She said no.

I just read a news story about an 11-year-old boy who killed an eight-year-old neighbor girl because she said no.

She didn’t say no about sex. It wasn’t over something so charged with emotion as sex.

It was over a puppy.

He wanted to see her new puppy and she refused. So he went inside his house and picked up a gun and shot her.

It is so easy to say that this is a matter of a parent not locking up their guns. He was easily able to open up the closet door, pull out a shotgun and shoot this girl in the chest, killing her instantly. That is certainly an issue. But more than gun-control, we need to have people control. How have we gotten to the point where young boys feel that the way to deal with rejection is to kill? How have we gotten to the point where being told “no” means someone has to die?

It is to the point where we really shouldn’t be afraid of Muslim men with guns. What we need to be afraid of are young white boys with guns. They are responsible for far more murders in America these days than anyone else.

This has nothing to do with “America being a Godless nation” as some commentators say. You don’t need religion to know you should not kill someone.

Perhaps violent videogames are to blame. Perhaps neglectful parenting is to blame. Perhaps this kid (and all the other ones, too many to name) were left alone for too long, ignored, left to fend for themselves, unguided, unwanted. Perhaps it is all of this, and more. Whatever the reason(s), we as a nation need to figure it out soon, because too many deaths have already occurred.

I feel the root of this particular murder is the word “no” – and how he handled it.

If he didn’t kill her over this, it is entirely possible that he would grow up to assault or rape a different woman who told him “no”. Is this what our society has come to, where women cannot say “no” for fear of being harmed? Is this what our society has come to, where men can’t hear the word “no” without causing harm?

There was no way to predict that this would have happened. He asked to see her puppy. She said no. So he killed her. Something doesn’t add up. This equation does not lead logically from one step to another. And that is the problem. We say we want to stop gun violence, but deep down if we are being honest we really just want to not be the victim of gun violence. It has become random, uncertain, chaotic. Anyone can be a victim.

Long gone are the days where attacks follow a logical pattern. Someone was abused for years and kills his abuser. Someone was in a “bad” part of town and got mugged. Someone got into a fight and got shot.

These days, just going to school can be dangerous. Just going to the movies can get you murdered. There is no logic to it. All the victims are innocent. Often they aren’t even known by their murderer.

Why are there too many guns and not enough parents teaching their children right from wrong? Sometimes it isn’t even as easy or simple as that. Sometimes the parents need a few lessons themselves. Often the parents are less than stable. Giving birth does not suddenly improve intelligence or aptitude. It isn’t a surprise when their kids go off the deep end.

Stronger gun laws will only result in a greater imbalance. More “bad” people will have guns. They don’t obey laws anyway, so gun laws will benefit them and harm everyone else. It is too late to regulate guns – there are too many out there. What we need is to regulate people.

We need to teach our children from an early age how to handle loss, rejection, and pain. We need to teach them how to deal with their feelings, good and bad. We need to teach them how to be with other people in healthy ways, ways that are life-affirming. We need to teach people how to have dialogue versus having debate. We need to teach people about many other cultures and ways of thinking, so they learn there are many ways of seeing and understanding.

I thought it was over.

My father, dead these twenty years, not buried but filed away in a niche like a folder, forgotten it turns out, not over and done with. I thought it was over, that time of shock / of loss / of surprise / of earthquake, after tornado. He died just six weeks after Mom did, no warning, just a heart attack, his heart gave out / his heart had died when she did. It took six weeks for him to realize it. Six weeks for his body to catch up with his spirit.

It isn’t “passed on”. It isn’t “transitioned”. It isn’t soft and gentle, these euphemisms we have for the end of life. It isn’t even “kick the bucket”, “bought the farm”, “pushing up daisies”. It is dead, plain and simple.

Dead, body shucked off like a used coat, abandoned, sent to Goodwill or the dump. Or perhaps not. Sometimes it shows back up, even though you’ve moved, even though you’ve outgrown it, that person, their shell, shows up like that coat, somehow back in your house.

To get to the niche required asking off from work, calling the funeral home, arranging with the funeral director, getting a notarized form from my aunt (for the other two), finding a map, cleaning out the car, a long drive, and then waiting in the reception room, the same where I waited all those years ago with my aunt, to put her Mom’s ashes next to his, the same where we waited for his father, the same place I sat three times before for death. There were cookies on the table, wrapped in plastic bags, to keep them fresh. They don’t get a lot of visitors there, but they like to be ready. A lady asked if we would like water, or a fresh cup of coffee. She didn’t mind, she said. No bother, she said.

He died maybe seven years before his mom did, at least twenty years too soon. I remember her, my grandmother, in shock that her son had died before her. Sitting in her room in that rambling house. He died just five feet away, in his old room, that dark room, that narrow room. No room for him, and he died there, alone.

I can’t find the Bible with her dates in it. I don’t know when she died, or when she was born. Each family has their own, it seems. It wasn’t important enough to keep in a safe place, it seems.

They sat together, all these years, in niche number 19, at the end of a series of halls, themselves filled with filing cabinets stuffed with folders and notes. They sat, filed away, together – this was the O’Shee clan, the last of the line. I’d changed my name at marriage, not even keeping it as a middle name. People could spell it or pronounce it, but not both, and not well either way. I was grateful to get an easy name, but not as easy or anonymous as Smith or Jones. There are worse names than one with an apostrophe.

Nobody went into that room at the end of the hall. The relatives, those who knew them, were dead and buried themselves, or long forgotten. It was a funeral home, not a columbarium. They had that room as a favor to another funeral home that went out of business. I’d never thought of it, but funeral homes do go out of business, but cemeteries don’t. (But sometimes they do). Sometimes your “Final resting place” isn’t so final, and isn’t such a rest.

Sometimes people get dug up, like Tutankhamen, or the Lindow man, or anonymous Indians. There’s a farm to be tilled or a skyscraper to be built. The markers were lost or never were. Sometimes strangers in masks and latex gloves carefully desecrate your body, your insides, in the name of science. I wonder if a kind person, a priest perhaps, asks forgiveness (if not permission) of the soul that wore that body like a costume, a shroud, for these unbelievers, these scientists, to excavate, exhume, ex everything. No more sacred slumber. No more resting in peace. More like pieces.

I thought it was over, that time of grief, of sadness. I thought he was “dead and buried”. But now he’s in my craft room, on the top of my shelving unit I bought with my own money and assembled with my own hands. The shelving unit that has books to teach me, to inspire me to make things along with the things needed to make those things. There’s my father, along with the rubber stamps, the beads, the canvases, the paint, the glue, the wire. There he is, another craft project or supply or inspiration.

Perhaps I should invite him into the book project I’m working on. Perhaps I should do it in his memory, in his honor, like the Jews do. When someone dies too soon, you finish their work for them, giving them credit. You do the work, but they inspire you. Your grief for them propels / compels you to work. It isn’t yours but not quite theirs, it is a collaboration, a sharing. Instead of being stunned and immobilized by your grief, you use it to do, to create, to make. It is a kind of martial arts, this thing, using the energy of a sad situation against itself, a sort of energy aikido, a trauma taekwondo.

I thought it was over.

I didn’t have the tools to deal with his death when it happened. I just did it, as best I could figure out. There is no training for the hardest time of your life. How do you suddenly take on the responsibility of cremation certificates and funeral plots and closing out bank accounts and estate taxes and probate in the middle of grief? The person you’d ask for advice is the very person who is gone.

It has been twenty years, and my father is still with me, not just in spirit but in form, in shape, taking up space in my craft room, watching everything I do. I suspect he’s still a little sad. He was always sad. He never got to do what he wanted – always what his parents wanted. “Poor Pat” is what his Mom said to him. All he heard was how sad it was to be him. So he grew into that prophecy. It is sad that they didn’t want him to be him – even his name wasn’t his own. He was a junior. How is that for messing with your child? A child named like this isn’t his own. They are expected from birth to take on your task and live it out, rather than their own.

So here he is, in my craft room, in my house.

When I was born, he made a point of going into the house before Mom did and putting Beethoven on the turntable. Beethoven’s music was playing as I was brought home. This time, I wasn’t paying attention, and my husband wasn’t thinking, so when he was brought into the house, this time, this (hopefully) final time, there was no music, there was no notice. His ashes were brought in along with his parents, without ceremony and without ritual. Brought in just like the luggage.

I don’t even know if I have any Beethoven music to play here for him. It always makes me sad, how he didn’t get to be a music conductor, how he didn’t let himself be one. I need to listen to it, and be sad, and let that feeling happen, that loss, that sadness, let the tears fall heavy like glue, sticking together the past and the present into one big mess.

If I don’t have a CD, I’m sure I can download some on my phone. Where to start? What was his favorite? Why don’t I know?

We are now planning an early trip to the mountains. I feel that opening his urn on the bridge overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains is what I want to do. Open it up and let them fly on a windy day, so his ashes cover those mountains. When I see them, I’ll think of him. No marker, no cemetery. Mountains, miles and miles of them, a sea of blue waves in the distance, fading fading fading away. Hopefully it will be windy. We’ll have to do this after the tourists have gone, after the rangers have checked on us. We always have permission to be there after hours, but I’m going on the “don’t ask don’t tell” for the ashes. Just like how I did with Mom’s. There was a little bit of covert action then too.

No roadside memorial. No press-on decal on the back of the car. No tattoos. All the myriad ways of memorializing, and I’m going on a roadtrip, with three people and coming back with two. One will be left in the mountains, on the mountains, part of the mountains. His ashes – ground up bones, really, not ashes like in a campfire – will be eaten by insects, worn by birds in their feathers, sunk down to the bottom of small pools of rainwater, used in rabbit’s burrows.

We’d not planned on going until May, but then this happened, this urn, this death, reappeared in my life. Like a pregnancy unplanned, an extra family member is suddenly in my house, my home. Am I dumping him at a shelter, leaving him on a church doorstep, an orphanage by doing this early and not waiting until we would usually go? Am I properly dealing with this unexpected appearance, reappearance, of my father in my life?

Or by planning a trip, am I making sure that I use this time well, to talk with/to/at him, to invite him in, to process this grief, this loss I couldn’t hold, couldn’t handle twenty years ago?

Is there a right way to grieve? Is there a wrong way? Perhaps simply, the way is the way.

The picture is of him as a different kind of conductor. He spent one summer driving the electric trolley at the Chattanooga Choo Choo. One childhood dream come true. The smile is tiny, but there. His smile was often an afterthought, an accident, a surprise.

Dad at the Choo Choo

He spent way too much of his life making other people happy. Not selfish, certainly, and that is commendable, but no balance either. Such loss. Such pain. I wish he was here now so I could teach him what I know, to help him deprogram and discover who he really is. Perhaps that is what I am doing in his memory. Perhaps I am using his (bad / sad ) example of how not to live, and learning how.

He never wrote that book on Beethoven. He never traveled to England. He never did a lot of things he wanted to do. Never retired. And I see this, and remember – never take a day for granted. Never assume there is tomorrow.

But now, I’m learning, he’s teaching me, never assume the past is past either.

Heart Exorcise

While waiting for my cardiologist, I heard his comments with the patient in the room next to mine. The walls are very thin and so I was able to hear almost all of the conversation. Things weren’t going well for the patient. I could tell it was also very awkward for the doctor. He is fairly young, this doctor, in a field where he sees very sick people all day long.

I had seen the patient before in the waiting room. I suspected he had cancer by the color of his skin. It also looked like he had gone bald from chemotherapy. He was also being pushed around in a wheelchair and had oxygen. So there was far more than just heart problems going on here.

The doctor started off by saying “Sorry to hear about the diagnosis and stuff.” And then he asked the patient if he wanted to continue treatment he was on, assessing what was valuable and what wasn’t. With a stage four cancer diagnosis, you have to reassess everything. Some treatments are just more hassle than they are worth. Some are worthless. They had to make some hard decisions. Cure wasn’t an option. Just easing symptoms. Palliative care.

I thought how hard it has to be to be a doctor and go from patient to patient, from hard thing to hard thing. Of course he’s a cardiologist and people get sick and die. They’re not here because they’re well. I am one of the few patients who is well and is doing well. In part I go to a cardiologist because I want to stay well. But I am unusual. I believe in prevention, rather than cure.

The doctor came to visit me next. He was in a rush and wanted to get right into the exam. I asked the doctor when we had a pause how he goes from one patient to another when it’s a hard thing. He looked at me briefly and he said “You just get used to it.” That really wasn’t what I was expecting. I was hoping he would say something useful like “I pray” or “I do yoga”. But he just said “You get used to it.”

I could see later that he was shaking. You don’t get used to it. You don’t get used to carrying heavy burdens. And when you know that someone you know, even if it’s just a patient and not someone you love, is going to die soon and in a ugly way then it’s a heavy thing to have to carry.

The only way of getting rid of these feelings that are hard is processing them. It’s not about ignoring them or about running away from them. That it is not dealing with them.

Hard feelings are just like having to go to the bathroom. We have to know what to do when we have that feeling in our body. Stress is the accumulation of a lot of hard feelings that have not been processed. Stress is like poop. If you don’t get rid of poop it will build up and you will become very sick. If you don’t get rid of the anger and the sadness and the fear it will back up and you will also become very sick. There are ways to process it at the time, but the best thing is to learn how to not store it at all.

I do that by my practice. Part of that is exercising and by eating well daily. I get enough sleep. I make sure that I am strong enough to be able to handle these feelings when they come to me. Praying and reading the Word daily helps too. When something does surprise or overwhelm me, I remember to return to my routine and my practice. I remember to pray. I remember to do yoga. I remember to do art. I remember to write.

When something extra difficult happens, not the everyday sort of stress, I make sure to set aside a little extra time to do all of those things. I may paint a painting specifically for that purpose. I may write a poem just on that issue. I’ll write more, even though I may not publish it. I have to process it or it will process me.

Think of a food processor – something is going to get ground up into little bits. I’d rather have some say as to what gets ground up. You don’t just “get used to it”. If you don’t process something hard, it will use you up and wear you out. It will wash you away until you are nothing.