On Dying and Funerals

A month ago or so, I watched Guardians of the Galaxy with my kids. The movie opens pretty bleakly, with the main character shown as a young boy in a hospital. His mother is dying of cancer. She sits in a hospital room, bald and frail and surrounded by grieving family. Her son is brought to her, and they have a tearful scene where she asks him to take her outstretched hand. He refuses, and she pleads again.

And then dies, all at once. The heart rate monitor goes monotone, and she’s gone. Here’s the scene. See for yourself:

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Hollywood would show idealized versions of death scenes, but this past weekend was my first real encounter with what an actual death vigil is like. Perhaps it’s different for others. Perhaps there are occasions where Hollywood gets it right.

But it didn’t this time.

Death is incredibly hard and difficult. It involves sleepless nights. Uncertainty. Despair. You go from wanting the person to stay with you and have as much time as possible to being convinced they’re going to pass at any moment. But they don’t. Hours and days go by, and you realize there was so much further to go.

Part of me really wishes this were talked about more. Perhaps it would have prepared me for what was coming. I certainly scoured the internet once I was in the middle of it all. Trying to figure out what to expect and how it would all play out. I get why it isn’t discussed. Death can be frightening enough without people going around saying just how miserable of a process it can be. Even in this post, I’m shying away from really discussing it. Putting it down in written form would be a way of reliving it, and I have no desire to do that again. Even though I know I most likely will at some point in my life.

Actually, the thing it reminded me most of was a birth. How nature is suddenly in complete control, and you wish you could have some sort of an influence over any of it, but you’re just kind of helpless, waiting for things to take their course.

Of course, it’s not over once death has arrived. This trip has been so tough in so many different ways. We arrived Thursday in time for us to say goodbye, and then we were here at the house with our kids Friday, Saturday, and Sunday morning as Laurie passed away. Then there was planning for the viewing and the funeral, and of course the actual events themselves.

I understand why they’re important, but those two meetings just about did me in. I can’t imagine how difficult they were for my father. I’m a person who doesn’t even like going to the barber’s, because I don’t like making small talk with people. The viewing Tuesday night was three and a half hours of standing in a line, shaking hands with people and thanking them for coming and for their support. Then there was another hour before the funeral. If death was like birth, the funeral is definitely like a wedding, only so much sadder.

I’m not trying to complain about any of this. Just trying to wrap my head around everything that’s been happening the last few days. The viewing and the funeral were both lovely. The talks were poignant and inspiring. The burial service touching. But it’s all been so. hard. I was asked to give the family prayer right before the funeral, and I just about lost it during that. But you can’t just break down into a sobbing wreck. At least I can’t.

And of course my children are with us through this all. Tomas and DC are both old enough to know what’s happening. MC still doesn’t really understand why Grandma isn’t coming back, though she’s now worried that she’ll die the next time she gets sick. And she can see everyone else being so sad, and it definitely rubs off on her.

I had hoped there would be a feeling of completion after the funeral. That I’d be able to move on. I’d been able to do that with most of the other funerals I’ve been through. They were times I could visit with loved ones, reminisce on times gone by. But I found out there’s a big difference between attending a viewing as family and attending one as one of the people who were close enough to the departed to mean that you’re standing in the line greeting people.

Some holes are just too deep to be filled so quickly, and some wounds can’t help but leave a scar.

This last week will leave a permanent mark on me and my family. I told Denisa last night that I probably have a fair bit more gray in my beard after yesterday. I hope and pray that I don’t have to go through anything like that again any time soon.

Thank you to everyone who came and all who have offered support, whether in person or on social media. It does help. It’s been so nice to see everyone again. I just wish it were under better circumstances.

And I suppose that’s all I’m going to say about that for now.

Tribute to Laurie

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My step mother passed away yesterday. I’ve mentioned she was dying on Facebook and perhaps tangentially on my blog, but I haven’t really gone into any details, mainly because I haven’t felt like it was my place to go into detail. As anyone who has dealt with cancer will tell you, the path from diagnosis to where we are now was a rocky one. First it was “There’s something that’s not quite right. We need to run some tests.” Then comes the diagnosis itself, then trying to treat it, then discovering it can’t be treated, followed by an estimate on life expectancy. But that estimate is just that: a guess. We’d been told she had months to live, and so we planned a trip to Utah for this June/July.

Two weeks ago, “months” was changed to “weeks.” We planned to leave last Friday to see her. Then the estimate changed from weeks to days, and we moved the trip up a day. We got here in time to say goodbye.

When I made the plane changes, it occurred to me that I’d be writing another tribute post on my blog in the not too distant future. Somehow, that realization made everything much worse. I’ve written tributes for my grandparents as they’ve passed. My Grandma Moore died before I was really into blogging, but Grandpa Moore, Grandpa Cundick, and Grandpa Coltrin each got their post, one by one. I’d write about the memories I had of them, and what they meant to me. The posts have been cathartic in some ways, but they’re incredibly draining to write, for obvious reasons.

Here it goes.

As I’ve thought back over the experiences I’ve had with Laurie over the years, there are just so many to think about. I must have been about ten or so when my dad remarried. (I’m bad with ages in my memories.) They lived in Utah, and I lived on the East Coast, so I’d see them for a month every summer, and then every other Christmas. When I was out at BYU I saw them much more, of course. There’s always been that “step” in her title. Step mom. And every step parent relationship is different, and people have seemed hesitant to know how to react when I’ve mentioned that she’s passing away. “How close were you?” is the question that often comes up.

I’ve explained it like this. Imagine someone who has been in your life for more than twenty-five years. A close friend you’ve talked with regularly. Exchanged presents on birthdays and holidays. A person who’s been a grandparent to your children. Who’s offered love and support and advice. Who watched you grow up. Who helped you move dorms in college. Went with you on family vacations. Cooked you birthday dinners. Flew out to visit you wherever you were living. A person who’s incredibly close with most of your family.

That’s who Laurie was to me.

I remember finding out my father was remarrying. It was a strange concept, just like the divorce had been strange in the first place. I went to the wedding, and I mostly remember it as the time I began my life long love affair with chocolate eclairs. (Seriously. They had a ton of them at the reception, and I think I ate around fifty.) But the wedding was one thing. My siblings and I had flown out for it. We were there, and then we flew off. Things didn’t get real until that summer, when we moved out for a month.

It must have been incredibly difficult for her, though most of that blew over my head at the time. Having three kids show up for a month? Kids she doesn’t really know? Hard stuff. She handled it very well. Here’s a sampling of memories I have of her over the years:

  • When we’d visit in the summer, my father had a house that had two floors, but the lower floor had been sealed off as a rental before he’d bought it. The only way to get between floors was for us to go outside and around the house. He decided to fix that one day. He sawed a hole in the floor, right behind the front door, and built a ladder going between the floors. There was a trap door and everything. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Laurie was less than enthralled with the idea. As a homeowner now, I can’t really blame her. (I wonder if that ladder is still in the house. They moved. What did the later owners think of it?)
  • We would go on trips around the west. Phoenix. Southern Utah. Las Vegas. My father had a Jetta, and my brother and sister and I would pile in the backseat and drive for miles. We had our Gameboys. Laurie was skeptical of those Gameboys for years, it seemed. I remember trying to teach her how great Tetris was. In the end, she came around. Sort of. She’s been an avid Free Cell player for what seems like decades now.
  • Laurie has always been a big fan of discussion topics at the dinner table, or at least when we’ve all been together for Christmas dinner or Easter or the like. I, on the other hand, have not. I think I moaned and complained about those conversations over the years. Now, of course, I try to do the same thing to my kids. Come up with a topic to discuss. I definitely see the value in it, and she’s been the best example of it to me. (That said, I still tend to check out when the discussions go on too long or get too sappy. Some things never change.)
  • She had a sports car when she married my father, and the for the first while, they kept it, even though there wasn’t really enough room in there for the family when we visited. I remember getting into the back window to drive places. I’m sure we were breaking a million traffic rules. I thought it was pretty awesome, though. What other kid got to drive around in the trunk of a sports car?
  • When we were kids, Laurie would send us “candy grams” on holidays. Cards with candy bars on them in place of words. She’s always been incredibly creative.
  • She was also a huge fan of oldies music. I was always impressed that she seemed to know the words to any song that ever played on an oldies station. Seriously. We used to test her. Turn on the radio at a random time. She was able to sing along to the song, every time.
  • I sort of had a rep for being non-emotional. (Probably still do, I guess. I’m not one for tears or breaking down in public, for sure.) Laurie’s father passed away while I was still in high school(?), and years later she found a letter I wrote to either her or her mother (I’m not sure. Memories and me aren’t the best of friends, I suppose.) She commented to me how impressed she was that I’d written it, and how nice and caring it seemed. I’ve always felt bad that I didn’t even remember writing the letter in the first place. Then again, people will often say to me that something I’ve written on the blog touched them or helped them, and I don’t remember writing it. So maybe I just have a crummy memory.
  • When I was moving out of Deseret Towers after my mission, I got a migraine in the middle of the move. Laurie was there helping me schlep boxes up and down from the sixth floor of the dorm. Fun times.
  • We went camping one year, right before Denisa and I took Tomas and moved off to Maine. We were up near Mount Timpanogos, and Tomas was having a great time. Until it started raining caterpillars. They were all in the trees. Tons of them. Whenever the wind would blow, they’d showed down  on your head. Tomas freaked out, each time. We all thought that was pretty amusing.
  • Whenever we would drive up to our family’s cabin in the Wasatch Mountains in Utah, we’d pass through Peoa. She had a Peoa fight song she’d typically sing then. I don’t remember most of it, but I do remember “Our colors are brown, brown, and brown. It’s the best darn school around!” For years I thought that was the actual fight song, and that they were pretty silly to have such a strange song.
  • When Tomas was born, she came over to our apartment to get it “babified.” We had one big room and a bedroom, so we had to somehow turn that big room into a bedroom and a living room. She helped put in a wall of bookcases and a changing area. She was always great at interior decorating.

I could keep rattling off memory after memory, but I have to cut this to a close. It’s been a rough few days. The viewing is tomorrow. The funeral is Wednesday. There’s been a tremendous outpouring of support from family and friends in the area. Banana bread, dinners, snacks, and treats appear like magic, left outside the front door or side door. Laurie was always organizing meals for people in troubled times and constantly reaching out to support others. It’s touching to see so many reach out in return at this time.

I don’t know how to end this post. Writing a final “Goodbye” feels incredibly depressing, so I won’t. I’ll just say I was grateful for all the support and love she showed me and my family over the many years I knew her.

She will be missed.

Hunkering Down

I’m in Utah for the next while. Going offline for the most part for the next few days at least. I’ll explain more in detail later. For now, just know while I’d love to see all of you lovely people, I can’t do it this trip. Not for now, at least.

I’ll post more Monday, perhaps.

Mormons and Older Scouts Split

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has ended its ties with the older Boy Scout program aimed at youth aged 14-18. This is huge news in Mormon circles. I think it will really shock some, disappoint others, and cause some to celebrate. I’ve always been very vocal in my personal views on the matter.

I’m squarely in the celebratory camp.

For my entire life, Scouting has been almost synonymous with the LDS youth program for boys. I was told time and time again that it was an inspired program, and I’ve been pressured (both as a child and as a parent) to participate in Scouting. There are many things I’ve gone along with in the Church, because why not. If I don’t see a particular reason to speak out against something or dig my heels in, my baseline response is, “Sure.”

But Scouting has been something I’ve consistently resisted.

As a boy, I think it was for a variety of reasons. First off, I really don’t like being sent on a guilt trip for silly reasons. We lived about a half hour from the church, and getting over there each week just wasn’t feasible. But each Sunday, I felt self-conscious of that fact. I was active in almost every other way, but I didn’t come to Scouting events, didn’t do much with the Young Men’s program in general. (They were the same thing.)

I don’t think church leaders really thought about what they were doing when they tried to pressure me to go. They thought I’d have fun. They thought that’s what they were supposed to do. Most of the time, it wasn’t out of any ill will. But I hated that. Hated feeling bad about it.

So when it was time for Tomas to possibly start Cub Scouts, Denisa and I gave it a shot. We went once. The pomp and circumstance and ceremonies and oaths really rubbed Denisa the wrong way. Where she grew up in Czechoslovakia, all of that stuff was heavily used by the Communists.

We didn’t go back.

I’ve written about my views on the Church and Scouting two years ago. In my post on the Ordain Women movement, I observed the disparity between the way the Church approached the youth programs for boys and girls. My views on Scouting have always been staunchly against it, from a religious view point. It’s expensive, run by regular people. Having such close ties with a private organization might have made sense in the past, but it made no sense to me in the present.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against Scouting as an organization, just as I have nothing against Little League. But if my kid were pressured to join Little League because “it was the Church’s youth program,” I’d balk. (Did you see what I did there?) Kids can do Karate. Sports. Lego League. Scouting. Whatever they want. And the Church can have its own youth program for boys, just as they do for girls.

Anyway. Can you tell I’m pleased with this development? I can’t even feel too bad for the people who have had such strong views in favor of Scouting, because Scouting will still exist. If they feel it’s great for boys, they can continue to participate. Continue to support it.

I just don’t have to be told any more that God wants me and my son to participate in it too. It hasn’t been phrased quite like that. Not so openly. But that’s always been the undercurrent running beneath it all.

I’m happy it’s done.

The Whispers: Memory Thief Chapter Eight

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Welcome to another chapter annotation, a chance for me to tell readers a bit about the writing process that went into THE MEMORY THIEF. As always, this will have plenty of spoilers, so don’t read it if you haven’t already read the book.

Now we’re finally to the point where it’s all new territory. Chapter Eight was written entirely fresh for later drafts. In fact, it didn’t appear until the fifth draft, after my editor got back to me with her first round of revision notes. (Yes. That means I’d done four drafts of the book before I even sent it to an editor.) In the letter, she noted:

The idea of each person’s mind looking like a different library that reflects that person’s personality is fun and provides for interesting set pieces. One important addition of world building would be increasing the stakes of memory thieving by incorporating a kind of ticking clock that only allows a person to be in someone’s mind for a short amount of time before they are stuck there and go brain dead (or some other potential problem). This would increase the intensity and urgency for every memory-thieving scene that we have with Benji.

Up until this point, the Whispers didn’t even exist. Jordan (my editor) rightly noted that it really had a detriment on the tension of Benji could just dart into a Memory Library whenever he felt like it and be safe. It was a like a giant “Pause” button just hanging over everything, waiting to be used. It also meant that he could really dink around whenever he was in a Library. Take his time. No pressure at all.

Of course, it was up to me to figure out what sort of form that “ticking clock” could take. At first I considered making it just that: a literal limited amount of time a Memory Thief could be in any one Library at a time. Jordan’s suggestion of imminent brain death was definitely appealing as well. But I rejected those ideas for one main reason: I wanted the book to be creepier. During each revision, I did my best to “up the creep” factor and bring the novel more in line with my original concept of Disney Horror. I discovered I don’t naturally do this. I have to really focus on writing scary scenes, and even when I believe I’ve done a good job, when I go back to read it through, it was never scary enough.

A ticking clock might scare someone with a phobia, but at that point, there was nothing visceral about the book. All the conflict was pretty much cerebral. I wanted something people could think about. Actually see. Actually run away from.

The Whispers is what I ended up with.

I’m a Robert Jordan fan, and I’ve read Wheel of Time multiple times through. In that series, there’s a thing called the Black Wind, a terrifying something that first manifests itself as incoherent whispering. I always thought that was high on the creepy scale, and perhaps that’s some of what I drew on for the Whispers. But where Jordan takes them in a different direction, I fused that idea with the shadow demon things we now see in the first book.

I was very pleased with how they turned out. I didn’t know much more about them than the basic idea when I started writing this chapter, and I discovered a whole lot “in scene.” It’s my favorite way of brainstorming.

The Whispers are playing a big role in the sequel at the moment. So many readers had questions about them. They ended up being one of the things that caught people’s interest the most. I’d definitely say they were one of the best late additions to the book, and they’ve given me a whole area to play with as I further explore the world of The Memory Thief. What are the Whispers? Where do they come from? Those are questions that were on my mind as I approached the sequel.

Anyway. That’s all I have time for this week. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more . . .

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