Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Surviving the Death of a Sibling

The Rogers Gang
Mary, Ann, Hartley, John and Jim up front

Mom and Dad often remarked that their greatest accomplishment was raising five kids who are best friends with each other. Growing up in this gang was exciting, edgy, sometimes volatile, and always full of hilarity. Fights didn’t last past the bark, the push/shove, or the thrown rock. Because, well, when the rock hit the head and the head bled, we tried to cover it. “He tripped and fell.” Unfortunately, the doctor who stitched it up said “No way. This isn’t from a fall, it’s from a thrown rock.” Dad said that the five of us played “constantly shifting alliances.” See, everyone was best friends with each other, but not *all* the time. The alliances could shift multiple times in one day. It was an idyllic childhood in many ways.

When I got a call at work on the afternoon of November 5, 2010, the words on the other end of the line, “Jim’s dead” changed my family forever. For my Mom to lose her youngest child and for my siblings and me to lose our loyal, adorable brother brought unspeakable pain. Part of me wishes to forget some of those early moments--rushing to the hospital, seeing my Mom, saying goodbye to Jim’s precious body surrounded by a golden white aurora, calling siblings, the uncontrollable sobbing, the utter disbelief. But if I did forget, I’d lose a part of me.

Surviving Jim’s death has been a process, one that will never be complete. Jim is never far from our minds. We talk and laugh about him. We acknowledge (sometimes with tears, sometimes with a big grin) when we miss him, perhaps on vacation or for a big event. But mostly, the missing, the aching missing, is just from every day living. “Jim would have loved this.” “Jim should be here, he’d be doing xxx.” In all reality, Jim isn’t gone. He’s with us all the time. That’s how I’ve survived four rocky years of a grief that still has not settled into a “new normal.” It will, it moves in that direction. But I will never get over it, I’ll just survive.

The late Elizabeth Edwards wrote this about losing a child. Anytime a friend tells anyone of us a “Jim Story,” it is a precious thing. It keeps him alive.

“If you know someone who has lost a child, and you're afraid to mention them because you think you might make them sad by reminding them that they died--you're not reminding them. They didn't forget they died. What you're reminding them of is that you remembered that they lived, and that is a great gift.” 
~ Elizabeth Edwards~

This is most likely the last picture of the five of us together.
Ann, Jim, Hartley, John, Mary

Thursday, September 11, 2014

On Being in Spain, September 11, 2001

Looking at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, Through Innocent Eyes

Pure bliss. That’s exactly what I felt on September 11, 2001. I was admiring this spectacular view of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, exactly one week into a two week vacation. 

The Alhambra, originally constructed in 889 in southern Spain as a small fortress, was later rebuilt by a Moorish king as a magnificent royal palace for the last Muslim emirs in Spain. It was taken over by Catholic monarchs in 1492 and allowed to fall into disrepair for centuries before European scholars rediscovered the Alhambra in the 19th century and major restorations began at that time. Today, it is one of Spain's national treasures, exhibiting the country's most significant Islamic architecture. Moorish poets described it as "a pearl set in emeralds," a testament to the color of its buildings and the forest surrounding them.

We had tickets to tour the Alhambra the next day and had spent the morning and early afternoon exploring the colorful and quaint town of Granada on foot. I had read in the Lonely Planet guide that President Bill Clinton considered the view (pictured above) from San Nicholas lookout to be the most beautiful place he had witnessed a sunset. After hoofing it up the winding, hilly streets we arrived at the lookout point and I clearly remember thinking “this is my place, this is where I belong.” My love affair with Spain grew by the day.

Although it wasn’t crowded, others milled around and soaked in the beauty of a picture perfect day in the Atlas mountains. My travel partner first noticed a man looking at us and when I turned he had an anxious expression and approached us. In reality, he just wanted to hear our accent.

Our new Canadian friend snapped this picture moments after
we learned of the terrorist attacks in the United States on
September 11, 2001.

I will never forget the exact words of this Canadian. He asked if I was from the U.S. When I said yes, he replied "have you heard what is going on?" I shook my head no. He said: "Both the World Trade Center towers are on the ground and the Pentagon's on fire."  Whoa.

The final week of our vacation was significantly altered from that moment. Southern Spain, and the country in general, spoke less English than I expected. Given my broken Spanish, it was difficult to get information. We ran down the winding streets into town and stopped at the first tavern with a television. I expected English subtitles. A naive assumption, of course, and the only image we saw was the second plane hitting the tower time after time and listening to a news anchor rapidly speak in Spanish. It wasn't until four days later when we arrived back in Madrid and secured a Sunday London Times that we learned details of the attack. Horrors such as box cutters and people jumping from the top of the World Trade Center were revealed to us along with brave stories that epitomize the human spirit like Todd Beamer's command of "Let's Roll" before attempting to overtake the hijackers. But, throughout that final week of vacation, we were treated with a kindness and dignity that I will always cherish. From complimentary dinners to hugs, kisses, and prayers, we met so many people and experienced things because of the international crisis back home. 

Perhaps my passion for Spain (I hope to retire there half time) is rooted in this experience. It’s the place where my innocence of the world was forever marred and I allowed the people of Spain to comfort and hold me for a week. I left the next Tuesday on one of the first regularly scheduled Delta flights since the attacks. The compassion offered so generously by Spaniards made for a softer landing into the reality of my country being in both crisis and mourning.

Here are a few images inside the mystical Alhambra, which is a United Nations World Heritage Site.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Marion Barry & Me

This photograph from the January 19, 1990, Washington Post
appeared in the same edition as news coverage of Mayor Marion
Barry's arrest for crack cocaine. 

One might wonder how a young woman from Missouri could possibly hold a connection with the crack smoking, former long-term mayor of Washington, D.C. (1979-1991 and 1995-1999), especially on the day the news and pictures of his arrest splashed in papers and on televisions around the world. Marion Barry and I were the top items in The Washington Post that day--we shared the headlines.

The perfect storm of events began at noontime on January 18, 1990, when a group of my colleagues from HCR Management and Consulting gathered across the street at McPherson Park to eat lunch. The unseasonably warm January weather made it a “Great Day for a Picnic” as the headline above declares.

The Post photographer shot some photos and then asked for my name as I was the focal point of the picture. I provided it and never thought another thing. Unbeknownst to me, three blocks down K Street one of my best friends from my days at the University of Kentucky, Paul O'Neill, also decided to eat lunch at the park across from his office. The same photographer took Paul’s picture with friends and asked for his name. 

January 18 so happened to be the very night the married Mayor Marion Barry was photographed smoking crack
Mayor Marion Barry caught
smoking crack on a surveillance
video on 1-18-1990.
 with a former girlfriend in a snazzy DC hotel. The newspapers the next day featured pages and pages of grainy photos of the Mayor’s misdeeds the night before. The entire paper was news of the crack smoking mayor, a few ads, and guessed it, the picture I starred in “Great Day for a Picnic.”

A friend called to alert me that morning and I found my office copy of the paper and preened up with pride. How cool! My critical thinking cap, however, wasn’t on as I was basking in my own glory. I thought I’d pick up a few papers after work so I could send my parents a copy of the picture. The joke was on me when every single newspaper in the city was gone by 3 p.m. I managed to scrounge up a few pictures and this is the only one to survive the last 25 years. It is a great misfortune that a complete issue of the paper never made it back to Missouri because it is hard for people to believe that is really was just Marion and me in the January 19, 1990, edition of the Washington Post.

P.S. The story takes a humorous twist when my friend Paul (mentioned above), who I was in a small tiff with, called me at the office on January 19th. We had not spoken in two weeks. Rather than congratulating me on my picture, he gave me a tongue lashing about how HIS picture should have been in the paper. Paul told of getting his picture taken the day before and ripping through the Post to find his picture. And there I was laughing (at him, he says). He said seeing me in that picture was adding insult to injury. I replied that, no, it was poetic justice. We agreed to meet halfway and have never had an argument again!

Despite my trumping Paul O'Neill for the only non-Barry
picture in the Washington Post that day, we have remained friends
for over 25 years. No way Marion Barry can come between us.