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Proximity Rule

We’ve all lost someone close to us.  Eight years ago today my brother, Jeff, died very unexpectantly.  He left behind a broken-hearted family.  People say that time heals…and in a way it does…the pain isn’t as intense now.  But it’s been eight years since we’ve seen him and we all still miss being with him so very much.


Jeff was born in 1964 which made him one of the last of the baby boomers.  He served in the United States Army, graduated from Indiana University South Bend, and has a daughter, Jessica.  He loved many things including being outside, travel, rock and roll, history, beer, air shows, practical jokes, grilling, playing Euchre, playing chess, museums, fishing, pizza, animals, football…especially Notre Dame football, ice cream, Christmas, telling jokes, his friends, his family…especially his daughter, and God.  He wasn’t perfect but oh was he ever fun.  He could make anyone laugh and he enjoyed doing so.


I am the oldest in my family, Jeff was four years younger than me, and our youngest brother is six years younger than him.  I wrote this piece about how we struggled to get through the first Christmas without him.  It is longer than most of my postings.  I hope you will forgive me for that and understand.  Next week, the subject will be happier and shorter.  I promise.



December 2006…It rained throughout the hour-long drive to my parent’s house.  It was a steady, cold, dreary rain which matched my mood perfectly.  “Angel tears”, my mother used to say when we were little.  “You can’t do anything but wait for them to feel better.”  I wished I could feel better.

I tried to remember my last conversation with him but I couldn’t.  Had I said “I love you”?  Had I hugged him goodbye at Easter?  Life had been so busy and such a blur for so long.  Why didn’t I remember our last moments together; our final words?  Because he was only 41 and I thought I would get to be his big sister for another half lifetime.


At home, my Christmas decorations were stacked in the living room in dusty cardboard boxes as if we were moving.  I needed time…time and a clear mind to unpack them and make the house at least look like the holidays, even if I didn’t feel it inside.  How does one celebrate a birth when the pain of a death is still so raw?

They both came to the door as I pulled into their driveway.  They hugged me silently and then stood back as if they were waiting for me to give them direction.  I knew that lost look.  I felt it with every fiber of my being.  What do I do next?  How do I go on?

The oldest usually bears the burden of responsibility.  Jeff used to tease me about the proximity rule.  He lived in the same city as our parents so even though I was the oldest, he was the one they called first when they needed help.  I pictured him looking down from heaven and laughing because now the proximity rule applied to me because our youngest brother lived over 1000 miles from our parents.  I so desperately wanted to hear him laugh again.

Their artificial tree stood in the center of their living room, bare and waiting for ornaments.  The basement door stood open but I didn’t see any decorations on the main floor.  My mother offered me coffee from the Mr. Coffee that was still choking and gurgling out the final few drops.  I was glad to see their tree up; at least they were trying.

At Halloween, my mother had said she was going to get out every single Christmas decoration she had.  She said he loved Christmas and that was the best way to honor his memory during the holidays.

By Thanksgiving, she said she didn’t think she could put up any decorations.  It was all too hard and the memories were too painful.  We went through the motions and we admired the turkey and the myriad of desserts, but we were all so aware of the empty chair that sat between us like an elephant in the room.  The football games were on and we played Euchre like usual, but the entire day felt like we were in an abstract painting with all the parts in weird places and nothing seemed right.

Isn’t that the way life is after the death of a loved one?  Our lives as we know them shatter into a million tiny pieces and we try to glue them back together one piece at a time like broken pottery, but we are never the same and the cracks become our scars.

We lingered over our coffee and made small talk about the day.  We were not quite ready to begin and not quite sure how.  Finally, my father disappeared down the basement stairs and carried up a box that was labeled “tree ornaments”.  He sat it on the floor in the living room next to the tree.  I followed him back down the stairs and we stood staring at the gray metal shelves filled with Christmas decorations and years of memories in box after box.  I wasn’t sure I was strong enough to open the boxes and set all those memories free.

We added more boxes to the first one in the living room.  My father said we didn’t need so many decorations on the tree; my mother insisted that we needed them all.  She wanted to look at and touch each one.  She wanted to hoard the memories associated with them and find my brother within the folds of those memories.


I carried our filled coffee cups into the living room as my mother opened a box of ornaments.  My father was putting lights on the tree, but I took a sip of coffee and watched as she unwrapped the first ornament.  As the tissue paper fell away, I could see that it was an old, white, Styrofoam ball that had been made by a child, probably in grade school.  It was decorated with glitter and had a green pipe cleaner hanger.  As my mother turned it over in her hand, she caught her breath as she saw the small, black and white school picture of my brother from the first or second grade.  She put her head in her hands and began to sob.   My father took the ornament from her and fell to his knees.

It was as if Jeff was saying, “Hey you guys, I’m still here.”

I didn’t want to see their broken hearts that day but I did.

Death makes life stop and pay attention.  Every reminder brings a fresh wave of new pain that refuses to be diminished by anything except time.  After the funeral, a cousin of ours said, “The pain you feel is the price you pay for loving someone so much.  It will get better, but it will never go completely away.”

At the funeral home, I noticed how much gray hair my brother had around his temples.  He had more than I did and I wanted to tease him about that.  I hadn’t even noticed it when he was alive.   I wanted him to wake up and talk to us, to tell us it was a really bad joke or a horror movie or a nightmare; anything as long as it wasn’t real.  I just wanted him to be with us again.


But it was real and as much as we didn’t want to face life without him, we had to.  We struggled to fill the void he left.  Who would wear the Santa hat and pass out the gifts at Christmas?  Who would tease the nieces and nephews?  Who would appreciate all the food we made and tell us not to put green peppers in anything?  Who would tell us joke after joke until we were laughing so hard our sides hurt?  Who would call me every year on my birthday and say, “You are getting so damn old!”


Death changes how we define ourselves and our vision of the future, and how we fit into that future.  Life takes on a new shape when a person we love is gone.  Family takes on a new shape.  We must somehow carry them with us through our memories and through the love we shared with them.  Moving forward after a loss is the hardest thing.

One day on the phone, my mother said to me.  “Children are not supposed to die before their parents.  It’s not the natural order of things.  The only thing that helps me get out of bed some days is my belief that I will see him again after this life is over.”

I wish I had an answer for my mother and one for myself.  I believe that somehow, some way, my brother is still with us but we cannot see him.  He is obscured from our vision but not from our hearts.   When the time is right, we will see him again.

For now, our family circle is smaller, but he is still a part of it.  I wake up each day to a world that is different from what it was when he was with us.  Some days are harder than others.  I miss him every single day.  I am grateful for the time I had with him.  I try to honor his memory through my thoughts and my actions, and through my love for his daughter.  And really, that’s all a person can do.

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Author’s note:  This September 30th would have been Jeff’s 50th birthday.  And about that same time, Jessica is going to make him a grandfather.  He would have been so proud…and he would have reminded me often that he got to join the grandparents club before me!  



To Everything There is a Season

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It ended up being a day so full, that looking back I don’t know how we could have fit one more bit of anything into it.  The day itself was stretching to contain it all.  It was a good day, a great day, and it was a day that overflowed with both joy and sadness.

In the morning, there was rain…stormy weather.  Not what a bride wants on her wedding day.  There’s hair to worry about and necessary people and needed items moving from place to place.  I texted them both about rain on their wedding day…it’s good luck…blessings raining down from heaven…a sign of new beginnings.

There was the discovery that the silver shoes which matched my dress had been left 1000 miles away in Texas…sigh…and a frantic search to find the nearest mall since the town we were in was too small to have one.

The drive to the airport on the two lane highway to pick up a daughter, encountered a bicycle race and only one lane open and delays on the busy road.  And while we were gone, there was the call from my son…where are you…I’d like to see you for a few minutes this morning.

When everyone made it in from out of town, and new shoes were found, it was back to the hotel to dress ourselves and look our best for the wedding pictures to be taken before the ceremony.  The clock seemed to be moving faster than normal and I wished for time to stand still so I could savor the day…and the moments.

The rain had stopped and I prayed that this day was the beginning of a lifetime of happiness for them.  I was delighted and grateful to be together with all of my children in one place for a time.  It gets harder and harder with everyone’s busy lives.

Ryan & Paige 219

We arrived at the church and I saw my son for the first time that day.  He was dressed in his black tuxedo and couldn’t have looked any more handsome.  He was calm.  It was just another day at the church getting married.  He handed me a box and two envelopes.  “These are for you, Mom.”

Ryan's wedding 302

There was a beautiful gold necklace from them both for me.  And a handwritten note from the bride thanking me for raising the man of her dreams…“He is kind-hearted, easy to laugh, nonjudgmental and knows how to treat women…all that is good in him comes back to you.”  If I hadn’t already thought of her as a daughter, it would have been cemented right then and there.

And there was the other note from my 25 year old son thanking me for being his mom and for giving him such a strong foundation.  He told me of his love for his bride and that “She is the light of my life.  Part of the reason she fits so well for me is that she has so many of your best qualities.”  I was so touched by their words and that they took the time to write those notes.

The guests began to arrive and the mothers of both the bride and the groom were near the door to greet them.  And, as all of our family and friends began coming in, the emotions of the day rolled over me in waves.

Ryan & Paige 130

There were family members and friends I hadn’t seen in years…since before my move to Texas.  My children’s long-time babysitter, who grew up helping me with my children, arrived with her husband.  She is now a mother of three.

There were the boys who spent hours playing video games in my basement and swimming in my pool.  I watched them grow up and they are now handsome young men who came to see their good friend get married.

My son’s roommates, friends, and his teammates at DePauw, his coach…all came to celebrate the union of two very special people.  How wonderful it was that three sets of grandparents were able to share the day with us.  The bride’s grandparents have been married for over 60 years.

My brother and his family were there from Texas.  There was my beautiful niece, seven months pregnant and soon to make my other brother a grandfather.  How I longed for him to be with us too.

My oldest son walked me to my seat…so tall and handsome and proud to serve as the best man for his younger brother.   They were always close and always buddies.  And in October, the roles will be reversed.

Ryan's wedding 317

The bride’s mother and I lit the candles that would later be used by the bride and groom to light the unity candle.  I loved the symbolism of it all.   We held hands as we walked to and from the altar…two families united by the love of our children.

As the bridesmaids and groomsmen made their way down the aisle, I watched my son’s face which was full of delight and affection and friendship for them all.  And when his gorgeous bride appeared in the doorway with her dad, his face shone with love and happiness.  It was so perfect I could barely breathe.

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The groom’s sister, my daughter, sang beautifully during the ceremony…and there was the poignant moment when she looked over at her brother and her voice broke as she was overcome with emotion.

Ryan & Paige 150

One of the many things I will keep is the picture of my son and his bride driving off in the convertible with Budweiser beer cans trailing along behind and all of the wedding guests waving and cheering from the steps of the church.

When my husband and I got into our car to head to the reception, I saw I had two messages on my phone.  The life of a dear friend in Texas had ended while we were in the church celebrating the beginning of my son and his wife’s new life together.

My friend was too young…she had just turned 60…and had fallen down some steps.  She was vibrant and beautiful and full of life.  For those of you who read my blog, yes, she is the one I said “happy birthday” to last week.  I still can’t believe it.

The day was one of joy, of promise of a new future, and of reconnection with family and friends.  I shed tears of joy for my son and his lovely wife and for the beginning of their new life together.  I shed tears of sadness at the loss of my friend.  How could a day hold so much happiness and still have room for sadness too?

Ryan & Paige 180

Paige and Ryan Sever

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

 Ryan's wedding 453


And On the Subject of Birthdays…

Our country just celebrated its birthday and in less than a month, I will celebrate mine.  We all have one, and usually we celebrate the anniversary of our birth with a birthday cake and (hopefully) some presents and happy wishes from those who love and care for us.

People lived without a calendar for thousands of years so it was difficult to keep track of time, let alone to celebrate birthdays.  Around 45 B.C. Julius Caesar introduced the Julian calendar and it was after this that the more well-known people such as saints, nobles, generals, and national heroes, began to celebrate their birthdays.  Later, common folk began to celebrate first their saint’s feast days and then their birthdays.


This young man’s birthday is June 23rd

In the United States, public birth records show that birthdays are fairly evenly distributed thoughout the year with the most common birthdays being October 5th and 6th.  The most births in our country occur in the months of September and October.  The reason for this may well be that nine months before were the longest and coldest days of the year, and the Christmas, Hanukah and New Year’s Holidays…the season of lots of snuggling.

The tradition of the birthday cake goes back as early as ancient Greece and classical Roman times when flat rounds or cakes were sometimes served on birthdays.  These cakes were actually a version of the bread of the day but sweetened with honey.  In the 15th century, bakeries in Germany began selling one layer cakes for their customer’s birthdays.  During the 17th century, the birthday cake began to take on its more contemporary form, but was still mainly available only to the wealthy.  I for one am happy to live in a time when everyone can have birthday cake (and ice cream) on their big day!

Lighting candles on the birthday cake also goes back to the early Greeks who put candles on the cakes to make them glow since early cakes were always round like the full moon.  It was thought that the smoke from the blown out birthday candles would carry wishes and prayers to God.  In modern times, it is believed that blowing out all the candles on a birthday cake in one breath will make your silent wish come true.  If you don’t blow them all out, the number of candles left burning on your cake tells how many years it will be until you get your wish!

Morgan's 21st bday

In earlier times, there was an interesting custom on one’s first birthday.  A piece of bread, a Bible, and a coin were placed in front of the baby.  What he or she reached for first indicated whether he or she would be healthy, wealthy or wise.

A person’s Golden Birthday is the birthday when they turn the age of their birth date.  My daughter was born on the 24th of the month, so she will have her Golden Birthday in four more years when she turns 24.  Other nicknames for this Golden Birthday are Grand Birthday, Lucky Birthday, Star Birthday and Champagne Birthday.

Some people like to celebrate their half birthdays, especially if their birthday falls on or near a major holiday such as Christmas and gets lost in the other celebration.  One of my sons has a January 6th birthday and is a good candidate for a half birthday celebration.

The “Happy Birthday” song melody came from a song written in 1893 by sisters Patty and Mildred Hill called “Good Morning to All” but it did not appear in print as a birthday song until 1912.  According to the Guinness Book of World Records, “Happy Birthday to You” is the most recognized song in the English language and has been translated into at least 18 other languages.

United States citizens who are 70 and older and a veteran, or anyone 80 and older, can get a birthday card from the White House that is signed by the president.  Requests must be mailed six weeks in advance to:

The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D. C.  20500

Include the name and address of the birthday person, the exact date of their birthday, their age, and the name and daytime phone number of the person making the request.

And on the subject of birthdays, a dear friend of mine had her 60th (diamond) birthday this week.  You know who you are.  Happy Birthday!

Campus Theatre and Birthday articles 005

Happy Birthday America!

When my children were small, I used to take them to a small town near where we lived in Michigan to see the annual 4th of July parade.  It wasn’t on the grand scale of the National Independence Day Parade in Washington D. C., but it was a fun celebration of the real meaning of the holiday just the same.

There were bands playing, veteran’s units marching, floats decorated in red, white, and blue with people throwing candy to the children, people on horses, local celebrities, and a whole lot of flag waving.  Usually Uncle Sam would make an appearance too.

Because it was in a rural agricultural area, there were quite a few tractors and one of my sons renamed it the “tractor parade”.  But every year, we went to be a part of the pomp and circumstance of the day.

This July 4th will be our country’s 238th celebration of the birth of American independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain…it’s our country’s birthday.

Back in 1776, there were just the 13 original colonies which numbered 2.5 million people…Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts Bay, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

The governing body of these 13 colonies was the Second Continental Congress and the president of the Second Continental Congress was a man named John Hancock.  As you know, Mr. Hancock is famous for his fancy signing of the Declaration of Independence that made “John Hancock” a synonym for signature.

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I’m proud to tell you that an American author had a great influence on the people of the colonies before our declaration of independence.  Thomas Paine, who was also a political activist and philosopher, wrote a little pamphlet called “Common Sense”and published it in January of 1776.

In his best-selling 48 page pamphlet, Mr. Paine challenged the authority of the British Government and talked in plain language about the advantages and need for immediate independence.  He used Biblical references to make his case for seeking independence from British rule.

Independence from Britain was the hottest issue of the day and in addition to selling thousands of copies, “Common Sense” was read at taverns and public gatherings.  It is said that George Washington even read it to his troops.

George Washington

In June of 1776, a delegate from Virginia, Richard Henry Lee, introduced a motion calling for the colonies’ independence.  There was heated debate on the subject by the Second Continental Congress, and then a five-man committee was created to draft a formal resolution for independence from British rule.

These five men were John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia.  Together they created a general outline and then Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Declaration of Independence 004

That first July celebration of independence was a bit different from the ones we have today with picnics, parades and fireworks.  Mock funerals for King George III were held to symbolize the end of the monarchy’s power over America, and colonists also celebrated with bonfires, concerts, and public readings of the Declaration of Independence.

However you celebrate with your loved ones this Friday, please remember that we have the freedoms we do in this country because of the vision, leadership, patriotism and sacrifice of our forefathers.