Taking a break

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By Caitlin Kelly

I leave this week for a week away from home, alone, and am ready for it.

I drive to Virginia — about six hours (not a fan of flying) — and have two small-town days at an inn, all to myself.

Then to a conference, the Northern Short Course, which is an annual event for photojournalists, some freelance, some working for news organizations. It’s the second year I’ve been invited to speak, and I’ll talk about the many challenges of pitching ideas and projects to would-be clients. I began my career in Toronto as a teenager selling my photos to newspapers and magazines, so I have some street cred as a photographer as well as writer.

A dear friend of Jose’s, and a lifelong mentor, will be flying in from New Mexico, so I am looking forward to dinner with him and his wife; we stayed with them in June.

 

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Then two days’ playtime in D.C., catching up with friends there.

Then home and diving into three successive freelance projects: for The New York Times, my second story for Mechanical Engineering (!) and a story for a Canadian business magazine.

I’ve done very little work over the past two weeks since my mother’s sudden death.

It’s been the usual and expected flurry of phone calls: her nursing home, the funeral home, her executor and the law firm handling her estate and will.

I’m really really tired.

Despite our last decade of estrangement, I’m still struck by/with grief, grateful for Jose’s support and the cards, emails, calls and flowers from loving friends.

I wish — however retro and weird this sounds — we still wore black to signify mourning (instead of what all New Yorkers wear all the time!) or even a black armband on the left sleeve. I Googled it and it appears to be wholly out of fashion and would not be understood.

It would be a powerful and effective way to signal mourning — without having to discuss, explain, react. The conference organizer is losing her mother right before the event, so she will be so exhausted. While others’ love and consolation and condolences are very welcome, they’re also tiring to acknowledge and respond to, especially in person. Some (luckily, only a few) will try to share their story of loss.

You just can’t. You’re too tired.

While I’ve shared quite a bit of my feelings on social media, I also have many, many more and need to process them slowly, quietly and without the energy drain of being social.

Now that coronavirus is making public gatherings suspect, this will be easier.

So I may post later this week — or not.

Thank you for all your comments and kindness!

 

 

Showing up

By Caitlin Kelly

5th-anniversary

Our wedding, Sept. 18. 2011 — grateful for our friends’ attendance!

It was a cold, gray, rainy morning and the small Tarrytown, NY church — where author Washington Irving once worshipped — was filling up.

The long, dark wooden pews held friends, colleagues, cousins, a brother.

Several neighbors from her apartment building, including me, joined them.

So did one of her physicians, who would speak about her with respect and affection.

Attending a memorial service is — to put it bluntly — rarely fun.

It’s a spine-stiffening reminder of our mortality, no matter our age or health.

But someone has died and we’re there to honor them and their life, no matter how tenuous the thread of connection. To hold up, sometimes literally, their grieving friends and family, to show them that they, too, are loved and valued by a larger community.

It’s the right thing to do.

And, if you deeply knew and loved the person, it’s heartbreaking; even the female minister conducting the service warned us it would be difficult for her as she was a close friend of our neighbor.

One of my favorite writers, Susie Boyt, recently ended her 13-year column in the Financial Times; a great-grand-daughter of Freud, she is so deliciously un-British, all feelings and emotion, a huge breath of fresh air in those po-faced orange pages filled with PLU (people like us), and I will miss her!

She writes, in her farewell column:

I think that celebrating and mourning should be practiced in equal measure, sometimes at the same time.

I also loved this, from her:

You must try to prepare and be ready for the moment that you’re needed for the call could come at any time.

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We now live in increasingly connected but disconnected times.

We check our phones constantly for some amusing text or parade of emojis.

We hang out on Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, “liking” and “friending” — but rarely sitting with someone who is in pain, scared and dying.

That’s the tough part. Showing up.

More than ever, now, we need to show up in one another’s lives: when someone is ill, or injured, or their parents are dying or your favorite teacher or professor is retiring.

Not every event is sad, of course, but we need to be present, to witness, to celebrate and to console.

I’m at an age now (sigh) where funerals and memorials — for friends, for parents, for neighbors — are more prevalent than graduations, weddings and christenings, all events filled with flowers and joy, hope and anticipation.

And few moments are more sobering and searing than a virtually unattended funeral or memorial service.

I’ve been to one of those.

I’ve been to one that was standing room only, for former New York Times photographer (and someone whose life you might know from the film The Killing Fields), Dith Pran.

I’m especially sensitive to unattended milestones; neither parent attended my college graduation. My mother wasn’t there for my second wedding and neither were my husband’s two sisters or their partners. That hurt, a lot.

So I try, (grateful for the freedom as a self-employed person to be able to do so), to attend memorials and funerals for the people I know, even someone like our neighbor A., a single woman, never married, who was ferociously private.

We never socialized and rarely spoke.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

St. Marks in the Bowery, one of Manhattan’s oldest churches

But at her memorial service I learned a great deal about her, and how very deeply her life, and her enthusiasms, had touched so many others.

Until or unless you’re in the room for these intimate, once-in-a-lifetime events, you’re missing a great deal.

We’re all a thread — as one late beau, cut down too soon by cancer, used to joke — in life’s rich tapestry.

He was right.

He is right.

Show up.

Who should we mourn?

By Caitlin Kelly

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In the past few months, three famous people have died, two of whose deaths widely elicited public scorn, derision and relief: Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, former Toronto mayor (and admitted drug user while in office) Rob Ford.

The late Pritzker Award-winning architect Zaha Hadid was by all accounts a brilliant tough cookie — who one acquaintance of mine immediately dismissed as a woman who only created properties for the world’s wealthiest.

I wonder about the wisdom of this.

I asked a friend in her 30s what she thought, a fellow journalist, a thoughtful person.

“They’re celebrities. They don’t feel like real people to us.”

I wonder about this as well.

There are people — serial killers, perpetrators of terrorism and genocide — whose deaths, natural or murdered, we don’t grieve. Those boundaries seem clear enough to me.

There are people within our own families, people who perpetrated sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse, whose deaths we might also greet with a sigh of relief.

Here’s a powerful essay, from Bust, by a 26-year-old woman whose abusive mother died, and how that felt for her.

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I attended a funeral about a decade ago, of a man whose widow and adult daughter share an apartment hallway with us. We have never socialized and likely never will; we’re very different sorts of people. We say hello in the hallway and parking lot.

But when their father and husband was dying a horrible death of cancer, we helped them connect with a hospice and, when he died, we went to his funeral.

I was stunned to see how empty it was. I doubt more than a dozen people were there, and this for a local man.

I wondered, then as now, why so few people cared enough to come and pay their respects; I’ve attended funerals that were practically standing room only, filled with people utterly distraught at their loss.

Why did this man’s death go so un-mourned? What had he said or done (or left unsaid or un-done?)

For public figures like Scalia, Ford and Hadid, we have access to reams of information about them and their work, their public behavior and accomplishments, sometimes their struggles.

Those who knew them best might not feel comfortable sharing more intimate details, so we’re left with broad outlines.

Many people loathed Scalia and Ford for their misogyny and for holding power over so many lives while espousing values they disagreed with.

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They were also human.

They left behind people who loved them deeply and respected them.

Do they, too, deserve to be mourned?

I say yes.

What do you think?

 

What will they remember you for?

By Caitlin Kelly

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A few days ago, we attended a memorial service in suburban Maryland for a family friend of my husband’s, a handsome, distinguished architect whose work spanned New York City and Detroit and who helped design JFK Airport.

I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but what a glorious service!

What a powerful reminder of the complicated, messy, loving lives we lead.

How we are often both reticent and expressive, if perhaps not when, where and how others might most have needed or wished for.

How our smallest words and deeds can, unwittingly, leave a lasting mark.

How much we crave connection, even as we blunder and stagger and do it so imperfectly that forgiveness is sometimes the greatest gift we are given.

How, for some fathers, their children are their greatest joy.

What did his friends, children, grandchildren and colleagues remember?

— He baked bread in clay flowerpots

— His amazing home-made pizza

— He loved classical music — and Rodrigo’s exquisite Concierto de Aranjuez was part of the service, played simply and beautifully on a gleaming black grand piano. A lone trumpet also played the Navy Anthem and My Funny Valentine.

— His service in WWII, inspiring a young seaman, a grandson in his medal-beribboned uniform, to tell us that’s what inspired him to join the Navy as well

— His midnight rescue, done calmly and gently, of his niece — out on a first date — who had locked the car keys in his borrowed car, with the engine running

— The day, as a Columbia School of Architecture student, he discovered that Frank Lloyd Wright was visiting New York City, staying at the Plaza Hotel. He jumped into a car, drove downtown to the Plaza — and, with no formal introduction, invited Wright back to campus for their 4:00 ritual tea. Wright, who then was paid $30,000 per lecture and had a New York Times interview scheduled that day, spontaneously agreed. (Now that’s chutzpah!)

— His three marriages; (as one female relative said, to loving laughter, “I kept hoping…”)

My husband clutched the late man’s brother’s hand, our dear friend, while I held Jose’s, knitting a fierce rope of love, something rough and strong to hold fast to.

We exited the church into brilliant fall sunshine to discover a raft of cellphone messages from Texas; my husband’s own half-brother, a man 24 years his senior, had suffered a major stroke and would likely not survive. He died a few hours later.

This, barely three days after Pratt Institute, where I now teach two classes, lost a female student to suicide, on campus.

It has been a week of death, of mourning, of loss, of remembrance.

Of our impossible, inevitable, inescapable fragility.

What will they say of you?

Is it what you hope?