grief

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…by a thread

What I said in the newspaper this week:

HOME PLACE – Hanging onto life by father’s threads

It was a year ago this coming Father’s Day when I handed my six children the fabric of their father, so to speak.

This tale began months earlier, after David died in January of 2009. I had reached the second Christmas and there were his clothes, still hanging in the closet. There were his sneakers, clean from being washed the day before. His comfortably-heavy sweatshirt that felt like a cozy hug with every zip-up to the chin.

At first I wore my husband’s apparel at every chance, willing his skin cells to meld with mine.

When I donned his favorite denim shirt, I could feel his arms around me as we watched the waterfalls at Multnomah, our kids clamoring with excitement behind us.

I could see David swinging our daughters’ arms with a flash of deep blue – “One, two, three, JUMP!” – as we stomped through rain puddles.

Eventually I understood. By wearing my dead husband’s clothes – or leaving them in the closet – I was missing an opportunity to do anything meaningful with L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer or Levis.

My friend Margot found a maker of “Memory Bears” through Etsy, the company that puts crafters in touch with online shoppers. I had a number of conversations with a nice lady who said she could turn David’s clothing into something my kids could still put their arms around.

But, well, see … having once witnessed a package lost in the U.S. mail, never to resurface, I ultimately could not do it.

I shelved the whole idea. I was stuck.

Then I was past the two-year anniversary of David’s death and feeling defeated. Memory Bears, apparently, were not going to be easily birthed.

At that point I remembered a business card taped up in my newsroom space. It was handed to me by a colleague after I had written about the joys of hemming with duct tape and/or safety pins.

“Kim Porter,” the card read, illustrated with a spool of thread and a pair of sewing scissors. It looked like this person knew her way around a needle. I took a breath and dialed.

She had never done this sort of project, but Kim was willing to embrace the concept, she said. I gathered up the fleece, the cotton and jersey knits. These pieces were going to become keepsakes for my husband’s children, something to perhaps hand off to their own babies. “See this? This is the jacket my dad always wore at the beach.”

And Kim, well, she did her magic. When all was said and done, I had six distinctly different creations to pass out to my children last June. Pillows in the shape of that original wedding shirt or teddy bears made perfect for the recipient. Here was the one made from the royal blue shirt David wore while working at the middle school, the same years as my Martha Stewart Junior attended there. She saw her daddy in that pretty color Monday through Friday in the halls.

There was the bear made from that well-loved denim shirt, with a buttonhole perfect for slipping the Subaru Brat key through for my mechanic girl.

And on each pillow and bear, Kim had sewn on a patch made from the Valentine boxer shorts – “she loves me, she loves me not.” She embroidered the year, “2009,” when all of this clothing took on a whole new meaning.

I held it together on pick-up day, in Kim’s sewing room, until she brought out the surprise for me. As she revealed the pillow she had created with the pieces of leftover fabric, my chin trembled. Then she turned it around, and showed me that David’s sweatshirt front covered that side. Kim had left the pockets on, so that I could hug him, er, the pillow.

I cried. Huge sobs. As if 24 months-plus of grief could be absorbed by this magical thing in my arms. I took it home and icried some more, gently stroking the sweatshirt zipper, slipping my hands into the pockets, searching for any forgotten notes.

It’s April again and I find myself in Kim’s sewing room once more.

I had searched the Internet universe, trying to find a wedding dress that didn’t scream, “wedding dress.” There just didn’t seem to be the right garment to express “hippie wilderness love fest with this amazing man I’ve been given by God when I totally didn’t think this would ever happen to me again.”

Then, one day, there was an ad floating on the computer. A dress from the 2012 collection at Neiman Marcus for the tiny sum of $5,000. But it sang of romance and love and hope and promise. With more lace than a middle-aged woman should rightfully wear.

I zipped the image over to Kim and we started our work, figuring out what parts of this dress I really wanted and how she could get me there.

I had an initial fitting recently, back in the room I once left in tears.

I had wiggled out of a muslin shell and was looking at myself in Kim’s mirror, laughingly lamenting the 50-plus female body and the need for sleeves.

We grinned at the idea of lady bat wings and – in a mutual glance – it hit us both at the same time.

“You realize how weird it is that I’m here, right,” I asked as I adjusted my shirt.

“It is weird,” Kim agreed.

I smiled. “I still love that pillow, you know.”

“I know,” she nodded.

We didn’t have to say more. When someone sews up your old life and, less than a year later, begins helping you stitch together a new one, words are unnecessary.

Except, “Thank you.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at 509-526-8322 or sheilahagar@wwub.com

 

Let Karly’s lesson live in us all

What I said in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin this week:

 

A case for constructive outrage

When I called Karen Spears Zacharias last week, I was at page 189 of “A Silence of Mockingbirds.”

I had been devouring her new book since it arrived at my desk from the publisher.

Karen was a newspaper reporter at the East Oregonian and Tri-City Herald for years. She worked on a number of things, including the crime beat.

We’ve never worked together professionally but our paths have crisscrossed on some heavy personal journeys.

Now I was halfway through her book and feeling immersed in the worst tragedy I’ve come across.

In “A Silence of Mockingbirds,” she tells the story of Karly Sheehan, a 3-year-old girl who was tortured and killed by her mother’s boyfriend in Corvallis, Ore., on June 3, 2005.

Karly’s mother, Sarah Brill Sheehan, was raised in Pendleton and her family lives there still. As a teen not connecting well with her adoptive family, Sarah lived with Karen’s family for a while.

Despite the connection, there had been distance created over Sarah’s choices — including the one to leave Karly’s father, David Sheehan, when Karly was  a year old.

And Karen, who lives in Hermiston, would come to regret that distance.

It’s a horrendous tale, but one Karen had to write. Published April 1 to coincide with National Child Abuse Prevention Month, it’s a story of how the Oregon child welfare system systematically failed to protect and save Karly.

It’s not that no one knew. David Sheehan sounded the alarm over and over, presenting evidence to officials and experts that his daughter had gone from his little princess to being the victim of Sarah’s boyfriend, Shawn Wesley Field.

The 42 year-old Field is now serving a 46-year sentence at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute in Pendleton. He is battling cancer, but not very well, Karen said.

It’s tempting to feed you sentences from the book designed to stun your senses, make you shake your head and feel heavy in your soul. The details of Karly’s short life are vivid and the ways society failed her are painfully laid out.

Instead, I’d rather you read the book yourself and that I use this space to tell you the takeaway message Karen desperately wants you to hear.

For starters, if you’re like most all of us, you don’t want to think about child abuse. You don’t want to picture Karly’s hair being pulled out in patches and the purple bruises that blotched her sweet face at the hands of a monster.

“You write a book about animal abuse and people will turn out in droves,” Karen said. “And the outcry will be huge. You write a book about child abuse and the silence is deafening.”

We, all of us, have got to break through that barrier of silence, she added.

Veteran investigative reporter that she is, Karen is still haunted by the information she came upon while writing the book.

There were days and days she cried through the work. To discover that, nationwide, child protective services are not meeting the needs of 40 percent of the kids who need its help, makes her furious.

“Where, in private industry, could you have a 40 percent failure rate and get away with it? You are shut down, you are bankrupt at that point,” she said. “Why is it OK for a government agency to … lose up to 2,000 children a year?”

She now also knows that, opposite of public perception, 80 percent of all child abuse cases are perpetrated by biological parents. “And out of that, 48 percent is perpetrated by mothers acting alone,” Karen said, her voice on the edge of outrage. “If it was 48 percent of the dads doing the abuse, we’d say ‘what assholes.’”

Another popped perception is the one in which it’s usually people who had disadvantaged childhoods who become abusive parents, she added. “Both Sarah and Shawn did not grow up in single-parent families. They both grew up in nurturing, evangelical homes. Great parents on both sides.”

While Sarah Sheehan was never charged in connection with Karly’s death, she turned a blind eye to the evil surrounding her child in the form of Fields, Karen contends in the book.

And the public does the same, overwhelmed by the gargantuan size of the issue.

But we must all be on patrol for possible abuse, she said. Police cannot act on every call about a parent cussing out a kid, for example, but all of us can be aware and outspoken.

“Number one, be aware of the children in your life. And second, if you see something troubling and your gut tells you something ain’t right, make that call. The more calls CPS gets the more likely they are to make that investigation.”

Be loud, be noisy and be a thorn, she advises.

The title of book is really the most straightforward way of looking at protecting our children, Karen summarized. Mockingbirds, while not large, are “fiercely protective of their young,” going after potential threats 100 times their own size, she pointed out. Like kamikazes dive-bombing, “they will drill anyone and anything they consider a danger to their offspring, no matter the size of the predator.”

Sarah was no mockingbird for her daughter, the author said.

“If a bird isn’t afraid to do so, shouldn’t we do no less than that?”

120410karlypic1_karly_
Courtesy photo
Karly Sheehan was 3 when her mother’s boyfriend tortured and killed the child in Corvallis, Ore., on June 3, 2005. How society and social services failed her and continues to do so with other children is the subject of a book by Eastern Oregon investigative reporter Karen Spears Zacharias.

 

Our blog server was having a time out

when I wrote this, in case you missed it. This was set to publish Jan. 27. Thanks for your patience. We are not giving the blog server any allowance this week and it’s going to bed early, too.

Three years down the road and the horizon is bright

Today. This was the day, the one when we said goodbye to my David.
Could you ever imagine, back then when you read this, we’d be three years down the road?
Me, neither.
But here we are and it’s pretty weird to me, the one who thought I’d never make it a week past that most awful morning. The one who hoped for delivery from grief – the sooner the better.
For the past two anniversaries, my girls and I did things big. On Year One, we went to the Tri-Cities and spent the night, treating our sad selves to the hubbub of a larger city. Looking back, I can see we were were trying to mitigate the pain with Red Robin burgers and the bright lights of a bustling mall.
That was a mistake. We were more miserable out of our home than in it.
Year Two was better. We went to dinner then came home and released helium balloons with messages to Dad. But we had to hustle, given the early darkness at this time of year, and we were glad to go inside to the warmth.
And that next day, I felt like we didn’t have to make January 27 a big event ever again. Instead, we could begin to celebrate the day Daddy got to move on to Heaven. The kiddos agreed. Those memorial moments were exhausting for all of us and not anything David would have wished upon us.
Plus, who would have guessed that my world would be upside down a year later? That my frown would have righted itself and headed upward at a rapid clip?
My husband’s death is still a wound for all the Hagars, from my brood to my late husband’s brother and his family. Let me clear about that – you don’t love a man, make a life with a man, laugh with a man for nearly four decades and ever forget what losing that feels like.
But today, right this minute, there are red roses at my house, given to me by a different man who understands all too well what this day feels like. And there are my kids. A couple are planning to go to a movie, given that their father was a movie addict. Didn’t have to be a good movie for David, no sir. And a couple more plan to eat oven-baked nachos, Dad’s version of heavenly manna. And not everyone feels like they have to cluster in a somber huddle together this year. One daughter is adamant about going to a family fun night at her friend’s church, where she will also watch a movie. One her dad would have loved, actually. Another daughter traveled a couple of hours on the bus to be with a friend who never knew her father, but who cares about her. Another is going to go look at cars on a lot, knowing her daddy was a sucker for the sales patter, lapping it up like sugar.
I couldn’t be more proud that my children have figured out ways to cherish David’s memory that also nurtures them.
Me? I’m going to get done with a decent day of work, where we are having the David Hagar Memorial Potluck before our staff meeting. Then I’m going home and meeting up with Camo Man, giver-of-roses and decidedly maker-of-happiness. He’s already checked in today, to offer any help at all in making this day better for me.
Silly guy. He already has in so many ways, not the least of which is having traveled a parallel journey of grief.
I can imagine David shaking Camo Man’s hand, thanking him for taking care of me. Oh, sure, with a little ribbing at my expense. “Now watch out for her when she’s mad,” my husband might say, his grin taking over the lower half of his face. “Don’t leave stuff on the floor because she’ll stash it in the freezer and you’ll never find it.”
But he’d also tell Camo Man that when I cry, it’s going to be OK. That when I laugh I mean it and when I’m sarcastic, a good joke will set me straight.
He’d say “Her mad will end and her sad won’t last.” And he would be right.

A sad expertise

Rob Carter is gone. Horribly, tragically gone.
For readers who don’t follow my home newspaper, the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, here’s the sound bite: A beloved businessman in my home town was gunned down on Friday morning in his shop, while saving the life of an employee.
The story is much, much larger and includes components I won’t talk about here because I helped cover the event — and my personal opinion of the tragedy has already been echoed by thousands of people.
That’s not why I’m here. I am here because, just under three years ago, I had a day when I woke up as part of an intact family and went to bed as the solo lead member of a shattered unit. Like the Carters, death came to my house with no warning one cold morning. Like the Carter Girls, I could only watch helplessly as our father and husband was yanked out of this world.
Right now, at this very minute, people are running to help. We want to, need to, long to help…anything we can do to give our shocked souls a chance to move and feel and love again.
There will meals on top of meals. There is a website called “Meal Train” — oh, how far we’ve come! — for folks to volunteer food. That alone is a really important ministry.
But there’s more to do. I, unfortunately, know of many ways to help the Carter family at this very moment that have nothing to do with turning on your stove. Things you might not think about if you haven’t been here before.
Let’s list:
  • Cash. People brought me money in small denominations, little bills of pure love. With cash on hand, I could send people to the store. I was afraid to spend a dime, not knowing what bills would need immediate attention. Someone already knew this would be the case. Having that money was having gold.
  • TOILET PAPER. Trust me, you can’t have too much when your home is brimming with help and then relatives. Oh, and a case of paper towels while you’re at it.
  • Other disposables — plates, cups, napkins, plastic silverware. All of it will be valued every day for a very long time. And bring a box of garbage bags to hold it all after it gets used. Recycling and being green will resume later. Much later.
  • Diapers. If there is a baby, find out the size and get as many as you can. Don’t be cheap. No one needs to clean up a wet crib after they’ve been crying all night.
  • Soap. Dishwasher, laundry, human body. Bring soap. And while you’re there, offer to toss a load in the washer. Even better, offer to fold a load of five. If Jesus was walking around now, he’d fold.
  • Stamps. Bills, cards, stuff…not everything is electronic.
  • Cleaning products. People like what they like, but it’s hard to go wrong with some Pledge Multi-surface, Soft Scrub and Windex.
  • Coffee and creamer. The family might never use the stuff, but someone is going to want coffee with cream.
  • A package of pens and a stack of Post-Its.
  • Food that does not have to be consumed or frozen. Juice boxes for kids. A block of cheese. Peanut butter. Cereal. Hot cocoa. Granola bars, crackers, tortillas, a loaf of delicious bread. Popped popcorn. This is the stuff they can turn to when they cannot bear another pan of lasagna for a day or two.
  • Pet food, if you can find out what is used. Or a gift card for pet food.
There’s other ideas, of course. When you think of them, add them in a comment on whatever Facebook page you find this blog.
And then, think about what I call “in the dirt” ministry. Like vacuuming. Don’t call and ask if someone would like you to vacuum…show up at the door. Same with window cleaning, the previously-mentioned laundry (oh, my word, the laundry will breed quite heavily) and snow shoveling, should we ever get any this winter.
One day someone fixed my windshield wipers and I cried with relief. This stuff counts.
Sweep the patio, bag the leaves, wash dishes. There’s a good chance no one will mention it after you’re done, but it’s going to be noticed.
Trust me on this one.

With apologies to my friends, David and Emily

Dear David and Emily,

You know how you had that amazing wedding that I missed? Which, judging by the photos I’ve seen, was a big loss for me.

However, that milk is spilled and this letter is only marginally related. You may recall I said I had a wedding present to get to you? Like the road to Hell, my closet floor holds several good intentions and your gift is one of them.

Was, actually.

Now your present has been ripped open and used in a way no knife set from Ikea should ever be used.

And, side note, turns out I’m not perfect.

Which I should not even make public, but my readers (aside from the obligatory curmudgeons) have allowed me to be completely honest. I just keep rewarding them with more raw stuff.

Here’s the deal. I got mortally embarrassed on Christmas night — on a scale of 1 to 10, it was a 47. And I couldn’t handle it.

Absolutely, I was embarrassed any number of times during my marriage. But my husband and I married as children, then finished growing up together. Meaning he was there during my embarrassing moments and I was there during his. We knew everything about each other. On top of that, David and Emily (as newlyweds, you’ll want to take notes) I “owned all the words,” my late husband used to claim. Which allowed me to turn any situation into his problem.

And that, it turns out, was not so great for me. I was always the “Bearer of the Only Total Truth.”

So, in 34 years of marriage, I never had to be embarrassed. Not at home, anyway.

Making me totally unprepared for Christmas evening. When I was wrong and Camo Man was right and I responded by shutting down like a spoiled child.

The next day was no better. I entertained serious doubts about my ability to be a wife again and had to go into my closet to cry, away from the ears of children. I missed my late David with a ferocity and grabbed up my special pillow, sewn with love from scraps of his clothing, to hug and dry my eyes with.

I tugged the door closed and then I screamed and kicked and cursed (I’m really sorry about that, God) and mourned my losses. On cold examination, however, what I discovered was that I was most sad over the loss of B.E.I.N.G.  R.I G.H.T.

All the time. I have to be right all the time.

My poor husband. I did own all the words in that relationship. I wish I could tell him I was wrong, at least 50 percent of the time. Maybe more.

Here is where this chapter ends, David and Emily, and why I owe you an apology.

My closet doorknob is 65 years old. It apparently has decided that it no longer needs to work full time, just half time. I found this out after I was done with all the wailing and gnashing of teeth. That door I had carefully — thoughtfully, even — had closed? Did not want to open from the INSIDE of the closet.

I was stuck. My cell phone was on the other side of the door, loitering on my dresser. The knob kept not grabbing the whatever-it-is-called. The screws, loosened by 65 years of use, were tired.

So, David and Emily, I cried some more and plunked down, doomed to be there until someone finally had the courage to open my bedroom door and call out “Mom? Are you in here?” At which that point I would bang on the closet door (more embarrassment!) and shout, “I’m here! Save me!”

Then I felt the outline of your wedding gift, the five-knife set in all it’s Swedish cuteness. I hesitated, but only for a minute. I broke open the plastic wrap and grabbed out the smallest knife, which I proceeded to use as a screwdriver. A few twists and that damn knob opened.

And who was frantically looking for me? No one. At all. My family was still stashing ornaments and tucking away tree lights and I was still mortified. But I finally accepted the reality that being embarrassed and wrong was MY problem I need to work through, not lay at the feet of the love of my love of my life.

Because, let’s face it, Camo Man is the new love of my life. He is. And he can be right and I can be wrong. And your knife set in now used and possibly compromised in its sharpness.

I owe you love birds a new wedding gift. And I owe Camo Man an apology. Audio tip — here is where you can insert a heavy, dramatic sigh as Sheila meets Real Life. Where she is not always right.

And, really, what better wedding gift can you ask for?

Love,

Sheila