Chapter 16: Pity

Three days after Ellen’s death I found myself, or at least the wispy remnants, floating around Italy on a class trip that had been scheduled for over a year.  In the weeks before my departure date we all hoped God would hurry up, already…

What if she dies while I’m gone?  Do I stay home?  Do I ask God to take her ASAP because I want gelatto?  

On May 24th, 2004 I suit up in my school uniform.  Ellen’s stench worsens, she hasn’t eaten in days, and the gray darkens with each hour she lies unconscious.  I peek in to whisper good-bye before loading Fiona and Sean in the van.  My sister is naked except for the diaper and the green knit lovey that wrapped her newborn body fourteen years earlier.

It’s threads now, just strings held together with time and love and a few stitches.

I don’t want to write these words.

Gail, my office lady Mama, pages the three of us who are not dying to the front office shortly before dismissal. 2:30ish?  We wait for Mama to come take us to our sister’s deathbed.

“It’s happening.”  My mom says.  She is equal parts frantic and calm, like the ocean or a fire.

We rush into the back room where both dads, a nurse, and some other blurry faces wait for the kiddos and me.  I think the blurry people leave?  Some return later to whisk us away while Ellen’s body is removed in a black bag.

The hospice nurse shuffles out, too.  Any robot parts have been removed for the occasion and we cry.  Her breathing shallows and she turns a murkier shade of gray.  Is she cold?  She’s just got Lovey covering her.  She can’t be cold, she isn’t here, remember?  She is in the stars.

By 3:40pm people start feeling overwhelmed by the roaring and the smell and the death; we take turns walking in circles around the house.  Around 4pm I am in the room with Mama, I think Fi was in there too.  We are brave puddles, keeping watch, making sure she isn’t alone when Jesus comes to take her.

I remember piles of used tissues on the carpet, but I kept mine in the pocket of my white collared shirt.

A loud exhale.

“You guys, get in here!”  We yell.

Another deep rattle.  We know what comes next, and we are together—stitched to one another with time and love.

One more exhale, longer and cemented to eternity this time.  In the corner of the room I see a light hover above us.  Does anyone else see this?  What is happening?  It tells me to check her eyes.

My tears cascade onto her puffy facial features as I lean over to see if my sister is dead, finally, after ten years.  Because I have a thing with dead bodies I hesitate, but lifting up her eyelid confirms it.

“She’s dead you guys!  Her eyes are dead!” I scream.

Hospice warned us about what happens next.

We washed her body after removing the threads and the diaper.  But people would arrive soon to wheel her body away, and the image of a body bag can really fuck a family up.

“The children should leave.  Everyone should avoid it, but especially the kids.”

Mrs. Dimas, my sixth grade teacher and close family friend swooped in and flew me to Mt. Boney, a rocky mass with meadowed trails that sits at the edge of the Pacific.  It’s a five minute drive from the house.  Where are the little kids?  Who took them?  I don’t know where the babies are…  We walk to the bench at the trailhead.  God designed heaven after watching May explode in these mountains and meadows.

Can you smell the tall grass?  Wet and plump and slimy, like land algae.  What about the velvety sage and damp sea salt?  I can.

The sunset slips through the slivers of my puffy eyelids.  What do we talk about?  Do we even speak?  I wonder when it’s safe to go home?  What will the house feel like without her body there?  Where is she?  Is it safe?  What does her new Home feel like?

I miss her and it’s only been two hours.

When we get home I sneak a pill bottle of hers and toss out the leftover meds.  I hide the damp tissues from inside my pocket into the little orange plastic urn.

It is finished.


A week later I stand in front of La Pieta in the Sistine Chapel.  Have you seen this piece of marbled love?  Mary sits, robed to the max, holding a freshly-crucified Christ.

The thick crowd can’t keep my heart magnet from walking closer to the details of this grief, this death.

I know her.  I know how that feels.

My mom, my poor parents.  They feel like her, too.

What just happened?

And then I crumple to the floor, weeping bitter Mary tears in front of hundreds of people, but it was only She who saw.  Someone had to wipe my hair out of the snot and remind me that security was watching, so Mrs. Horan swoops over to help hold the pieces.

I know what happened here.  Christ took pity on us.  La Pieta.  The Pity.  He isn’t the one to be pitied, He pitied a fearful, forgetful humanity.  Forgive them, for they do not know.  Ellen pitied us, too.  All our anger and doubts and resistance—forgive them Father, they don’t know.

To Jesus and to Ellen, death was mercy.  Their sacrifices, stitched together with time & love and cemented to Eternity, electroshocked their communities.  We still feel the zapping.  Nobody can answer why death and suffering exist, but lots of people can collectively prove that death is never wasted—blood and suffering are never wasted— because of people like Ellen & Jesus.

It’s happening.  Mary and my tears can prove it.

If I had known that viewing Michaelangelo’s masterpiece would induce hyperventilation I might’ve stayed away.  You live you learn.  I rise up because our tour guide has a schedule to keep and my cohort of Christian school attendees start sifting out of the crowd.

No, I am not ready, how can I leave her?  How can I leave him?  They’re the only ones who know.

Later, in Florence on a balcony overlooking a quiet street my friend plays IZ’s song “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” for me, that remix of the Judy Garland classic and Miles Davis’s “What a Wonderful World.”  She had no clue that both those songs hold dear places in the heart Ellen and I shared.

Before iPhones, when Nokias with QWERTY keyboards sufficed, a complicated series of logins and pages prevented me from reaching my dad.  After an hour of frantic button-pushing the fiberoptic cables align and the email skips across a continent or two.

“Here is the song we need to play at her funeral.”

“Yes,” he replied.

Because her talent show performance of Judy Garland’s classic was recorded on his videocamera at Bruin Woods.  And the speakers of his evergreen Jeep Grand Cherokee played “What a Wonderful World” in the parking lot of the Vons, along with Shania Twain and Bette Milder.

Talk about convenient, I got to fly home with my English teacher!

She proof read the eulogy I was to read in a couple days—no corrections, no red marks, just a few tears.  I couldn’t read the words out loud on the stage in front of the hundreds who showed up to receive their electroshock therapy.  Daddy’s ex wife, my ex-stepmom, the one who painted tigger and shared her big family with me read the words on my behalf.

What did people do after they washed Jesus’ body and put him away for good?  I wonder what they felt after He exhaled “It is finished.”  Because for years Ellen’s death was just that, a defeat, a death, a charcoaled patch of earth, a ripped tabernacle curtain and a dark smokey sky.

Did they take a walk to the mountains or the sea?  Did their swollen eyes ever deflate?  Did they save the tear-soaked linen scraps?  Did they rage and swear on their skin and in their heads?

The story wasn’t finished though, not for them.  Because Love had the last laugh.  And nothing is wasted, that’s the beauty of compost.

Ellen’s story was never wasted, because I never stopped telling it.

Jesus’ story was never wasted, because we’ll never stop telling it.

Eternity is stitched and cemented to our hearts through the power of Goodhardgood Stories.  Don’t stop telling them, don’t stop listening for the Light that’s always hovering in the corners of your heart.  We are not alone & we never will be. Thanks God.

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Chapter 15: Love, Sortof

To my daughters:

Hi Kittens.

I don’t have the time or the word count to waste, so here it goes.  This world is going to try very hard to get you to believe that God didn’t create you whole, it’s my job to help teach you to call “bullshit!”  Here are few theories I’ve field tested for you, I hope they spare you some of the UTIs, pregnancy scares, and broken marriage vows.

Sex does not equal power, or love.

For me, physical intimacy was a game, and the prize of winning (or losing) the match felt as real as the first fifteen minutes after an oxy dose.  You’re a Little Christ, you’re divine; power already pulses through every cell and membrane in your beautiful bodies.  Tender touches feel nice, but I dare you to find something as electrifying as True Love.

You don’t need a back-up plan.

For young girls whose fathers failed them, this one will mean more.  Your father hasn’t left you so it may not resonate.  Still, it’s a good one.  You can use it in your best friend’s room in college when shit hits your fans.  No number of men waiting in the hallway will help ease the hurt of the one you dismissed.

The sting of a lover leaving will never ache more than the pain of losing yourself, so stay near to her.  I will teach you how to do this as you grow.  It involves lots of journaling Truths and Joys, yoga, prayer/meditation, dancing, and “failure.”

You are wanted.

You are wanted.  You are wanted.  I pray that Daddy and I have shown you this.  I hope that, in our desire to raise loving humans, we don’t accidentally raise ashamed & insecure humans.  It’s hard sometimes, when all four of you kids are insulting my vegetarian bolognese in varied choral arrangements at the dinner table.  But even then, I want you there with us.  Mostly.  Love you.  Stop yelling.

Do not move in with the man who hurts you (the man you let hurt you).

This may seem logical to you, and if so, then I have succeeded as a parent.  It was not something that occurred to a younger Claire, because the hot chaos felt a lot like the fires in which I was forged.  The insults and rejection sounded truer than the alone-ness.  I pray your fires here at home don’t feel so hot.

Before you cheat on your husband (or wife), call me.

It can be distracting and fun to imagine how life would look with someone who compliments your make-up and opens your door for you, but those fantasies about another man (or woman) are invitations to start showing up in real life—less invitation and more red flag.  Call me, we will run into the pain together.

Secrets will give you cancer.

Or autoimmune diseases, chronic fatigue, pain, and a myriad of diagnosable physical & mental ailments.  That secrets cause cancer has not been proven yet, but my field research and the accounts of my associates has led to some convincing evidence.  I knew a woman whose Lymphoma disappeared after she came out as a lesbian.  I came alive after I completed my fourth step; confessing those last three secrets to Daddy and a few trusted sisters let me exhale for the first time in my life.

I promise you girls, nothing will shock me.

Good love exists.

Good partners exist.  Remember that Good and Hard are the same thing sometimes, most of the time.  Maybe all of the time.  The person, or people, you choose to walk Home beside will nestle into the spot that Goodhardgood-ness can hold.  If it’s only Hard, notice that and decide what happens next.  If it’s only Good, notice that and decide what happens next.  If it’s True and can hold both the Good and the Hard, keep breathing and lace up your hiking boots.

Drink a lot of water.

This doesn’t have much to do with love addiction or calling bullshit, but it’s something I think is very important.

Keep breaking the chain.

You three come from a long line of tall, powerful, seductive (read: wounded) women.  Wars in Europe and abuses in America reinforced the strength of that bondage, but something really exciting is happening.  Your mama doesn’t feel like a slave anymore, and I want to raise up women who call bullshit! instead of want me!  

I pray by the time you are all grown magazines will have stopped publishing lists of sex positions to make your man love you more.  If rage was an effective way to solve social injustices, then the cumulative internal fires of Millennial women will surely engulf the beauty and plastic surgery industries sometime in the next two decades.

You’re welcome.

Pop stars (ahem Salina Gomez and Adele ahem) might have found other topics to indulge than their ever-longing and tumultuous love lives—love addictions.

Maybe each of you is running from something that feels too Hard.  Food helps, so does alcohol and online shopping.  Imagining a life, relationships, and conversations that don’t belong to you can alleviate some of that pain, too.  I won’t lie, it all helps and it will all be redeemed.  Remember?  You can’t fuck it up.

But it hurts more to reject the Hard than to hug it.

Life is just learning how to hug the Hard and make it Good, okay?  Remember your lineage of women?  The lineage of all women?  We will help you, sweet kitty cats.  We belong to you, and you to us, and together, from our wombs and wounds we will all cry out BULLSHIT! until Shalom is un-shattered.

You are not alone, you never have been, you never will be.

Love you,


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Chapter 14: Ash

As Ellen neared the end of her life I made an oath. “When you wear one I wear one,” referring to the diapers she would soon require.  The day came, and it was as horrible as you could imagine.

“I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this,”  she slowly moan-mumbled.

My mom and I held her and cried with her; then we strapped the scratchy, absorbent nightmare onto her graying, atrophied, weary fourteen-year-old body.

I sat squarely in the Fuck You God camp, but Ellen still believed.  Probably more so, because eternity was coming closer and she smelled like death topped with glory shavings.  Her only fear was living away from Mama.

Abruptly, the sobbing stopped.

“Now it’s your turn Claire, oh Claire, oh Claire, oh Claire.”  In an interesting turn of events her voice synthesized into a weepier version of Julia Child’s.  She would get stuck like a skipping CD, moaning “oohhh” in front of certain words.  “Claire” was one of them.

So I stepped into the same nightmare she did, and did my best supermodel impersonations up and down the hall for her, as any 5’10” sixteen-year-old would do. Then a little diaper dance.

Her slow Julia Child laughter barrels down the brightly lit hallway, still.  I can see her bumpy head tilted back in that gray hospital bed.  A human heart never felt bigger than in that moment.  Our tears were transformed.

There’s this picture I took after one of the Malibu fires burned up the hills surrounding my neighborhood—charcoaled soil punctured by sharp green needles of grass.  For a moment the charred ground that brain cancer and impending death left behind suddenly burst alive with love and laughter.

Each cackle and joyful boogery snort punctured the darkness, allowing the solemn scene to morph into a comedy of verdant life and love.

It was here, at this moment, that I decided my Fuck You God stance wasn’t going to serve me so well in the coming month.  I knew I would die in some way, too.  If she trusted Jesus with her bumpy life, maybe I could cling to the same Divine Love that Ellen knew so completely?

Could something be both Good and Hard at the same time?  Can God exist as Good and Hard at the same time?  Do Good and Hard even really exist?  Does anything matter anymore?  Because I’m about to watch my sister die in the back bedroom of my house and I want to pummel the pause button.



Oh Claire oh Claire oh Claire oh Claire.  I can hear it still.

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