Saturday, August 20, 2005

An Open Letter to Cindy Sheehan

I had to look up your name since I have avoided your story as much as possible. Not out of a lack of compassion for your sorrow, but rather because of my own fragility and the sorrow I carry for my own dead daughter.

Here’s what I know about your story — and when you think about it, to have learned this much despite not having a TV and making an effort to avoid learning about your odyssey, it’s amazing I know as much as I do.

Your son Casey was a soldier and he died in Iraq. At first, you were able to maintain in the face of this catastrophic loss. I believe you even met with the President at one point? See — even I, with no access to regular media and a real wish to avoid your story, even I know these things. Or maybe what I “know” is some garbled version of what has been going on for you in your public grief.

This is a guess — an educated guess from one mother of a dead child to another — but I think things began to unravel as time went on and the reality of Casey’s complete and total and life-long and irrevocable absence hit your consciousness like a fist sinks into a gut. And the bunched knuckles kept coming back to deliver blow after unending blow.

One picture I happened upon in the grocery store showed you on your knees. I presume it was taken in Crawford since someone who didn’t know me well wanted to discuss your story and said you’d gone to President Bush’s ranch. I remember turning away from your face as you knelt there. Yours was a sorrowful visage, a broken face like the reflection from a fractured mirror. My heart twisted for you even though I barely glanced at the picture.

Your grief has served to polarize others. Some say you’re being used, some dismiss you as “crazy” — and tell me what mother of a dead child isn’t crazy? You’ve been cheated of your son; you walk through the valley of the shadow of death and no one comes to greet you. There will never, ever again be a laughing bear hug from this son grown tall and handsome.

When a husband or wife dies, we call the surviving partner the widow or widower. Why do you think it is that there is no one word to describe our condition, Cindy? Mother-of-a-dead-child is the best we can do? The lack of a name gives you some inkling how much our culture avoids the knowledge of this sorrow. If we named it we’d have some power over it. But the condition you and I share is unnamed because since time immemorial parents have dreaded this loss. It is the worst. There is nothing else that can be done to us. A motherless child is a pitiful creature and carries a life-long emptiness he or she tries to fill with other grown-ups. A childless mother is a crazy person and nothing can fill the hole, not if she had a baby a year for the rest of her life.

Do you have other children? I have three. And when people ask me, pleasantly, “how many children do you have?” I look at them blankly. It is all I can do to not to run screaming from the room.

Here is where I liken my experience to what is happening to you: after Shelagh’s sudden death, after the Rescue Squad carried her off and I watched them disappear down the drive, after the Medical Examiner returned her body to us, there was lots to do. The first morning I awoke I heard her say distinctly, laughing, “Mom, welcome to the first day of the rest of your life without me.” I think she was trying to make it easier in her Shelagh way.

There was so much to do. Her children needed clothing for the funeral, there were burial arrangements to make, a minister to call, family visitation to be arranged, a burial service to be created. So many, many people to notify. Elderly grandparents and a large contingent of Irish relatives to talk to and arrange for flights. As the days passed, I thought to myself “I can do this. I can just keep having this whole thing to organize and plan and I’ll be okay. As long as I never have to bury her, I’ll be fine.” Yes, this is crazy thinking. Even then, I vaguely knew that.

ShelaghWhen her body arrived back from the Medical Examiner’s one of her brothers and I wrapped her in a winding sheet. Shelagh could never decide among Catholicism, Judaism, and a local bikers’ church for misfits. So she went to all three. We wrapped her in linen with a small cross embroidered on one end. A priest came to anoint her with oil. Her therapist came very early in the morning and left a small token of their work together, a secret symbol between them (though I knew what it meant). I gave Shelagh some of the lily of the valley left in the garden and her grandmother gave her a rosary. Her children gave her stuffed animals and drawings. She left the room shrouded in fair linen and surrounded by those things we knew she’d loved. The next day she was buried after a funeral in the bikers’ church. Later everyone said it was the most joyful funeral they’d ever been to.

After she was buried, I went back to the church to pay the minister before going on to the hotel to visit with my former in-laws, her father’s family. As I walked into the rest room there, I saw the trash can overflowing with the paper programs from Shelagh’s service. Immediately, I heard my daughter’s laughing voice exclaiming, “Mommm! Don’t these people realize I’m immortal?” She seemed amused and offended at the same time. In an automatic gesture of soothing her, I bent down to pat the overflowing papers… see, we are crazy.

Let me tell you the most important thing, Cindy: none of this matters. Not one piece of it. The only important part, the only piece with any real existence is Casey’s death. He is as gone as though he never existed. And you are so filled with sorrow and grieving you do not see how you will ever turn back from this road of vengeful crying out like some prophet who has wandered in from the desert.

Perhaps you never will. Not all of us come back, and certainly none of us return as the people we were before our child died. We are some other person, a stranger even to ourselves sometimes. But you will be less afraid of death yourself. Your son has gone before you, and that is harder than our own passing. Much, much harder. The lump in your throat will probably never disappear either.

As you’ve no doubt discovered by now, men and women handle their griefs very differently. Shelagh’s father and I split the cost of her funeral. I paid for everything else and he did the flowers (I’m afraid I said “f*** the flowers” — in my mind she had her beloved lily of the valley and what else was necessary or even good?) and he also paid for the burial plot.

Well. When you own a burial plot it is you who decides what headstone will go there. And if you decide there will be no headstone, then no headstone it is. So my beloved Shelagh, despite our entreaties, lies in an unmarked grave and I cannot bear to go visit where she lies there because of that.

For a long time, I considered her father’s behavior simply cruel and evil, but having had these two years to contemplate such a bizarre thing, I have come to think that perhaps it is his way of not having to face her death. No headstone? No dead daughter. It makes a crazy kind of sense, doesn’t it? Anyway, one day her brother called me and said he had a message from his sister. In a perfect imitation of her tossed-off wit, he said that Shelagh had told him, “Tell Mom not to worry about it. I always lived in substandard housing anyway.” It was so exactly her voice and humor that I started laughing. I still smile when I think of it.

For a long time, too, I hated time passing. Each day carried me further downstream away from Shelagh. I resented each holiday, each special occasion, things she would have wanted to be there for — as when, several weeks after her death her youngest brother had his Eagle Scout ceremony. Now, after several years, I have rearranged the furniture of seasonal celebrations. We do different things so that the hole where Shelagh is supposed to be doesn’t show so plainly.

Other bereaved parents tell me that your child will visit you. Some special “thing” you had together. That hasn’t happened for me yet, though the day she died we had terrific tornadoes and blackened skies. They were a greenish-black and the clouds moved with incredible speed over the green fields of May. One thing that does happen to me, like an emotional ‘twitch’ is that when I see a date written down, I automatically parse it: the date is either when Shelagh was alive or it is A.S. — After Shelagh. And the date of her death is like a gong…May 8th, 2003, May 8th, 2003, May 8th, 2003….

I don’t know what kind of hell your loss is creating, Cindy, and I can’t pretend to offer any solace. There simply isn’t any. Some things are unbearable and this is one. Nor will I suggest that you be brave. To hell with being brave. Wail until you can’t make another sound. Then sing this. It was one she used to have her brother play on his guitar:
    You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
In the end, Cindy, we are all stripped bare — nothing we have really belongs to us. In particular, we don’t have our children. Much as we cherish them, they belong to themselves and they belong to God. If you can open your hands and place them together in prayer, rather than bunching them in fists of rage, then you can let Casey go home… just let go.

If you don’t, then Casey can’t come back to you.

With my thoughts and my prayers for all of you who loved Casey,



Papa Ray said...

So true, so awful and so well said.

Thank you.

Papa Ray
West Texas

Dr. Sanity said...

Beautiful...I cried. Thank you, Dymphna. If only more people had your insight,self-awareness, and honesty...

Wild Bill said...

Lots of difference between you and Cindy.. You have not lost all sense of logic and HONESTY.. Honesty to yourself, and honesty to your family.. Casey believed in what he was doing, and Cindy threatened to RUN OVER Casey for it because she didnt believe in it like he did.. I dont know what caused the loss of your daughter, but whatever it was, would you have run over her with your car to stop her from doing what she believed in ?? If Shelagh worked in an innercity food kitchen for the hungry, and she didnt give some gang banger as much mashed potatoes as he wanted, and he killed her, would you blame Bush ?? Would you demand all the Police out of New York City and Kansas City?? Would you want all the blacks to leave Salt Lake City ?? That would make about as much sense as Cindy Sheehan is making !! We love our kids, but we cant live their lives for them.. We do our best to raise good kids, which Cindy seems to have done, then we hope for the best, and leave the rest up to God's will.. Shelagh WILL talk to you.. Just listen.. My thoughts and prayers are sent to you and ya'lls family..

Pablo said...

Thank you, Dymphna.

Greg said...

Dymphna, that was beautifully written, and oh, so true. I had to stop reading and leave the computer halfway through, before coming back to finish... it drew me. It has been over 25 years since my second daughter died, and I still remember it as if it was yesterday, and still grieve.

I feel nothing but sympathy for Cindy, sorrow for her soon-to-be-broken family, rage and anger for those that so thoughtlessly and cruelly use her, sadness for the continued and increased division of our country over her plight, and pride in her son Casey, who gave his all for us.

And may you soon find peace.

al fin said...

The sad thing about Cindy Sheehan is that she has taken a sad and true thing of exquisite pain--the death of her son--and turned it into a sordid political squabble. She has no excuse. Not grief, since her political naggling simply bypasses her grief. Not personal pain, since her current neglect of her surviving family is leading to further pain from separation, illness, and permanent hostility.

Perverting and distorting her son's memory to support an ugly political backstab is something that only a very fractured and schizoid individual could appreciate.

AbbaGav said...

Sometimes people say a post is not appropriate for work, and this is one of them, but not for the usual reason. I'm reading your words and can only imagine the real pain behind them and I can't make it all the way through. I hope Ms. Sheehan can eventually find a way to honor her son's memory as movingly as you've done here.

Edna Barney said...

I was touched by your writings of the still fresh loss you experienced, Dymphna. I know that you must feel relieved to be able to write about it. I remember when I told my grandmother, that her daughter, my mother, had died, and how she reacted as you explained. My grandma was elderly, but she still felt it was unnatural for her only daughter to go first. I learned by reading your other posts, that you and I share something - we share the same birthyear.

Dymphna said...

Thanks, everyone. I wrote a note to Shrinkwrapped because I began this post on his blog (and on lgf, trying to defend someone who is viewed, with justification, I suppose, as beyond the pale). I was serious when I said I haven't read about her. I just see headlines, and I glimpsed her picture.

So maybe she doesn't "deserve" compassion, but it helps all of us to understand our own horrible losses if we can stand for a moment in the shadow of a someone crazed by sorrow.

Here's what I learned from this post:

(1)the process of writing the letter suddenly let me see (perhaps) the reason Shelagh's father has not allowed anyone to put a headstone on her grave. For that insight alone, thank you Cindy Sheehan. I can breathe again.

(2) doing this post permitted me to process some of the grief. It is better when you can grieve with witnesses -- some kind of community -- because their response pulls you through. Private grief isolates and I don't want that anymore. That others, who have lost and lost and lost...their parents, their children, their friends...can identify and in doing so give back to me some of the Self my private grieving was so corrosively eroding -- that's a real gift.

I am most grateful for all your responses. And for our mutual tears. Shelagh would've laughed and shed a tear with us...she was so afraid of death, but I think when it claimed her she found some relief from her suffering.

...damn, I miss that girl's sense of humor. One time the Baron and I were doing the dishes and singing some song or other. Shelagh was about 16 or so and she came thru the kitchen, pulled to a dead stop, listened for a moment and said drily: "Love isn't blind, it's deaf."

I hope Cindy Sheehan can sift through and get back some of the good stuff with Casey. Thanks to you guys, I can.

SC&A said...

Thank you for sharing Shelagh with us. Thank you for teaching us how 'it should be done,' that lesson none of should have to learn, and mostly, thank you for the humility- that awareness and most clear perspective- when we read your words.

Norma said...

Thank you. It has been 42 years for me, and I knew exactly each step you would say. But I've never seen it said so beautifully.

EdWonk said...

Extremely powerful message. Thanks for helping give me some new perspectives.

Nettie said...

That was incredible, I am glad fofrthe chance to have read it.

P M Prescott said...

I sympathize on the loss of your daughter as I do the same for Ms. Sheehan. We each try to make sense and deal with the unexplaiable in different ways.

tckurd said...

I thought of my Mom when I read your words. She died so young, when I too was young and formative. I never understood how it would change my grandparents for having lost their daughter so young.

Now I understand my grandmother's remaining life so well - I can see how she must have felt - and I can relate my own grief.

Dymphna said...

You may have been the only "child" to have responded in the comments and the emails. It is *so* hard to be in your position -- to lose the one person in the world who is likely to adore you simply because you exist.

I hope this does resolve some of your grief and I hope you feel, sometimes, your mother's whatever form it may take.

Death -- at least those out of order -- leaves black holes in families that can last for generations. When my father's mother died, along with his big brother (who was six) he was told by his grieving father for the rest of his life that the wrong son had died....

Death leaves large sucking holes. Fill yours as best you can so they don't pass to the next generation.

A friend of mine, whose mother died suddenly when my friend was six, has never resolved that pain. At thirty six it is the center of who she is.

May you transcend that.

Beth said...

I know this is an old post - but I just ran across it. Thank you so much for sharing it. I can't imagine the pain of losing a child. My son is on his way to Iraq and I can barely stand the thought of what he's going to have to face. I certainly can't let my mind follow that line of thought any further.

I have little sympathy for Cindy - I did at first but it started fading as I watched her goings on. I vasilate some about it, she doesn't appear to be very bright, so I think she should be cut a little slack on that regard.

I'm probably wrong for my lack of sympathy. I don't care what her political views are - but I feel she has dishonored her son. She gave up custody of him when he was 7 years old and I understand she has given up custody of her other children as well. So it's hard for me to view her shenanigans as much more than self-serving. But then, I don't have the view of it that you do and I am probably judging her too harshly.

I hope I don't ever have to walk in those shoes.

You certainly show a lot of class and insight in your posting. It's courageous to look so closely at something that has to be so painful.

Jimmy Gatt said...

Beautiful, poignant, loving, human, and real. Your words have touched me and torn me. It hurts because I can't bear the thought of losing my own child -- it is my singlemost greatest fear. And yet, it is your reality. May your courage and strength be rewarded with solace and happiness.

pst314 said...

Dymphna, SC&A brought me back here to re-read your post. It's just as moving and thought-provoking as when I first read in in 2005. I am reminded of what it is like to walk through a graveyard from previous centuries, and note just how many of the headstones are for very young children. (Do you remember Herodotus remarking on this in his Histories, writing "war violates the order of nature, and fathers bury sons"?)

However, may I offer an alternative speculation (and this is sheer speculation) as to why there is no word for a parent who has lost a child? It might be because for most of human history this was the normal state: So many children died of disease and accident that it was the normal lot of parents to suffer this loss multiple times.