Thursday, August 30, 2012

Christopher Hitchens’ Final Gift

Christopher Hitchens
My friend, Delle, referred to her cancer as ‘the old squatter.’

Christopher Hitchens referred to his as a ‘blind, emotionless alien’. Though his cancer may have been emotionless, Hitchens is anything but in his remarkable final book, Mortality, being released on September 4. Those familiar with his work may be surprised by how vulnerable he is, as he shares his diagnosis of esophageal cancer.

Anyone who has had cancer, or known someone who had cancer, will instantly relate to this book. He’s not shy about documenting the horrors endured by the body in pursuit of a cure, brutally honest about the treatment, the side effects and the emotional toll. You can’t help but cringe as he recounts the agony of a PIC line insertion that should’ve taken ten minutes, but required twelve attempts over two hours.

At the same time, sometimes even on the same page, he’ll make you laugh out loud: “You can die from sheer advice.” He has practical suggestions for an etiquette handbook for residents of both Tumortown and Wellville (hint: stop talking about other people’s cancers).

He freely admits to denial, though it happens less often as time goes on. No fan of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief, Hitchens does describe a long attachment to “bargaining”.

He resists the idea of going to battle, where those diagnosed with cancer are referred to as “warriors”. What if you lose the battle, he asks. Then you’ve failed yourself and those who cheered you on.

In the middle of one of his hospitalizations, he reflects on something we all say off-handedly, but which now means something very different:

“One thing grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to. In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that ‘whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’.”

I remember when he died that I was grateful to have not heard that this famous atheist had made a deathbed conversion. Now I’m doubly glad he kept to his convictions, given the behavior of self-proclaimed religious people upon hearing the news of his cancer diagnosis. The hatred directed towards him was stunning: the insistence that now he was being punished for not believing in God, he was getting ‘what he deserved’. That leads to a discussion about who ‘deserves’ cancer, which will certainly give you pause.

Although Hitchens is genuinely appreciative of the medical personnel who treat him – technicians, doctors, nurses, researchers – late in the book he admits to a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. The reaction is related to an article he’d written for Vanity Fair about waterboarding, in which he describes undergoing the torture himself. Now, he perversely sees how close his medical treatment is to torture.

“Are you feeling any discomfort or distress?” The doctors ask the same questions as the military men who waterboarded him. In his mind, only the intent and inflection separate deliberate torture from sanctioned medical treatment. Knowing they’re trying to help and not hurt you makes all the difference in the world, even when it feels like torture.

Once he gets past the denial, it’s not all sarcasm. Sometimes it’s silly: “Will I outlive my AMEX? My driver’s license?” Sometimes it’s the frightening, lonely realization that everyone with cancer has to accept: “I’m not fighting or battling cancer – it’s fighting me.”

Early in the book, Hitchens admits “My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of my friends.”

I love that that he was grateful for his friends, and the normalcy they could give him. I also love the phrase “year of living dyingly”.

It’s a short read but not an easy one, just over 100 pages, with a forward by Graydon Carter and an afterward by Hitchens’ wife Carol Blue. The final chapter is a collection of random thoughts at the end of his life that will make you sad knowing they will never be fully explained.

It doesn’t matter if you were a fan of Christopher Hitchens while he was alive. But if you want to look into the heart and mind of a man facing a grim diagnosis with uncommon honesty, read this book. It’s that good.

“For me, to remember friendship is to recall those conversations that it seemed a sin to break off: the ones that made the sacrifice of the following day a trivial one."

To order Mortality, click HERE

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Sharing Delle with StoryCorps

Delle Chatman
If you listen to NPR, you’re probably familiar with StoryCorps. They provide the audio recordings of ordinary people talking about their lives: sometimes about a person, sometimes an event.

They’re in Chicago right now and I made an appointment to talk about my friend, Delle Chatman.

I knew I’d have plenty to talk about, but I brought a few things with me, along with a list to jog my memory. I had a weekly bulletin from St. Gertrude’s with her picture on the front; her obituary, written by her brother, Gregory; a mailing from 30 Good Minutes, a local PBS program about religion where she frequently appeared; the note she wrote in the hospital announcing that the cancer was back (I have it because it was my job was to disseminate it to her Yahoo groups). And of course, I brought her scarf, the one I selected at the gathering after her funeral.

I talked about our unlikely friendship and how she made everyone feel like they were her best friend. I recounted conversations and impressions. I believe I spoke with great affection most of the time, though with sadness and anger occasionally.

I was afraid I’d talk too fast, and be done long before my forty minutes were up. But I was still going strong when Erin, my StoryCorps partner, asked one final question:

“What would you say to her now if you could?”

My eyes filled with tears so quickly I had to pull myself together to answer. It was the only time I choked up.

In truth, I talk to Delle often, and at times I hear her voice: coaxing me, prodding me, scolding me, though always with the intent to push me to do better.

But I knew without a doubt what I would say if she were sitting across from me at Metropolis, green tea chai latte in front of her:

“Thank you. Thank you for seeing something in me I didn’t know was there, for pushing me into a new, frightening and exciting career, for directing my life even now. I wouldn’t be who I am today if not for you.”

And thanks to Erin and Leslie at StoryCorps, for allowing me to share the story of my remarkable friend.

For more information on this terrific organization and to learn how you can make a recording, log onto StoryCorps.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

“Did I Live My Life Differently Because of Her?”
You know how it is: something happens to you and you think you’re the first person in the history of mankind to have experienced it. If you’re a Baby Boomer, you probably have that opinion about every single thing that’s ever happened to you.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that my friend, Delle Chatman, is the reason I’m now a writer. As I’ve interviewed people for my books, I’ve met others whose lives changed because of one particular friend who died.

But now and then I forget that, and need to be reminded.

Pam Sherman is a writer and speaker. Her articles appear in the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, as well as on her website Suburban Outlaw.

Recently, she reflected about her friend, Randi, whose sudden death still affects her thirteen years later.

She recounts the ways Randi’s friends rallied around the widower and small children, even as they attended to their own busy lives. Sometimes they would sit at Starbucks and cry:

“We would get together just to be together and deal with our own grief. Friends’ grief. We weren’t at the epicenter of grief like her family. But loss has a seismic effect, and we were definitely feeling the aftershocks.”

But Randi wasn’t one to just sit, so her friends decided to get busy. A Christmas in July party for kids with cancer at Georgetown University Hospital turned into a series of fundraisers that eventually raised more than $100,000 for a room for teenagers at Children’s National Medical Center.

That’s a great tribute from loving friends. But the better tribute, I believe, is in Sherman’s question to herself: “Did I live my life differently because of her?”

Like me, she might never have been a writer. She believes that she is a better wife and mother for appreciating how precious our time on earth can be.


How about you? Did the death of your friend not just affect you short-term, but long-term? Are you a different person because of them?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

When Your Friend Dies: TMI

I learned about the death of film director Tony Scott in a Facebook post from a friend who had worked with him. Since then, details have trickled out about what is now considered a suicide (several notes were found).

It was typical reporting of a celebrity death: “what’s your favorite Tony Scott movie?” Clips from his films were shown on TV and the internet. Reactions from other celebrities were sought.

One persistent rumor – denied by his wife – was that he had recently been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Funny: tumor, rumor. Both should be stopped, don’t you think?

Anyway, it all seemed typical, until this morning. One of the cable news programs reported that onlookers were shopping videos of Scott’s fatal leap off a Los Angeles bridge.

That got my attention.

I’ve always hated when the media plays 911 tapes after a tragedy. Use them in court as evidence, by all means. But I don’t believe the public has either a need or a right to hear dying people in the World Trade Center on 9/11 begging for their lives, or witnesses to the Aurora shootings describing what they see.

I can’t imagine any reputable news service or internet site purchasing videos of Tony Scott’s death. But there are plenty that can and probably will. And if all else fails, there’s always YouTube.

My friend who worked with Scott has probably heard about this by now, but I certainly won’t ask her. Watching someone die in an action movie is one thing. Watching your friend jump to his death is something entirely different.

And right now, I hope there’s a special place in hell for those who are trying to sell those tapes.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

“Passing” by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman
Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is another one of my original Stecchino’s gang, along with Karl Sprague and George Davis. She’s a fabulous screenwriter and teacher (yes, you are). If you don’t follow her blog, Ramblings of a Recovered Insecureaholic, you’re missing something. She has a lot to say, and she says it better than most of us ever will.

Not long ago, Jeanne tweeted that her best friend had died suddenly. And true to form, she has written about her friendship. “It’s how I heal,” she said on Facebook, after I shared her post.

There are people who come into our lives for a very specific reason. It’s as if they were angels sent on a mission, and when they’ve accomplished it, they move on. So it was with Jeanne and Tom.

To meet Jeanne you would never see her insecurities. You see a generous, talented woman who does not suffer fools gladly, but will help a stranger gain confidence in their writing (yes, you did). You see a woman who can be the life of the party, or an impassioned advocate for a film project (Slavery by Another Name) that shakes her to her core. We share tweets about our fabulous teenage daughters, our goal to hire a cabana boy, and spying on people when we write at Panera.

But as is so often the case, especially with very talented artists, she felt insecure. Cue entrance: Tom walks into her life, and her life was never the same.

Jeanne recounts a long lists of things she learned from him, some silly (“the secret to caramelized onions”), some profound (“to be open to love”).

But the most important gift Tom gave me was when he called me on my self-destructive behavior and helped me find what he called “the real Jeanne.”

The best friends are also the most annoying. They don’t tolerate our stupid excuses and Olympic-level denials. They know what we’re capable of and they want to see it. So they can be a little, well, pushy. They’re our friends for the long-haul and don’t want to hear us whining about the things we should’ve done. I know. I have a couple just like that.

It’s not only an Army recruiting slogan, these words from the last email Tom sent to Jeanne the morning he died. It’s how we define the most special friendships we have, what we wish for them always:

“Be all you can be.”

I think you’ll enjoy meeting Jeanne, and through her, Tom. And learn how a friendship has the power to turn our lives around and inspire us every day:


(PS - Jeannie, I'm with you on the toothpaste.)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Online Support for Grieving Your Friend

A couple years ago I researched online grief support groups for those who have lost a friend. It was not a fruitful search.

Many sites – and they’re wonderful, don’t get me wrong – are specific to certain situations. There are online support groups for grieving a parent, sibling, spouse, child, pet. Some are general grief sites that have chat rooms for specific types of grief.

There are sites for those who grieve a family member who died on 9/11 or committed suicide.

There are online groups that are more general, concentrating on the commonalities of our grief.

And like I said, they’re very good.

I made a conscious decision when I started Friend Grief that it would not be an online grief support site in the traditional way. I’m not a therapist or psychologist or member of the clergy. I have no credentials, in that sense. This blog is for people to learn and share, without getting a diagnosis (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Grief support groups can be found in most communities, at hospitals, hospices and places of worship. But not everyone wants to sit in a group, or even sit alone with a therapist. Some people would just like to be able to connect with others online.

For those of you who do want that professional moderator online, there are some resources out there. Two of them are and the Hospice of the Valley. You’ll find links and more information about them on the Resources page.

If you know of an online grief support group specifically for friends, please let me know and I’ll add them here.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Friend Grief in 140 Characters (2 of 2)
“Have you ever seen a funeral procession go past and felt the urge to shout abuse? Perhaps something mild such as ‘I’ve never heard of him!’ or ‘He was rubbish!’. No, me either.

In June, Shane Richmond, Head of (Editorial) Technology for The Telegraph, called for civility on Twitter when it comes to grieving.

 We may not hear about a close friend’s death on Twitter, but if we spend any time in the Twitterverse we’ll definitely see breaking news about the death of someone in the public eye: Amy Winehouse, Gore Vidal, Adam Yauch, Nora Ephron: we probably never met them, and may not have known their work. But the news went out on Twitter for the world to see.

I’m convinced something happens to people when they feel compelled to comment on the internet. Maybe it’s temporary insanity, maybe it’s an inflated sense of self-importance. Maybe they’re unable to think before they type.

But if you read the comments on a blog or Facebook page, or follow a hashtag on Twitter, sooner or later you’ll read something that makes you think “who are these people?”

Beyond simply disseminating the news, some people feel the need to weigh in on the death of a celebrity. That’s their right.

Often, though, the comments go beyond their own feelings about the person who died. For whatever reason, they’re not sorry that person died, and they feel compelled to criticize those who do.

As Richmond says, would you go to a funeral of someone you didn’t like and criticize the mourners for grieving? Sounds unnecessarily cruel, doesn’t it? More likely you’d simply keep your mouth shut or stay away completely.

People don’t do that online. They weigh in on things that have nothing to do with them, expressing opinions that serve no purpose except to hurt someone.

Maybe you’ve done it – with no malice intended. Maybe you’ve commented on a celebrity death in a less than respectful way. Maybe you made a joke, or what you considered a joke.

Well, you know what? Stop it. Imagine if that celebrity was your best friend, and you logged onto Twitter expecting to see tributes. But instead you found hundreds of “who cares if they’re dead?” tweets.

It takes on a different meaning now, doesn’t it?

Next time you’re tempted to type a snarky comment online…stop. And think before you tweet.