scout award, the time became a memory deeply etched by his sister’s sudden death. The following year, on that first anniversary, he was a freshman in college in the midst of exams. He paused there, coming out of class, to post his thoughts on his first year without his sister. With his permission, I give you his thoughts on that first anniversary of Shelagh’s death.

Here is that post:

A statue stands in a shaded place
An angel girl with an upturned face
A name is written on a polished rock
A broken heart that the world forgot

Through the wind and the rain
She stands hard as a stone
In a world that she can’t rise above
But her dreams give her wings
And she flies to a place where she’s loved,
Concrete Angel…

Technically, this post should be for tomorrow — but seeing that I just took a test dealing with, among other things, Dissociative Identity Disorder, I figured it was fitting that I do it now.

One year ago tomorrow was Thursday, May 8th, 2003. I woke up to a disorganized househould. It seems that my sister’s boyfriend had called our house, hysterical. She was unconscious and not responding to CPR, and he had already called the ambulance. My mom was in tears and my dad was grim-facedly getting both of them ready to go over to her house. However, I still had to go to school, so I got in my car and started driving.

I don’t really remember what passed through my head on that drive — my sister had had numerous “incidents” before and managed to find her way through them. After 30 years of living with DID I guess she’d had to adapt to crazy situations. However, something changed when this song came on the radio. “You Were Meant For Me,” by Jewel. I’d heard it a lot before and kind of liked it. But then it got to the refrain:

Dreams last so long
Even after you’re gone…

I guess I knew at some level that this was one scrape Shelagh wasn’t going to be able to get of in one piece. And sure enough, around 1:00 that afternoon, Dad and my brother Joe came to pick me up at Fuqua [School]. She had been dead probably before her boyfriend had even made the call.

Before you think I’m making this into a sobfest, let me make one thing clear. I don’t cry easily. I used to a lot in middle school, and through negative conditioning I learned to hold it in. I never cried for Shelagh at her funeral; I guess I was almost happy, in a way, that her pain was over. But I cried for her many times after, because, as my brother Jamie put it, “No one ever understood me like she did.” There have been too many times this year when I felt like I needed to talk to someone and realized that that person was my sister. I know she can still hear me, but one-sided conversations just aren’t the same.

But looking at all of this another way — I’m never going to let anyone, not myself nor anyone that I’m close to, go gently into that good night. If Shelagh could hold on and weather the storms, then so can we. One of her bad days would probably send most of us “normal” people into a depressive tailspin. She lived with demons, both internal and external, that are probably better left undescribed. And yet she kept on, till the age of 40, until, as Thomas Hardy said in Tess,

     “‘Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals had ended his sport with [her].”

Nothing I could have done would have healed her pain. And indeed, not much any of us could have done would have accomplished much. We could only mend as many cracks as we could before the walls came crashing down. But I’ll be damned if I let anyone I love fall victim to a pain like that. No-one will suffer like that on my watch as long as I have my strength.

So here’s to Shelagh. If anyone deserves a happy afterlife, it’s you.

So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from Hell? Blue skies from pain?
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil? Do you think you can tell?

Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange a walk-on part in the world for a lead role in a cage?

How I wish, how I wish you were here
We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl year after year
Running over the same old ground, what have we found? The same old fears,
Wish you were here…

— Will, May 7th, 2004

6 thoughts on “Concrete Angel

  1. Will, I associate “Wish you were here” with what I feel for my departed son. When I miss him the most I play the entire album in my truck going to and coming from work. Somehow “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” fits as well. I would expect my oldest and middle sons understand your feelings better than I; they were especially close to Adam.

    On the other hand, I understand your feelings all too well, Dymphna. The pain that is always there waiting to pounce and reduce one to screaming helplessness, or numb inactivity. It has taken several years for me to get to where I can cry for him. Before it was a total collapse in agony.

    As time goes on may you both find peace.

  2. I wanted to comment on your previous post to Mrs. Sheehan, but I didn’t, because, well, I had to quickly leave that post and pretend I hadn’t read it for a bit.
    Two years ago a relative very precious to me died. We were moving here to be with him, to help him, to spend the rest of his days here with him, to give back something of what he’d given to me in my lifetime- and he died six months before our transfer, leaving us, in fact, the home and property where we live. Nobody ever was able to outgive him.
    I drive past the cemetary where he is buried nearly every week, sometimes several times a week, but in two years I have never turned in to go visit the tombstone, because if I don’t go look at it, he’s not really there. And I know it’s foolish, but I still can’t go look.

  3. Dyphna

    Sorry I did not respond to your previous post. When I read it all I could do was turn off the computer and pray.

    I watched my mother’s grief over my little brother who has not contacted the family in over 20 years. The day before she died she dreamed that he visited and they had a nice conversation, but she knew it was a dream. But like you she knew that it was her love that would bring the family through what ever comes.

    May God bless and keep you and yours.


  4. Dearest Dymphna,

    Thank you so much for your words. I’ve never had the great misfortune to lose a child, and God willing never will. In a way, my daughter has allowed me to cope with the loss of my mother 4 years ago with all the fortitude and black (and very silly) humour that she possessed.

    I don’t cry for my mum very often – I did a lot of that in the first few weeks, but finding myself pregnant when she had been gone for 3 months pulled me out of that trough.

    It’s taken me almost 4 years to visit her tree – we got a tree planted in a memorial avenue for her – and it is indeed a fine specimen.

    You are right about the sharing of grief. In our western societies, so many things are expected to be tolerated in the name of diversity, yet grieving is supposed to be kept hidden.

    How can you hide a hole that is never papered over? At times it’s like the elephant in the living room, and everything that goes with it. We avert our eyes, close our ears and pretend everything is joyful when we would rather dress in sackcloth and ashes. But the elephant is still there.

    I don’t talk about it very often, but when I feel the need, I have friends I can share with. In a way, the blogosphere is the same. The intimacy of our closest feelings, without the taboo of the permissive, democratic way of life. (I hope that makes sense to you. I think it does to me!)

    You will not get over Shelagh’s death, and I would not presume to suggest that you do. (Like my brother-in-law decided that after 6 months, my sister should be over the loss of her mother. HA!)

    I will, however, offer all my heart and condolences to you, and as Bill said, peace.

    For those out there in blogland who have lost someone, peace be with you, too. Especially Cindy Sheehan. Regardless of however she is trying to hold on to him via her ‘activism’, she will never heal the wound left by her son’s death. All she can do is live with it.

    Thank you again for your words and sharing, Dymphna.

  5. Bill,

    I too understand the associations with that song. It was one of Shelagh’s favorites by Pink Floyd…I believe I may have played it at the reception after her laying-to-rest, although I’m not quite sure. At any rate, it is a powerful song because it deals with loss on such a general level that it is universal–it could be to a departed father, son, friend, lover–anyone whose sudden departure left a void in our lives.
    I would also suggest listening to Jimmy Eat World’s “Hear You Me.” It’s a somewhat gentler piece than anything Floyd ever performed, and it’s another song that makes me think of Shelagh, especially this part:

    “So what would you think of me now,
    So lucky, so strong, so proud?
    I never said ‘thank you’ for that
    Now I’ll never have the chance

    May angels lead you in
    Hear your me, my friends
    On sleepless roads the sleepless go
    May angels lead you in…”

    I lost a friend last year, also named Adam, and am in communication with his parents about what knowing him and being his friend meant to me. God be with your son, and may the music you listen to be a balm on that wound no parent deserves to have.


  6. Gryffilion, thank you for pointing me to the Jimmy Eat World lyrics. They fit my son as well. He and I were friends as well as father-son. As I said before, may God grant peace to all of you.

    Dymphna told me about your friend Adam. That had to be doubly hard on top of your sister’s death.

    As time goes on may you occasionally feel Shelagh’s touch as I sometimes feel my Adam’s. It will be subtle, but you will know.

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