Posts Tagged ‘death’

This Sunday is the anniversary of Sean’s death: March 10. I only know one thing, and that is that I will go swimming. I won’t commit 100 percent to anything else. 

Last night, after chowing down on sushi and guzzling a well-earned Sapporo at Happies, Joel got up to leave and asked me if I was going to make it to the memorial toast on Sunday.

“Possibly,” I said. Of course, the boys wanted to know why I wasn’t a 100 percent “yes”. My expanded answer is that I want to go, but all I’m planning on is swimming. If I feel up to it and trust myself to drive to the bar, then I’ll come. If not, then… “If I can’t drive myself, you could pick me up!” I volunteered.

Gary stepped forward and gave me a hug. Ben told me to “at least go outside on Sunday,” because it’s going to be beautiful. Joel acknowledged that my answer was good enough. And is has to be, because my grief is an island.

Liz’s grief is a chasm; Sean was her person. And while I don’t intend to trivialize the myriad of feelings felt by all of Sean’s friends, I can’t help but think that for them it was a shock, like being slapped in the face by a ghost: Sean was here, now he’s not.

I can’t classify how I feel, and I’m still often surprised by my thoughts and memories. My grief is driven primarily by the fact that I was there. I hate pointing it out, because there’s a tiny, snarky version of me inside my head that says, “Oh, don’t say THAT. What are you doing, fishing for extra empathy? Being there doesn’t make you SPECIAL.”

Believe me, I don’t want this event to be what makes someone consider me special, but being at the pool with Sean on March 10, 2012 does set me apart. No one else, except perhaps the lifeguards on duty that day, find themselves thinking, “What do you call that particular shade of purple? I’ve never seen a human face turn that color before.”

I talked to my friend Jamie last night, and told her that I’ve come to terms with so much that happened that day. I don’t think that the outcome would’ve been different if I’d gotten out of the pool one lap earlier. But I do wish that I’d gotten out 60 seconds quicker, and had touched him. I wish I had held his hand or patted his arm, a small form of reassurance paired with my voice. I don’t think that touching him would have kept him safe, alive. And I could have fought for that touch, but I know that it was the right thing to do — going for Sean’s wallet instead of getting in the lifeguard’s way when he started to seize. But I still wish that I had used just one moment to reach out to him with my fingers, to press my care, concern, and love into his skin like a parting gift.

They wouldn’t let us touch him at the hospital; he was already gone but they wouldn’t let us touch his hand or kiss his bald head. Liz and I were left to stand, leaning against each other for support while we stared as long as we could and tried to make sense of it. Through a fog of disbelief, we both admitted to being glad that he had a beard. We both liked his red beard. We both desperately wanted to touch him, to prove to ourselves that THIS WAS SEAN and not some wax dummy imposter. Instead we tugged on his features with our eyes. So that’s it: I wish I’d touched him. And when not mentally or physically occupied, I’ll find myself reworking through that day and trying to envision a scene where I got to do just that.

I think I’ve actually been doing pretty well, and I work hard to stay positive. I’ve focused primarily on remembering all of the good things and adding elements to my life that honor Sean, or what Sean would have been proud of me for doing. But as the anniversary approaches, I find myself unable to focus my thoughts on only the good bits. Instead, I’m remembering and reliving that day. Replaying the moments that led up to  putting Sean in the ambulance, and that lightning bolt of ice that ripped through my heart when the doctors finally told us that he didn’t make it.

My little internal horror movie is longer than everybody else’s. Liz’s starts when I called her from the pool. Everyone else’s starts later that day, when cell phones and Facebook helped spread the devastating word. Mine starts at 11:45 a.m., with a smiling Sean waiting for me at the door to the Drill Hall. A hug, and then him happily telling me about heading up the road last night to help his nephew celebrate his 21st birthday. His long, bare feet on the tile of the pool deck. His grin because he enjoyed the cold water and the exercise that he was about to begin. The disconcerting feeling of seeing him lying on his back on the pool deck. The surprise in the lifeguard’s eyes when I asked her if Sean had told her about his heart condition. Not being able to remember if he spoke to me when I addressed him, or if he just looked at me — a single look can be so loud.

The juxtaposition of these memories swim around me, in the flooding that surrounds my heart. They are awesome and absurd, bright and dark, sweet and bitter, and colorful. Like snippets of the variety of movies that we watched together: fun, dangerous, happy, sad, quirky. The shark in the water is March 10. Duuun dun duuun dun dun dun dun Sean made me watch Jaws for the first time just last year. No wait, it must have been two years ago. (Oh God.)

As the anniversary of his death approaches, I don’t know what mood will prevail: happy to have known and been friends with Sean and to now share a friendship with Liz and his Happies crowd, or a perverse lonliness where intellectually I know I’m not alone in my sadness, but the differences in what I’m thinking about and how I’m feeling make me feel separated, apart. An island floating so near a land mass of hands and hugs, laughter and tears, beer glasses clinking, and memories verbalized.

I’ll try to be there, for the memorial toast. It would be nice if the good thoughts, the ones that are easy to share and express, helped make a bridge across those troubled waters. It would be nice to not feel so alone, so recently again haunted by pictures that don’t exist in anyone else’s memories.


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Three months

Three months ago, I lost a very close friend: Sean M. Wells. He was 34 years old.

I’ve been trying to write this post in my head since March 10. How much did I want to share? What do I really want to say? What would I like to remember when everything gets a little fuzzy? How can see through my tears to type this?

I’ll never forget the day he died. We were at the indoor pool swimming in a swim clinic we had both signed up for to learn how to swim more efficiently (and thus, faster while not working as hard). Sean pulled himself out of the pool after not more than 10 minutes, which was unusual for him. Lifeguards responded, 911 was called, I rushed to get his wallet and personal belongings. There’s no point in documenting here, step-by-step, what happened. Everyone did everything they could, as quickly as possible, but Sean didn’t make it.

Yes, he had a congenital heart condition. Yes, he was cleared to swim and be carefully active by his heart doctor. No, in the eight years I knew Sean he never showed a single symptom or complaint. Yes, I miss him every single day.

I didn’t like Sean when I first met him, and he didn’t like me. Neither one of us could remember the first time we hung out one-on-one, but after that we realized that there was room for a friendship here. Since we were both single and liked to cook, but hated cooking for ourselves only, Sean and I would switch off cooking for each other, and eventually incorporated movies into these evenings. He made it his goal to have me watch every Coen Brothers movie, as well as others that he felt I should have seen (like Jaws).

A fan of live sporting events, Sean took me to see his beloved Redskins three times, and once I got to go to a Caps game with him. I wore one of his Caps jerseys and it looked like a dress on me so I knotted it up 80s style. After the game, we went to RFD for a beer. For Skins games, we’d stop at Nick’s on the way up for subs and chips. Our first Skins game together was November 2008 — it was cold, and I ordered a hot chocolate at the stadium. They poured a packet in a cup, then filled it with hot water. Without a spoon or a stirrer, I had no way to turn the gooey bottom contents of my cup into actual hot chocolate. Instead, Sean and I took turns sipping the hot water until it got low enough to swish around inside the cup to mix up the chocolate powder at the bottom. He told me the next time we’d bring a spoon, but the following two games were much warmer.

Sean is the reason I started swimming laps. He was always asking people to join him in the activities he participated in; Sean was a gatherer of friends. I never thought I could enjoy swimming laps, I thought it would be like running on a treadmill (boring). But he was enjoying himself so much, and losing so much weight, that I figured I ought to give it a shot. Now, swimming is one of the most relaxing and enjoyable things in my life. I love him for opening that door, and for being my swim partner for more than four years.

I called him my ‘swim husband’ because he would take me to the pools on base where I didn’t have free access because I am a contractor, not civil service or military. Since we showed up together regularly once a week, then twice a week (or more)… everyone assumed we were married. Oops! We both thought it was really funny. I have no pictures of us from swimming, or from the 2011 Pax Team Tri that we participated in (because we were on separate teams).

Sean liked sushi and golf and bowling. He had a big pair of fuzzy slippers that he wore around the house, and an apron that he wore when he cooked. Money was never an issue — we always went Dutch or traded off treating one another, and tabs weren’t kept. But it did bother him when I’d end up baking or cooking a lot and bringing him goodie bags and leftovers, and he would inform me that it was “his turn” to treat next. If Sean was in town, he’d show up to whatever you invited him to… even my Mom’s annual fried sourdough birthday parties. He’d always hang out, work on the annual puzzle and talk to the different waves of people that showed up. One year, his work travel took him to England, and he looked all over the areas he visited for a particular brand and flavor of jam that he knew I liked but couldn’t get stateside. When he couldn’t find it, he brought me two of his favorite flavors back from across the pond (both strawberry).

When Sean and I would e-mail each other, we’d always re-name ourselves by working our names into some cultural trivia/reference. For example, I’d start my e-mail with “Walking on Seanshine,” and then sign off with “Jen Just Wants to Have Fun.” It didn’t have to be song titles, you could venture into any movie, song, television, pop culture reference that you wanted to. Most of the time I’d get Sean’s references, but sometimes I’d have to get a little help from Google. Sean was King of the Random Movie Quote, and knew a wide variety of artist/song/album trivia. I didn’t always “get” his humor, but he’d often take pity on me and explain himself, or save his really clever quips for other friends who might appreciate them more.

Sean let me go clothes shopping with him one year. He’d lost a lot of weight, and had a $300 Macy’s gift card from his birthday to spend on new work clothes. We went to the Dockers pant section, and I cut Sean a deal: if he’d try on the style that I picked out as well as the style of pants that he’d been buying, we’d talk about the fit of each in the mirror. In the end, I’d shut up and he could buy whatever style he liked best, no pressure. The sales lady in the dressing room watched with an amused expression on her face as I voiced the particulars of fit with Sean, who we had to explain was not my boyfriend or husband, and she provided her own thumbs up to a particular pair.

At the checkout counter, Sean ended up with a new style of pants to flaunt his slim swimmer’s physique, plus several new button down shirts including (gasp!) two with stripes. (For some reason, Sean said he didn’t like striped shirts, but I convinced him to buy two that were tonal, where the stripe was formed from a matte vs sheen look of the same color fabric.) His total bill was $300.08, and I ponied up the $0.08 because while Sean’s house was full of spare change, he almost never carried any coins in his pockets. Sean was thrilled with his purchases, often choosing to put together outfits from the new clothes on days we’d swim so he could show me. He looked great, so handsome in his new duds. I believe we finished off that trip to Annapolis with dinner and a movie, True Grit at the theater. And I think we shared a bag of his favorite — Reece’s Pieces — for dessert during the movie.

We met through a mutual friend, Amy. In 2008, Amy got married and Sean and I prepared for the reception by participating in a group ballroom dance lesson each month. I could never remember the steps, so Sean would start every dance by listening, then telling me what dance step we would use and reminding me what the cadence of the steps was. During the reception we had an opportunity to show off a bit, and it was so much fun and included a dip!

Sean participated in a happy hour crowd aptly called, Happies. He really wanted me to join him for Thursday night happy hours around town, and early on Amy and I went to one. Through no fault of Sean’s, it wasn’t a really good introduction, and I chose not to participate in those events after that. When he met his girlfriend, Liz, I told him, “You’d better introduce us early on so she knows that I’m not competition!” We arranged a meeting over lunch after swimming one weekend, and when Liz went to the bathroom I looked at Sean and said, “I really like her! She’s a keeper!” Over the past year, I had started agreeing to join Sean for more activities and events — some with just Liz, like going up to Washington D.C. for Ethiopian food, and some with the larger Happies group, like a New Years Eve party.

Since one of Sean’s goals was always to bring people together, I could tell he was enjoying watching his groups of friends finally merge. We made plans to go to a local restaurant/bar for a comedy show on March 10, but Liz and I ended up at the hospital, sobbing into each other’s shoulders that afternoon instead and trying to understand why the world stopped spinning. The following week, Liz and I were surrounded by the support, love and commiseration from all of Sean’s friends. I found myself a part of the Happies crowd, and realized that I had been remiss in not giving this group of people a second shot (like I had with Sean). Individually and as a group, they’re pretty awesome and I count myself lucky to now have them as friends.

It’s crazy how big a part of my life Sean became, especially considering how rocky our toleration of each other was when we first met. (We met at Monterey, a Mexican restaurant, both of us joining our mutual friend Amy for dinner and margaritas.) Eight years later, it’s hard to believe he doesn’t live basically right across the street anymore or that he won’t write back when I send him a text. To cope and to honor Sean’s memory, what I am trying to do is to live with a more open mind and heart. To say “Yes!” to more things, people and opportunities. And to keep my friends and family close, because people are important.

The Sean Abides,

I miss you. I love you. I’ll meet you in the pool on the flip side.

The Big Jenowski

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Thanks, Grandpa

Destiny. Fate. Divine intervention. Free will. Karma.

People have come up with a lot of ways to rationalize why things happen the way that they do. Perhaps you feel that you can have an effect on the outcome of an event, in the shaping of your life. Or maybe you feel that your life has already been shaped for you, aligned with fate or prophesy, and your job is simply to live that life. Another thought is that someone or something else (God, gods, angels, spirits) has a hand in your future, and you are powerless against it.

Basically, it boils down to believing that you have a hand on the reins and must take action and responsibility in the shaping of your life, or believing that someone else is in control and your goal is to trust that things will work out the way they are supposed to (hopefully in the best way possible) if only you can resist the urge to “help” by initiating action.

I believe in a mix of karma (you reap what you sow) and the concept of the people who loved you in life looking out for you in death (whether death equals “heaven,” a “fabric of time” or something else entirely, I can’t say).

I haven’t lost a lot of close family members in my lifetime. Pets, yes. But people, no. My grandpa struggled with regressive dementia in the years leading to his death, and when he was most himself I was too young to remember. My memory of him consists of snippets: Grandpa playing the organ and letting my sister and I “play” with him. Grandpa’s smile as he came up from the basement with ice cream for dessert, or opened a box of Whitman’s assorted chocolates and offered us one two pieces with a wink. Grandpa’s response to the question, “How are you?” (A bewildered look, then “I don’t know, she hasn’t told me yet!” while gesturing at my Grandma.)

I assume that once the initial trauma of losing a close family member passes, you only think about those individuals at certain moments: holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. However, I choose to believe that Grandpa is out there, somewhere, and that he’s looking out for me. He’s got his faculties back and knows that I’m Jennifer and not Alice. I like to think that perhaps he occassionally runs into my old pets and doles out ear scratches and belly rubs. He loves me, and wants me to succeed. And every once in a while, he asserts himself in my life in some small way to protect me or make me smile.

In September 2009, the peace lily that I acquired from his funeral made me think of him. I love you, Grandpa.

Some days, I get stuck behind a slow car with no ability to pass, and right before my frustration causes me to start looking for a way around we pass by a cop while doing a speed that doesn’t get you pulled over. Thanks, Grandpa.

Whenever I get to work and I’m simply dreading it, but there’s an open parking space right up front I smile. Thank you, Grandpa.

Things don’t always go your way in a specific moment, but they always seem to work out in the end. Thinking that on certain days, in small, meaningful ways, my Grandfather is thinking of me, watching over me and helping me to succeed (even if success is only measured by the pleasure of a smile) is extremely comforting. So while I believe that my own actions today shape the future events in my life, I also believe that the people you love and are loved by in life look out for you after they’ve passed. And one day, I’ll be able to negotiate an open parking space for someone I love.

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There is one thing that I do consistently, no matter whether times are good or bad, whether I’m feeling happy or sad. I read. I love stories — the beginnings, middles and ends. I like turning the page to find justice when my own life is feeling a little tattered and sore. And I especially take delight in devouring the banquet of carefully chosen words that authors prepare to bring their stories to life. I love witnessing the craft of a Descriptive Master.

Speaking of beautiful descriptive writing, go out right now and READ THIS BOOK:

The Book Thief was recommended to me by Ashley, who wrote, “I just LOVE how the book is narrated through Death’s point of view. Being able to view something as horrible as Nazi Germany through the eyes of something like Death is such a new concept…

New, and well-done. Zusak himself said that it was difficult to select Death as the narrator, and the first time he tried to write from that point of view Death was “too mean.” Six months later Zusak was able to breathe life back into this story “— but this time, Death was to be exhausted from his eternal existence and his job. He was to be afraid of humans — because, after all, he was there to see the obliteration we’ve perpetrated on each other throughout the ages — and he would now be telling this story to prove to himself that humans are actually worth it.

You will have to adapt to the voice, which uses a lot of short sentences and interjections, but this is easily done as you submerge yourself in the narrative. Liesel Meminger is a young girl in 1930s Germany, sent to live with foster parents. Liesel undergoes many trials and tribulations, but she endures thanks to her discovery of books and of words. At the age of 9, she steals her first book. It is the same day her little brother is buried. From that moment Death turns a rarely inquisitive eye toward the little girl — curiosity and interest win and throughout the rest of the years of her life, Death always takes notice when he’s brought in close proximity to the book thief. Liesel’s story becomes one of those that Death keeps close, proof that human existence is meaningful. And in The Book Thief, Death relates Liesel’s story to you, the reader, for consideration.

I considered it BRILLIANT. I loved reading this book — cover to cover it was excellent, and I had a hard time putting it down whenever it was close enough to pick up. One more chapter, just a couple more pages… I finished the book in about three days (550 pages). For the first time in a long time, I think I’ve found a non-fantasy fiction novel that I will re-read in the future.

Thank you, Ashley, for one superb recommendation! Got any others?!


The last time I saw her was red. The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness. (p.12)

Upon her arrival, you could still see the bite marks of snow on her hands and the frosty blood on her fingers. Everything about her was undernourished. Wirelike shins. Coat hanger arms. She did not produce it easily, but when it came, she had a starving smile. (p.31)

She ran the back of her hand along the first shelf, listening to the shuffle of her fingernails gliding across the spinal cord of each book. It sounded like an instrument, or the notes of running feet. She used both hands. She raced them. One shelf against the other. And she laughed. (p.135)

At times, she would watch him. She decided that he could best be summed up as a picture of pale concentration. Beige-colored skin. A swamp in each eye. And he breathed like a fugitive. Desperate yet soundless. It was only his chest that gave him away for something alive. (p.248)

When finally she reached out and took possession of the letter, she noticed the sound of the clock in the library. Grimly, she realized that clocks don’t make a sound that even remotely resembles ticking, tocking. It was more the sound of a hammer, upside down, hacking methodically at the earth. It was the sound of a grave. (p.259)


As an aside, I’ve recently started a new page here at OneWandering called Paper Vacations. It is here that I intend to list all of the books I read, starting in 2010. I’m debating whether or not to try to “rate” the books here (on a scale of 1-5), or whether to just address any questions/comments left on this page as they trickle in. Thoughts?! Recommendations?!

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Goodbye George

On Sunday, June 22, George Carlin died of heart failure at the age of 71.

I’m sure as many people were offended by George and his often profane counter-culture ravings as there were hordes who flocked to hear him, laugh with him and be challenged by his thoughts. Me? I was one of the ones who found George witty and intelligent, and with a few exceptions I went right along with his perversity. George was a master of taking something obvious and twisting it and looking at it from different directions. I’ve written about why I like George before, and I’m so glad that Jaci and I were able to see him in person. This year I’ve been flipping through my daily Carlin calendar, and back in May I came across one Carlin-ism that so tickled me that I’ve been saving it… waiting for the right time, the right post topic to drop this sentence into:

“Unbelievably, a goldfish can kill a gorilla. However, it does require a substantial element of surprise.”

I never found the right post, but perhaps it made you laugh (as I did)… And in the wake of the sad news of George’s passing you’ve found a moment of joy, and George is out/up there grinning, happy to have surprised and delighted you with his often amusing observations.

Goodbye George… I hope that heaven is a place where you can tune into the human adventure, just as you hoped it would be. Pay close attention and put together a good show, because we’ll all be clapping and whistling, waiting for the encore.

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