Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Running - or Walking - to Remember Your Friend

On Sunday I participated in the Our House “Run for Hope”. I didn’t actually run; I walked 2.7 miles.

Our House is a terrific grief support center in West Los Angeles. Their work with adults and children is important and life-changing. I was glad to support their event, and my friend, Fredda Wasserman, who works for them.

Everyone who walked or ran got a t-shirt. When you registered, you had the option of personalizing your shirt so everyone would know who you were honoring. I opted not to: I couldn’t decide on only one person.

As I walked the route, I made note of why people were there. “I’m running for…” the backs of their t-shirts read, with a name, relationship and photo.

There were lots of families and groups, babies in strollers and one woman in a wheelchair, creating an unusually festive mood for what could’ve been a very somber occasion.

People ran in memory of parents and children, siblings and grandparents (even a couple great-grandparents), aunts and uncles, spouses (and one ex-husband). I didn’t expect to see so many people running for their friends.

I noticed one group in particular. A sign on the route mentioned Ro, and there were maybe a dozen or so who wore her picture on their backs, listed as ‘friend’ or ‘neighbor’. I asked one woman if she worked with Ro. No, she said, a neighbor. But her whole face lit up at the mention of her friend’s name. We are two weeks from the first anniversary of Ro’s death, and I’m sure the timing of the Run for Hope was important to them.

Me? I walked for my friend, Delle, and I walked for my father. I walked for my friends who have died this year, and those who are long gone. Too many to fit on the back of a t-shirt.

Maybe you’re struggling with a way to honor a friend who died. A walk/run on a beautiful Sunday morning is a nice way to remember them. You don’t need a big group with you: your friend will be right at your side.


Monday, April 22, 2013

Friend Grief and AIDS

I always knew that one of the books in the Friend Grief series would address the AIDS epidemic. Like many who lived through those early years, it was something that shaped my life. It was, I believe, close to the experience of being in in a war. At least, that’s how it felt.

I wasn’t sure what my focus would be for the book. There are already many incredible books about AIDS and ACT UP and the Names Project and other aspects of that time. But I quickly realized that the role friends played, especially in the early years, was critical.

We knew we were needed, that we were depended upon to take up the slack for disapproving families and an indifferent government. But writing this book revealed the stark truth that friends were – and still are – responsible for turning the tide. Friends were caregivers, advocates and much, much more. Some famous, most anonymous, all were people whose dedication meant the difference between life and death.

Friend Grief and AIDS: Thirty Years of Burying Our Friends is now available as an ebook. Like the first book in the series, it’s not long. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll find yourself nodding in remembrance. If you’re younger, you may be shocked by what you read, but I guarantee, it’s all true.

AIDS is not over, not by a long shot. The numbers and attitudes may shock you, but don’t let them cause you to turn away. Instead, let them serve as a wake-up call: to renew your efforts to educate and advocate so that a real cure can someday be found. And let it also remind you to keep your friends close.

Here’s an excerpt:

We are a very judgmental society, at least here in the US, and that mindset often permeates even our own families. It wasn’t just the disease itself that led families to turn their backs. It was the added stigma of homosexuality (or prostitution or drug abuse). The diagnosis was considered a reflection on the family, a bad one. So many felt justified in abandoning one of their own.

We are quicker to blame victims of disease than the disease itself. We believe ourselves superior in some way to people who are sick because we judge them to be stupid, weak or morally deficient. We feel especially good about ourselves when we can quote Bible verses or local laws to support our position.

Different diseases carry their own stigma. Diagnosed with lung cancer? Well, you shouldn’t have smoked. Diagnosed with diabetes or heart disease? Well, you should’ve lost weight. Diagnosed with AIDS? Oh, where to begin with the criticism?

As Elinor Burkett put it so eloquently in The Gravest Show on Earth: America in the Age of AIDS, “AIDS never got a chance to be simply a disease.”

This was different, from the start. This was something new and mysterious and terrifying.

And friends made all the difference.

Available now on Kobo, Amazon, IndieBound and Barnes & Noble

Friday, April 19, 2013

Friends in Boston or Elsewhere

Like many people, my plans were derailed Monday by the horrific news coming from the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

I don’t know about you, but when a tragedy like this unfolds, I’m glued to the TV. It’s not that I enjoy seeing the shocking images replayed every few minutes. I just want to understand: what’s going on and why. I can’t ignore it, at least not yet.

Three are dead and well over 100 injured. So far, at least, I don’t know anyone directly affected. But that’s not a lot of consolation. Most people aren’t directly affected. Except they are.

When something unexpected happens, something so jarring, we scramble to explain it. But sometimes answers are slow to come, if at all, and we have to accept that we’ll never know.

Events such as the explosions in Boston – or Oklahoma City or Mumbai or London or on 9/11 – are perpetrated not just for political reasons but to disrupt the calm of our daily lives. The people responsible want to instill fear. And often they succeed.

You may now be hyper-vigilant about your children, or your personal safety. You may update your will. You may make a sudden life change that you’d only been contemplating before, reasoning that life is too short to not do it.

But as many have pointed out – sadly, yet again – human beings tend to carry on. We don’t ignore what happened, but we don’t get stuck in it. We go back to work, back to school, back to our sometimes boring daily routines.

How we remember days like Monday varies. Some people block it out altogether. Others insist it doesn’t affect them, won’t affect them. They won’t make any changes to how they live their lives. “Don’t let the terrorists win.” How many times did we hear that after 9/11?

Honestly, I don’t think the terrorists give a shit.

But I do think a tragedy like Boston may compel you to live your life differently. It probably has already.

Did you call friends in Boston to check on their safety, maybe even people you hadn’t talked to in a long time? Did you log onto Facebook or Twitter to get messages to those you care about?

Did anyone get a good night’s sleep Monday night? How about last night, when news broke about the firefight that killed one suspect and a police officer? I doubt it. But use your exhaustion today. Use it to reach out to your friends. You’ll both be glad you did.


Thursday, April 4, 2013

My Writing Group

In the fall of 2006, a flyer from Swedish Covenant Hospital arrived in the mail. Among the events listed was a class in life story writing. It was just over a year after my father died, and coupled with my being the family genealogist, I decided it was time to start writing down the stories I’d heard all my life.

We were a group of about a dozen or so, mostly women, mostly older. The leader was a retired creative writing teacher from Northwestern University.

Each week we read something we’d written, and the group critiqued it. I’d not had any of my writing critiqued since college, so it was a little unsettling. And at the time, the idea of writing as a career was not a consideration.

I’d already told my friend Delle, whose cancer had recently returned, that I wanted to write a book about people grieving their friends. She thought it was a great idea, but at that point, I put it aside for more pressing issues. She died right after the class ended.

A core group of us decided we wanted to keep meeting. Jo (the instructor), Helene, Birgitta, Alice, Penny and I began a schedule that lasted until last summer: twice a year (during good weather) we’d meet at Penny’s apartment six times over the course of a couple months. Penny was on dialysis three times a week, so we worked around that.

The stories – initially dismissed by the writers as “not important” were fascinating: Birgitta moving to America with her mother, and embarking on a career in the Salvation Army; Alice’s childhood near my old neighborhood in St. Louis, and her life in Chicago; Helen’s participation in a choral group many years ago, and her devotion to animals. Penny’s writing grew the most, as she began writing stories for her family: about her move from the Pacific Northwest to Chicago with her jazz musician husband, and life in a big Greek family.

Over the years, Birgitta moved away and others joined for brief periods of time. But the rest of us stayed together. I missed a few sessions after my concussion, and other sessions were rearranged because of volunteer or travel commitments by various members. Health issues interrupted us, too, not surprising, since they are all at least 20 years older than me.

I’d heard from Alice that Penny’s health was deteriorating. When she called me a couple weeks ago, I knew there was something that couldn’t wait. I sent her a printout of my first book, and the final draft of the second one. And I told her how much her friendship meant to me.

In the first book’s acknowledgements I mention the writing group by name. They, more than any class or conference, influenced and improved my writing. They were supportive, critical, encouraging, when I moved from writing stories about my Dad to what would become the first book in my series. After Delle’s inspiration, I owe them the most.

Last Friday – Good Friday – Alice called to say that Penny died that morning. I was grateful that I hadn’t procrastinated for once. And pleased to hear that Penny was touched to receive the books.

I suspect that this is the end of my writing group. Jo’s health has been shaky. We’d have to find another location, one that (unlike my house) doesn’t require climbing stairs. It could be done, but right now seems unlikely.

Will I seek out another group? I don’t know. It’s too early to tell. I’ll still keep in touch with Jo, Alice and Helene, but it won’t be the same without Penny. In the meantime I’ll have to content myself with the memories of dozens of mornings spent with four remarkable women. They’ve taught me a lot, not just about writing, and they’ll always be in my heart.