Tag Archives: grief

Of Fruits and of Dust

20 Jun

A lot of people’s minds in Duluth will be on a visit from the President today. Given the current political climate, I get that. Mine, however, will be elsewhere.

When I was eight years old, my parents had a second son. He was born on this day in 1998. He died three months after his birth. The cause of death was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome—SIDS—which is a fancy way of saying that all the power of modern medicine hadn’t the slightest clue what went wrong.

I’ve written posts to mark this day every year since I started this blog, and a careful reader will find veiled references to him scattered elsewhere, too. Still, I write this post with some reservation. It’s not a story I share often; I don’t like to be maudlin or dwell too much, nor do I enjoy woe-is-me tales or to seek over-emphasize my sufferings, which, on the whole, are few compared to most people on this earth. But my own story is impossible to understand without his story, and so much of me, from guarded opinions to fatalistic tendencies to a belief in brotherhood and community as my highest ideal, stems from him.

Eight years old is old enough to bear witness to everything that happens, but not really to process grief in a mature way. My coping methods were myriad, from distracting myself with baseball to a restless search for a deity that could make sense of things for me. They sometimes brought momentary peace, but never closure. It took me maybe fifteen years to get over certain triggers of bitterness such as questions over what it’s like to be an only child or even just answering the “do you have any siblings” question. Trauma steeled me, and because it forced me to confront terrible questions head-on, I can perhaps only be truly, intimately comfortable around those who also confront them, in one way or another. Commitment hasn’t come easily because I only commit myself to people or things that can live up to this ideal.

The outpouring of support that followed my brother’s death was overwhelming, and is no small reason why I became such a loyal Duluthian. (Hence my decision to quote this line on this day four years ago.) There are a few stray plaques and markers around Duluth that bear his name, or note donations made in his honor. If you’ve ever seen me in a suit, there’s half a chance I was wearing a lapel pin gifted to me by then-mayor Gary Doty at the funeral, or at least had it tucked away in a pocket, ready at hand. I went back to school the day he died because that was the place I felt most comfortable, and my loyalty to my various alma maters probably has some roots in the unwavering support I found that day.

I remember the events surrounding his death as if they were yesterday, but retain only a few details of his life: the delivery room in St. Luke’s, overlooking his crib with the tune of a musical cow toy tinkling away, meeting him and my mom at a state park up the Shore after my dad took me on my first backpacking trip that summer. And since, there have been vivid glimpses of what could have been, if only in my mind: a hazy summer day atop Blue Mound in Wisconsin, a moment of solitude in Zion, standing at the start line of the half marathon in Duluth. (My brother was born the day of the marathon, and in a spurt of serendipity, the last name of the winner of the race that day was the same as his first). The day that would have been his Duluth East graduation day, and the stray dream here and there. At this point, it all feels like dreams; some conscious, some less so.

My mother and I will spend the evening far from any political happenings in downtown Duluth. This is no retreat, though. A life in the world is built on these ties, in what it means to love people or a place or overcome those moments when all hope or reason seems gone from the world. Without them, we have little to build from, and nothing to pass on.

I close with an Octavio Paz poem, as his words have so often seemed fitting for this day.

“The Simple Life”

Call bread bread and that it appear

on the tablecloth each day;

give to the sweat what it wants and to the dream

and the brief heaven and hell

and the body each minute what they ask for;

smile like the sea smiles, the wind smiles,

without laughter sounding like broken glass;

drink and in drunkenness seize life,

dance the dance without losing a step,

touch the hand of a stranger

on a day of hardness and agony

and that that hand have the firmness

that that of a friend never had;

try solitude without the vinegar

that makes my mouth contort, nor repeat

my grimaces in the mirror, nor the silence

that bristles with teeth that grate:

these four walls – paper, plaster,

thin carpet and yellowing bulb?

are still not the promised hell;

may not that desire hurt me more,

frozen by fear, a cold wound

burned by lips unkissed:

clear water never pauses

and there is fruit that falls once ripe;

know to break the bread and share it,

the bread is a truth common to all of us,

the bread sustains us all,

through its leavening I am a man,

a neighbor among neighbors;

fight for the life of the living,

give life to the living, to life,

And bury the dead and forgotten

as the earth forgets them: in fruit …

and at the moment of my death may I reach

death like men and that to me come

forgiveness and the everlasting life of dust,

of fruits, and of dust.

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Stolen Time

20 Jun

While perusing the sprawling and unwieldy Word document in which I barf out thoughts for blog posts, I stumbled upon an article I’d stashed away for my post on my Georgetown reunion some months ago, but forgot and only now rediscovered. It’s an essay by Joseph Bottum, a 1981 Georgetown grad who has gone on to some prominence as a socially conservative intellectual, and once stole the hands off the clock tower on Georgetown’s Healy Hall. The theft of the clock hands on Healy is a timeless Hoya tradition, and after a period of relative rarity, it happened my senior year.

Bottum floats the thought that he and his co-conspirators were metaphorically trying to stop time, but concludes that they probably weren’t so clever. They were young, he says; they didn’t know what the passage of time meant, not really. I suggest he give his college-age self a little more credit: I titled the photo below “Georgetown Is Timeless” after snapping it back in 2012, and was definitely aiming for a certain symbolism. A 22-year-old is certainly capable of recognizing the march of time, of knowing that things aren’t as they used to be, and high school and college graduations tend to bring out the earnest reflections that stem from a first encounter with farewells, even if we know these are temporary and relatively painless shifts. Bottum’s point, however, is that these early markers of time’s passage mean little when weighed against the heavier ones that come with more final farewells.

HealyHands

For the luckiest among us, any consciousness of human mortality takes its time in rearing its head. Life progresses from one stage to another in smooth transitions. We have this vague sense of when changes are supposed to occur, and life’s failure to conform rips holes in our very conception of time. Bottum drives at this when he talks about how death seems different, depending on one’s age. When people my age die, it’s a shock and a tragedy; when people Bottum’s age die, it’s a bit too soon but an acknowledged possibility; a generation older, it’s no great shock, the natural passage of time. But time’s contours rarely behave in such an easy way, and before long each one of us is tested by something that disrupts this flow, great or small. No moment is more formative, and while I’d wish it on no one, it can also stir forth some of the most admirable human qualities in response.

Early brushes with mortality tend to age us prematurely, but they also distort all the time that came before them. Those preceding moments now seem all too short but linger forever, make one wonder if the way we flow through time, measured in minutes and seconds and hours and all lined up in perfect linear form, doesn’t mistake its true nature. Go deep into quantum physics and it will all break down, yes, but maybe the disconnect registers on a more immediate, deeper level, one that lets certain moments endure for an eternity while so much of our day-to-day lives fades into an unremarkable blur. No matter how long these moments may last on a clock or a calendar, their end will inevitably bring the sense that time has been stolen from us; time we’ll never have back save in the recesses of wandering minds. And so we preserve it there, make sure we never forget, and use it as best we can to form us in who we become.

We don’t need to steal clock hands to rebel against the march of time, but the thieves of Healy Hall do have lessons for us, whether we’re aware of them or not. When we become aware of stolen time we come in tune with far broader forces, and they ground us, make us believe things like the quote I shared on this day three years ago. When we know where we come from and know why it is we want to get to wherever we’re going, we can steal some time back ourselves.

Happy 19th, bro.

Childhood Lost

20 Jun

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

–Robert F. Kennedy, paraphrasing Aeschylus

Happy eighteenth birthday, little bro.

Et in Arcadia Ego

4 Feb

Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.

-Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country

The purity of memory never lasts. Those happiest of moments become tinged by time, whether abruptly or by a slow and steady march. The markers of a carefree youth age away, and the impermanence of all things becomes all too real. Cause for defeat, for fear? No: an added sense of urgency, a realization that every little moment is precious. Reminders that we can build something real; even if it only lasts an instant, we can cherish it for a lifetime. We cannot control history, but we do have at least some control of the narrative that emerges from it. It takes time. But time, just as it can wear things down, brings wisdom, and renews itself in cycles that defy the linear logic we’ve imposed on it. Everything dies and nothing dies, and we are left with neither heaven nor hell but earth, where we belong; here, in all its absurd messiness. It’s a beautiful thing.

Always

20 Jun

001

“oh life to live, life already lived,
time that comes back in a swell of sea,
time that recedes without turning its head,
the past is not past, it is still passing by,
flowing silently into the next vanishing moment”
― Octavio Paz, Piedra del sol

***

Seventeen years since those three short months, and yet those short measures of time do it no justice. Everything that came after is in your shadow. First, haunted; now, renewed in timeless joie de vivre. You are mine, and I am yours.

Happy 17th, bro.

6/20

20 Jun

“A person does not belong to a place until there is someone dead under the ground.” 
― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

*   *   *

          “Brotherhood”

I am a man: little do I last
and the night is enormous.
But I look up:
The stars write.
Unknowing I understand:
I too am written,
and at this very moment
someone spells me out.

           — Octavio Paz

*   *   *

Happy 16th, bro. My debt to you is eternal.

Calm amidst Storms: 10/15/13 School Board Notes and Thoughts on a Suicide at Duluth East

15 Oct

The Duluth School Board convened for its monthly meeting in October on Tuesday night, and went on to have the least contentious meeting since I’ve started covering them. There were very few things of major interest on the agenda, so I’ll just breeze through the summary before offering a few comments on the citizen speakers. Member Seliga-Punyko was absent for a second consecutive meeting; the crowd included a group from Piedmont on hand to receive an award, a bunch of East students watching the meeting for class credit (for whom Member Wasson ran about grabbing and autographing agendas), a smattering of candidates in next month’s election, and the usual suspects. The District took time to thank many groups in and around Piedmont Elementary for a “Set your Student up for Success Night” at the school, and Superintendent Gronseth and at-large candidate Annie Harala celebrated the success of that event and a “Walk to School Day” at Lincoln Park Middle.

The only talk on the Education Committee report related to the results of Duluth schools on their progress as measured by the Department of Education. Member Johnston had a balanced assessment, noting improvements in a number of schools but picking out Stowe as elementary as one that had dropped, and again noting the east-west divide in the city. Superintendent Gronseth, who seemed to be making a concerted pitch for the levies in his comments throughout, emphasized the improvements and said Laura Macarthur’s turnaround was obvious proof that the Administration can get good results if given the resources to do so. Member Kasper echoed his sentiments, and Member Miernicki clarified some of the scores for the public, noting that they were raw numerical scores, not percentages; a “17” did not mean the schools were in the 17th percentile.

As usual, Member Johnston pulled a few things out from the Business Committee report for separate votes, but he kept his critiques concise and didn’t dwell on anything. There was a brief and rather directionless discussion on declining enrollment, and Member Johnston expressed some relief that there were very few change orders on the Long Range Facilities Plan this time around, though he cast his usual protest vote against them. That effectively ended the meeting. If I were in a cynical mood, I could complain about rubber-stamping or wonder if Member Johnston was desperately trying to put on a new, more civil face in the last meeting before the election, but the honest truth is that there just wasn’t much of anything worth debating at this meeting. For that reason, I’m not going to celebrate any newfound civility either; we’ll see if it that holds if more contentious issues come up during the two lame-duck sessions after the election.

This brings me back around to the two critical speakers, who were two very familiar faces at ISD 709 Board meetings: Mr. Loren Martell and Ms. Marcia Stromgren. Their shtick is so exhausted that it doesn’t merit much detail; basically, contra Gronseth, they think the Board’s record does not suggest the District can be trusted with more money. For them, the Board seems to be a monolithic bloc of bogeymen instead of seven individuals who come and go, many of whom are probably persuadable as to where the money should go. Ms. Stromgren offered a very selective reading of Student Member Thibault’s anger over Board incivility at the previous meeting, leading one to wonder if there is anything she cannot spin to fit her worldview.

***

There was a second part to Ms. Stromgren’s remarks that is worth mentioning without a snarky dismissal, however, as she took the District to task over its handling of the recent suicide of a 15-year-old Duluth East student. She blasted the District for covering up the suicide and refusing to talk about the bullying that appears to have caused it, adding several details about this boy’s case. After the meeting, when Harry Welty pressed Ms. Stromgren over some of the extra details she’d shared, she cited a Reader letter to the editor from the boy’s aunt that both Harry and I had read about the suicide. The letter does not include all of the details Ms. Stromgren added, which means she either has an inside source, or she is adding other things.

The letter itself does raise some real concerns, though at the same time, it goes without saying that this is an incredibly delicate issue. God only knows how the events in this boy’s life drove him to make such a tragic decision. Part of me thinks it is wrong for a woman who did not know him to make this a political issue at a School Board meeting, but if we’re to take the aunt’s letter at its word, it is hard to disagree with Ms. Stromgren’s notion that the letter asking the family to sign a statement “saying his suicide was not caused by bullying and is bad for the school and community” is tone-deaf at best. However, the aunt’s note is only one person’s perspective, and while I certainly don’t have any reason to doubt her, any ongoing investigation has to be very, very careful.

Unfortunately, in the meantime, rumor and hearsay will reign. (I’ve heard a few details that go beyond the narrative made public so far, but secondhand information on something with this much gravity will have no place on this blog.) It’s agonizingly difficult work, running about in the shadows trying to understand what happened and make sure it won’t happen again while also respecting the rights and privacies of everyone involved. I’m inclined to cut the District and the police some slack over the supposed “cover-up” and assume they’re doing all they can behind the scenes. That has to be frustrating as all hell for the family, and if you’re suspicious of anything Board-related as Ms. Stromgren is, it’s not going to be at all satisfying. If there aren’t any answers in a few months, then there may be cause for some real indignation.

For now, however, grief must take its course. My first instinct is to demand dialogue, especially for the sake of the boy’s friends, who need to make sense of this. To that end, I do think East erred if it tried to quiet any discussion of the incident. But it’s also not as black-and-white as some people would like to believe. Harry raises two key points in his piece on the issue: first, that copycat suicides do happen, and second, that the News Tribune’s decision not to cover the suicide suggests there may be good reason for not saying too much quite yet. I’ll add my own point that may illuminate the silence: if there was indeed a bullying kid, he or she obviously ought to be brought to justice, but the alleged bully is also a minor who must be considered innocent until proven guilty. It is our instinct to demand immediate action, but getting things wrong in a rush to condemn the perpetrator would be a terrible injustice to heap upon a story that is already a terrible tragedy. If rumors were to spread through the students that one among their number caused the death of another…well, just think about it.

In the end, that’s all I can really offer: a plea to think about it. Think about it from the standpoint of the boy we’ve lost, his friends, the school, the police, the family, and even a possible bully. That might seem like a frightening exercise. It is. Read the obituary. Write a check to the charities listed there. Look into those eyes. Imagine what might have been. But not for too long: the world moves on. The family may not think too highly of Duluth East right now, but East is more than a building, or its administrators, or the kids who are in it at any one time. This is a chance to leave a legacy; a tragic legacy, but one that transcends the horrors of the past and feeds into a community that can carry on with a higher mission. How are we going to stand up for Gregory Asher Nugent?