Tag Archive | Death

Celebrating Animals at Easter

Garden - Lucky grave 2This Easter Sunday, daffodils are blooming in the back yard where we buried our golden retriever Lucky in early autumn a few years ago. I planted his grave with daffodils, crocuses and hyacinths, and a couple of years later, we buried our cat Beep beside him. A decade or two from now, we’ll probably have to leave this home for something more age-appropriate, unless of course we’re carried out feet first, but before then, chances are we’ll bury another pet or two beside them.

In any case, the spring flowers will probably flourish long after we’re gone. After this year’s brutal winter, they’re a bit scraggly, but they’re more robust than the other spring bulbs I’ve planted in our yard. I’m sure the nutrients Lucky and Beep have given back to the earth play a major role in sustaining them. For me, the cycle of life, and especially the way nature renews itself this time of year, is what Easter’s all about.

In our modern society, we seldom experience death first-hand, except of course for our own, but animals help ground us in the reality of mortality. I’ve been with beloved dogs and cats when they died, some at home, some at the vet’s, where they met a far more humane and gentle death than most of us can look forward to. I’ve grieved and mourned for them, even sunk into clinical depression over their loss.

Yet sooner or later I’ve welcomed other pets into my home and heart, and dared to love them even though I know that chances are



they’ll leave this world before I do. Lucky and Beep are gone, along with other beloved dogs and cats, but now we share our home with Sirius, a chow-Australian shepherd mix, and Lunesta, a beautiful tabby with orange patches modulating her stripes. Many studies have shown people with pets live longer, and this Easter I’m praying for a good long life for everyone in my family – people and animals alike.

Less beloved critters can teach us about mortality too. On Good Friday my daughter reported that my eight-year-old granddaughter Jasper watched one of their cats kill a mouse, slowly and with relish. Jasper composed a memorial tribute, which Stacey posted on Facebook: “Fred was a brave mouse. He survived many things – until he died.” She then buried him in a shoe box in their back yard, with no one else watching – “Eleanor Rigby style,” as Stacey put it.

The next day, Stacey mentioned seeing signs that there might be other mice in the house. Jasper’s response: “Then we’d better go shopping and buy a lot of shoes.”

On that happy note, I’ll sign off and wish you a joyful Easter, however you choose to celebrate it. Lacking any traditional rituals, I’m going to pour myself a glass of wine, take it out to the garden, play in the dirt and see which perennials have resurrected themselves after the seemingly endless winter.

Lunesta with mice

Lunesta with mice



In Memoriam: Barbara Little Horse (1934-2012)

Barbara Little HorseIt’s deeply distressing when a close friend and contemporary dies, and perhaps even more distressing when you learn of the death online and never get the chance to say goodbye.

I’ve been  mourning a death that hits me particularly hard. Barbara Little Horse, one of my closest friends from New York City, died last summer, but I only learned of her death last week. On March 12, Facebook said it was her birthday, so I sent her a message, then decided to check out her page, since we’d been out of touch for a while. There I found a birthday message from her sister saying how much she missed her, reading ominously like one of those In Memoriam messages that follow the obituaries.  

I sent the sister, Judith Baller-Fabian, a query and while I waited for an answer, I Googled Barbara’s name. I found professional contact information related to her career as a psychotherapist, and even the abstract of a research study – probably the dissertation for the Ph.D. she earned when she was well into middle-age – titled “Psychoanalytic Aspects of Charismatic Charm.” But only when I did a search for “Barbara Little Horse death” did I come across a paid death notice from the New York Times stating she had died on July 22, 2013, “after a brief illness.” Judi later wrote back, telling me Barbara died of a “very aggressive lung cancer that her doctor believed was caused by her working so close to Ground Zero.”

I’d love to read Barbara’s study on “Charismatic Charm.” The phrase perfectly describes my friend, who embraced life with enthusiasm and verve. She was born in 1934, and according to her obituary, “Until her death she was a strong swimmer and avid wind surfer as well as a frequent participant at Cajun and Zydeco dance festivals.”

I vividly remember the night we met, because I’d come dangerously close to suicide. The year was 1970, and I got unusually high on marijuana, something that rarely happened because I’m a nonsmoker and have never liked to inhale. I’d been smoking with a studly young artist/carpenter in my fifth-floor SoHo loft, and after he left, I felt strangely drawn to the rear windows and barely fought off a sudden impulse to hurl myself down to the courtyard below.

Fortunately I came down safely, in body and in mind. I descended the stairs to street level, began walking, and the impulse passed. By purest serendipity, I had a destination: the very first meeting of my new Redstockings consciousness raising group, in a Greenwich Village apartment. These were the early days of the feminist resurgence, and after the excesses of the Sixties, the group was a true lifesaver. But perhaps meeting Barbara Little Horse was the best, most enduring thing about it.

The Redstockings were radical feminists, and our group spent many hours dissecting our relationships with the male chauvinist pigs in our lives, past and present. Barbara and I were both between relationships, both previously married. (She had three children with her first husband; her second, a Native American biker, gave her the exotic last name she continued to use thereafter.) Though we may have dissed men in our meetings, we by no means gave up on them, but feminism encouraged us to build strong relationships with women rather than viewing them primarily as rivals in the hunt for the masculine other. 

Together we crashed countless parties. I dragged her to rock concerts and jazz clubs; she turned me on to Waylon Jennings, whose macho outlaw image reminded her of her Indian ex, and whom we heard at The Bottom Line. I swam with her at the YMCA and we shared countless dinners in the Italian restaurants near her walk-up apartment just south of Washington Square. One of those nights, she introduced me to a new and unfamiliar dessert called tiramisu. All those times we spent together were brightened by Barbara’s enthusiasm and laughter.

In 1975, I married and gave birth to a daughter, but Barbara and I stayed close. We both moved on in our professional lives, acquired graduate degrees in human services. When my husband and I traded our Prince Street loft for a house in the woods near New Paltz, she came to visit, and she loved cross-country skiing at the Mohonk Preserve with its glorious panoramic views.  

Barbara Little Horse sailingAs time went on, she traveled the world. She was especially excited about her trips to Maui – or was it Fiji? – to study with Tony Robbins. But to the end, she kept her Manhattan pied-a-terre, the little rent-controlled walk-up on Thompson Street in the Village. When I visited the city, I sometimes camped out on the sofa bed in her living room, with her Abyssinian cat watching over me. Gradually, those visits tapered off. Occasionally we touched base on line, but I never knew she was ill – not until I read her sister’s message on Facebook.

I’ll be 72 in July, and Barbara was seven years my senior, but I think of her as my contemporary, and I wonder how many other old friends have passed on without my knowledge. Now and then I’ve Googled some of their names, but many leave only the faintest of footprints online. Should I type the word “death” into my searches? No, not yet – the death of Barbara Little Horse is more than enough to cope with. But writing about her has brought her vividly back, and she’ll always remain forever young in my memories.     




Planning affordable funerals – difficult topic, worthwhile cause

Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich

Today I’m donning a different hat and adopting a different persona – that of Administrator for the Memorial Society of the Hudson-Mohawk Region, Inc. We’re an affiliate of the national Funeral Consumers Alliance, the leading advocacy organization for consumers of funeral services – and sooner or later, this means everybody. Death and funeral arrangements aren’t at the top of people’s to-do lists. Accordingly, many of us fail to plan adequately, and when death strikes unexpectedly, the sudden stress leads us to spend far more than necessary.

This summer, America’s reluctance to confront the difficult topics of death and dying has been front and center in the vehement attacks on proposed health care reform. The notion of funding consultations between physicians and their patients about end-of-life issues has triggered mass hysteria with talk of death panels and pulling the plug on grandma. Discussion of funerals and after-death services is apt to provoke even greater avoidance and denial.

Also this summer, our society has wallowed in the media overload surrounding two high profile deaths, memorial services and funerals – those of Michael Jackson and Ted Kennedy. Like millions of others, I was riveted by the television coverage, first of Jackson’s moving memorial service with its magnificent musical performances and orations, and then by the somber and dignified services for Kenndy in a rain-swept Boston church and then at Arlington National Cemetery. Both events were lavish affairs, and we were treated to endless views of the splendid coffins – gold, in Jackson’s case – the floral tributes, and the black limos in the funeral corteges.

Few Americans have that kind of fortune to spend. Many want simple but dignified funerals, but they’re often too embarrassed or ill-informed to ask for them. I’ve spoken at many senior centers and residences, including some for people on Medicaid with very limited incomes, and most people there expect to pay a minimum of five or six thousand dollars for an average funeral. Often that’s been the going rate for their friends and relatives, so they assume that’s what they’ll have to spend, when in fact a dignified funeral and burial can cost thousands less.

 Helping people become informed funeral consumers and educating them about their options are major goals of the Memorial Society. We also contract with funeral homes throughout the Capital District to offer affordable rates to our members. Although we’ve been in existence since 1964 and have a membership of over 1,000, we’re still a well kept secret. I’m planning to help change that by spreading the word online. Within a month, I plan to have a Memorial Society blog up and running. I think I’ll use the same WordPress theme I’m using here – the bridge over the autumnal stream is as apropos for a funeral consumers organization as it is for my mystery novels.

I became Administrator for this non-profit, non-denominational organization several years ago at the invitation of then-President Therese Broderick, a fine poet who comments here occasionally. At the time I was looking for a little part-time job to help pad my retirement income a bit, but I found much more than that. How much more, I’ll describe in my next post, when I write about how the Memorial Society helped us cope with an unexpected death in our own family.

To learn more about the Memorial Society, go to www.funerals.org/affiliates/albany.htm or e-mail me at memsoc1@nycap.rr.com.  

The Funeral Consumers Alliance website, www.funerals.org, is a wonderful resource for information on funeral issues. For those not in the Albany area, it also includes a directory of affiliates nationwide and in Canada.

A morning service: death and disclosure

My next-door neighbor Mary died Tuesday night at the age of 89, and this morning I attended her service at the Catholic church where she was a longtime member. Officially, the service was called a “Liturgy of Christian Death and Burial,” and I haven’t attended one like it before. Many words of comfort were spoken, and it made me wish I were a true believer. (I’m a Unitarian Universalist, and our beliefs, such as they are, aren’t nearly so reassuring.)

I’ve watched Mary slide downhill over the past couple of years. Her daughter Wendy has been her live-in caregiver, and she’s kept me and my husband up to date on the many changes in Mary’s health – the operations and procedures, whether and how they worked, the trips to the hospital, the transfer to a nursing home, then home again. Ultimately, she died in a hospital – they’d been going to move her to a Hospice, but she was too weak to withstand the transfer.

Looking out our windows, seeing the ambulance in Mary’s driveway yet one more time, I’ve often wondered whether I would want to hang on under the same compromised circumstances, but who’s to say? I won’t know till I get there, and I hope that’s at least a couple of decades away. These are the kinds of questions I address in my mystery novel Eldercide, which revolves around a home health care agency, its staff and clients. But it feels highly inappropriate to discuss my book now, in the wake of Mary’s death. I’ll save that for another day.

Today’s experiences raised some thorny questions for me as a writer. Sitting alone during the service, I took voluminous notes, and eventually they may find their way into my fiction, but it’s still far too early. And how much to share online? I considered posting Mary’s full name and part of her obituary, but I didn’t feel I had the right, not without her family’s consent, although they probably would have been pleased. Mary lived a full and fruitful life, with five children and eight grandchildren.  Shortly before Mary died, Wendy told her how lucky she was to have had Mary as a mother, and Mary said, “No, I’m the lucky one, to have had you.”

Etan Patz wasn’t so lucky. Thirty years ago, the six-year-old boy disappeared from his SoHo loft, and the tragic case will be revisited tonight at 10:00 p.m. on ABC’s 20/20. I have a special interest in the program: we lived in the same coop loft complex as the Patz family, and our daughter was in the daycare program run by Etan’s mother Julie. I suspect I’ll be posting more about Etan tomorrow.

The shadow side of nature

Today’s Memorial Day, a natural time for musings on mortality and the shadow side of our lives and the world around us.

Late yesterday afternoon I dragged my garden hose to the back yard for yet another session of watering. (It’s been abnormally dry here in upstate New York.) When I got to the viburnum I planted seven years ago, I was shocked to find practically all its leaves had turned to sheer, lacy skeletons. A mild breeze was blowing some of them off the branches. Looking up at the few relatively intact leaves and pitiful white flowers that remained, I noticed shadowy black forms. Something dropped onto my bare arm. I examined the squirming culprit – a tiny caterpillar-like creature, about a third of an inch long.

Three days ago, the viburnum, now over eight feet tall, was in flower and flourishing – or so I believed. But all the while, this creature and its thousands of brethren were coming alive, unseen beneath the leaves. Perhaps they’d wintered over. They’re not tent caterpillars – those are larger and much more obvious. I’ll do the mandatory Google research and get the facts: What is this nasty creature, and what can I do about it? I’ve never seen it before; could this have something to do with climate change? Can this beautiful shrub be saved, or is it already too late? Would radical pruning help?

In previous waterings, I’d been ignoring the viburnum and concentrating on the smaller perennials and the new plantings, but now I set the hose on soak and draped it low in the branches to give the shrub a good long drink. Then I helped my husband move a 300-pound slab of snowy white Vermont marble to the edge of the front yard near the road, where the garden ends. (He used to be into stone sculpture, and we still have a few beautiful slabs around. They’re a little reminiscent of gravestones, and that’s probably what much of the marble was quarried for.)

Our neighbor Wendy came along to help maneuver the stone into place. Just back from visiting her 89-year-old mother in the hospital, she told us they’d stopped all aggressive measures and started a morphine drip. Wendy’s strong, and she loves physical yard work. Maybe wrestling with that slab of marble was just what she needed at that moment.

Oh, and there are small black birds nesting in the corner of our eaves outside the bedroom. We can hear them chirping all day, beginning at dawn. But it’s not too bad – my husband and I both have severe tinnitus, and the chirping blends right in. The birds drive our cats crazy, but that’s another story . . .

A beautiful shrub under lethal attack, funereal white marble, black birds in the eaves, an old woman near death – you might think I’d be depressed. But threading all the images together, dark and shadowy as they may be, fills me with elation. Guess that’s why I write mysteries!

Tomorrow, tune in for more on the shadow side of life, with nods to Carl Jung and Sue Grafton.