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Here's part of how I said "good bye" to Leroy.

Here’s part of how I said “good bye” to Leroy.

A friend of mine is losing his mother. They’re to the hospice stage now. Having just lost Leroy a few months ago (3 months ago today, actually) how we say “good bye” has been very much on my mind. Leroy’s passing wasn’t my first trip to the rodeo–I’m at that point in life where the world begins shrinking, a grandfather here, an uncle there, a father here, a Leroy there. I’ve been reflecting on how I did–or didn’t–say good bye in each instance. The most traumatic passing was probably my dad’s, largely because of the family issues that surrounded it. I couldn’t say “good bye.” I didn’t cry for him for a year. The odd thing is that, as awful as that time in my life was, it taught me more about saying “good bye” than any other death I’ve experienced. The lessons from that terrible time were many. Here are a few of them.

1. Nobody really understands what you’re going through. Grief is an intensely personal thing–as unique as the relationship between two people. No one can know what you’re experiencing, the things that cause you pain–or the things that bring you comfort. Each of us walks through grief alone, not because no one wants to be there for us, but because no one really can. Yes, family, friends, and even strangers can throw a lifeline, but in that deep, intimate place where we grieve, we are alone.

2. I relied on the kindness of strangers. When Dad was dying, the people in my parents’ church brought food. I remember one woman in particular. She didn’t come inside, even. She just showed up, handed off a big pot of soup, smiled, and left. That touched me deeply. I learned from that. Now when people I know lose someone I take food, not because I think they’re broke, but because the kindness of strangers is a lifeline.

I also started offering my design services for free to grieving families. It started by accident; my local Kinko’s called me one day and asked if I could help a customer. They knew I did design work because in those days Kinko’s was where I printed out my proofs. I drove down to Kinko’s and met the woman. It wasn’t hard to pick her out; people who have just lost a loved one often look gobsmacked. She couldn’t focus. She had a hard time articulating things. Making decisions was completely beyond her. I found myself thinking like a teacher, rather than a designer. I found us a table in a quiet corner. We sat down. I thought of all the platitudes: “How sad you must feel,” “What a terrible loss,” “He’s in a better place now,” thought of my dad’s incredibly complex death, and realized that I didn’t know if she felt sad, if she felt loss or relief, or even if she thought of him in heaven. I didn’t know her, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have really understood her feelings.  In the end I just said, “Tell me about your husband.”

And she did. She told me that he had been the postmaster for years, that he loved his church, that his family was important to him. She told me stories. She cried. She laughed. And I realized that we would put together a program that captured something of her husband’s essence–it would be a way of not just letting mourners know who was doing what, but of really honoring a person who had been here, and now wasn’t, at least not in the same way. More than that, though, she reminded me that because grief is personal, having someone try to assign you to a category, to tell you what they are sure you must be feeling, is really not helpful. What is helpful is being invited to talk about what you are experiencing, who the person you have lost was to you, who they are to you now, who you were with them, and who you might be without them. Grief is a time for listening.

I’ve done a lot of memorial programs since then, and they all start with the same question: “Tell me about…” And when they have told me, we turn the program into something intensely personal–the lace off a mother’s wedding dress might become the background, an award or medal might become part of the front, a lifelong unrealized dream might become part of the interior. I offer my hands, and my ears. I treasure those times. It’s my way of returning the sense of love I felt from that woman standing on my parents’ porch, holding a soup pot.

3. Start before you need to. Grief is debilitating and overwhelming. The paradox of loss is that when you are experiencing it, it can be very difficult to actually think of a way of expressing it–of saying “good bye” in a way that’s meaningful to you. When Dad was sick my sister and I took the time to sit down with him and watch old slides. It was something he loved to do. In his younger years he loved driving up into the mountains with the camera and taking pictures of wild flowers. He didn’t pick them for pressing–he was a proponent of “leave it as you found it” long before that was popular. Those slides were his flower collection. They were important to him. As we watched them my sister and I listened to his breathy voice talking about the ones he loved the most, and my sister laid those aside, had them drum-scanned, and sent them to me. I used them to build Dad’s memorial bulletin. As I worked I cried–building that became an important part of saying “good bye,” and would probably have remained intensely meaningful had all hell not broken loose between the time I made the bulletin and the time we used it.

When Leroy had his second heart attack and he told me he just wanted to enjoy the time he had left, I remembered Dad’s bulletin. I came home, and I started going through pictures. Before he came home from the hospital I took the time to write down what he meant to me. I talked to The Boy, and suggested that he consider how he might want to say “good bye,” precisely because when the time came, thought–particularly coherent thought–might be difficult. On Leroy’s last birthday, we took him to the casino. While Leroy played “21” and the slot machines, The Boy wrote him a song.

And then we came home. I took the song, typed it into the computer, and then we were done. Three and a half months later Leroy left us. I was figuring out death certificates, supporting The Boy, working with the mortician in organizing the cremation, planning a quiet afternoon for the people who loved Leroy best. Had I waited to gather all the pieces something would surely have been left out. But I had planned ahead. I had pictures. I had words. I built a powerpoint and added music. And then I looked at it and realized what I really had was a book–so I made one, and because we had delayed the memorial service, I was able to get the books printed in time to give them to the people closest to him. Planning ahead was necessary, since I didn’t have anyone to take me aside and say, “Tell me about Leroy.” But it also became an important part of understanding who Leroy had been to us–and who he still was. We spent our last months wrapping him in love, honoring who he was. An important part of that was possible because in preparing to say “good bye” in a meaningful way I had reminded myself of the things I wanted to tell him while I could still do so.

4. Make private space for mourning. The day after we hosted Leroy’s farewell gathering, The Boy said to me, “It was nice, but there wasn’t really time for us to say “good bye.” And he was right. That gathering was wonderful–it offered people who loved Leroy a time and space to grieve, to comfort each other, and to begin the hard process of moving on. It was good and right that we honor Leroy that way. But because we were hosting it, we were necessarily taken up with things like food, making sure everyone had what they needed, offering comfort where we could. And that was right–but it meant that we needed to make a private time when we could say our own “good bye’s.” And we did. We planned an evening out on the patio, with a fire burning in the fireplace, and a dinner made up of Leroy’s favorite foods. The Boy wrote a letter. I took a copy of the book I had made.We read them, and looked at them, and then we sent them off to Leroy in the smoke of our fire. It was private, and it helped.

5. Don’t be afraid to laugh. Grief is intense. For some of us, laughter helps. When my grandfather died, I found laughter a great way of releasing some of the intense emotions. I won’t tell the whole story here, because it really deserves its own blog post, but to summarize my uncle, who was videotaping the memorial service, had a heart attack and died. And the camera was rolling. It was terrible. And laughter helped, not because it was funny–it wasn’t–but because…well, because it helped me. And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Anything that helps us not mask the pain, but experience it, make it a part of ourselves, and then move on is a good thing.

By the same token, treasure the periods of “okayness” that seem to be a part of the grieving process, at least for me. It’s like a roller coaster, and thank goodness it is, because we need those comparatively tranquil periods between the periods of intense grief to give us respite. Enjoy them. Understand that this doesn’t make you a bad person. Feeling okay doesn’t mean you didn’t love the person, and that you’re not grieving. It just means that for right now, you feel okay. Be grateful.

So there it is–all I got about losing someone. As I said at the beginning, grief is intensely personal. Maybe nothing here means anything to you. That’s okay. We each have to find our own way. This was mine.

6. And finally–grief doesn’t have a time clock. It takes as long as it takes. There is no schedule, no set time beyond which grief is inappropriate. Yes, grief evolves over time–I no longer grief my dad and my grandpa in the way I did, but I still have moments. There are a lot of cheerleaders who will advise you to “move on,” to “let it go,” to “get on with your life.” Grief makes people uncomfortable. It reminds us that none of us are immortal. But your experience and mine will not be the same, and you will experience grief in different ways for different people. And that’s okay. It’s more than okay. Feel it until you don’t need to feel it anymore. Talk about it until you realize you want to talk about other things. There is no schedule.

 

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Here’s Mary, tour guide extraordinaire.

Today we’ve put the Magic Dog on a leash and walked down the street to the Corner Cafe, where we’ve caught up with Mary Montague Sikes, a woman who knows exactly what a vacation should involve–an exotic location, a mysterious, studly stranger, a beautiful woman (who is “us,” of course), a spice of danger, and romance. How do we know this? Her popular Passenger to Paradise series proves it. She’s been writing books that offer her readers a taste of the perfect summer vacation for 10 years now.

Bodie: Hi, Mary, thanks for meeting us. We’re all curious, though–why here?  What is The Corner Cafe, and what’s so special about it?

Mary: Almost every small town has a gathering place—a diner, a cozy family-run restaurant. That’s what the Corner Café is for me. This quaint little restaurant has been in business for many years and is now a community landmark.

Bodie: But The Corner Cafe  is also a charming collection of short stories produced by Dani Greer, mastermind and blog book tour maestro, and you have a short story in it, right?

Mary: Right–“A Face at the Window.”

Bodie P: “A Face at the Window” starts out like many of your travel books–a young woman finds herself in dire need of a vacation, so she packs a bag and heads out. But that’s where the similarities end. Your central character, Arianna, has tragically lost a child, and in seeking to escape the anniversary of her loss she winds up in Milwaukee, possibly one of the least “exotic” cities in America. And there’s not a whiff of beefcake in sight. What prompted this story?

Mary: Last summer we spent several days in Milwaukee where I visited the beautiful art museum located on Lake Michigan. One of the exhibits that most impressed me was the bronze sculpture with a countless number of the same male figure, mouth open in a cry. That exhibit left a lasting memory for me. The story itself was prompted by something that happened years ago when our middle daughter was four years old. We were crossing a street to one of the Smithsonian Museums when she suddenly disappeared. I still remember my terrible panic which, of course, she never understood. What if I had never found her?

Bodie: Remember that movie, Tootsie? There’s a scene where Jeff (played by Bill Murray) says, “I don’t want people to say, ‘I saw your play. I liked it.’ I want them to say, ‘I saw your play. What happened?’ “A Face at the Window” is like that. I read your story.  And after I read the closing words I found myself wondering, What happened next? I don’t want to give away the end of the story for those who haven’t read it yet, but is there anything you can share without doing that? If you see Arianna and her daughter in another ten years, where are they? What are they doing?

Mary: That’s a very good question. In this age of the Internet, people do reconnect. Children find parents they never knew. Sometimes reconnecting can destroy a family. I know of one such case. I can see this story as the beginning of a novel. I’m going to think about it.

Bodie: In Arianna, you’ve written a character who badly needs the sort of escape your “Passenger to Paradise” series offers. Since we’re just heading into summer, can you recommend a few summer reading destinations you think we’d particularly enjoy?

Mary: I love the Caribbean where St. Martin is one of my favorite destinations. Although I haven’t written about it yet, I have a story set there waiting for me to tell. My book Secrets by the Sea  is set on another favorite Caribbean Island, Antigua. A sequel, Jungle Jeopardy,  is more of an adventure and is set in Central America. Jamaica is my favorite destination of all—we’ve been there more than a dozen times. My very first novel Hearts Across Forever  is set there. If you enjoy reincarnation stories, you’ll want to read this one.

Bodie: Thanks, Mary, and thanks for introducing us to The Corner Cafe. (All right, all right–full disclosure prompts me to admit that I already know about it, and this is part of a little thing we like to call a “blog book tour,” where a bunch of us bloggers get together and decide we’re going to blog about one thing–in this case, a book for which many of us contributed a short story or two–and we’re going to do it in succession. And so the party rolls across the internet, going from blog to blog, spreading the glad news that The Corner Café is open for business. Tomorrow The Corner Café book tour visits Heidi Thomas‘ very fine blog. Stop in and say hi. If you’d like to download The Corner Cafe for yourself, you can do it here for the very fine price of 99¢. Or, if you’re really thrifty, wait for a free download weekend–I believe we have one coming up soon (like in a couple of days).

Mary: Thank you so much for having me as your guest, Bodie. Now I want to hit the road for one of those beautiful destinations where a fragrant summer breeze dances through my hair.

And thank you, Gentle Readers, for joining us on this stop of The Corner Café’s blog book tour. Here’s the tour itinerary. Please join us for tomorrow’s scheduled event!

June 8 Heidi Thomas http://heidiwriter.wordpress.com
June 11 Marian Allen http://www.marianallen.com/
June 12 W.S Gager http://wsgager.blogspot.com
June 13 Chris Verstraete http://candidcanine.blogspot.com
June 14 Helen Ginger http://straightfromhel.blogspot.com
June 15 Kathy Wheeler
June 18 Morgan Mandel Double M http://morganmandel.blogspot.com
June 19 Pat Bean http://patbean.wordpress.com
June 20 Shonell Bacon http://chicklitgurrl.blogspot.com
June 21 Alberta Ross http://albertaross.wordpress.com
June 22 Karen Casey Fitzjerrell http://karencaseyfitzjerrell.blogspot.com
June 25 Pat Stoltey http://patriciastoltey.blogspot.com
June 26 SB Lerner http://www.susanblerner.com
June 27 Maryann Miller http://its-not-all-gravy.blogspot.com/
June 28 Mary Montague Sikes http://marymontaguesikes.blogspot.com
June 29 Stephen Tremp http://breakthroughblogs.blogspot.com

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Christmas is upon us. At least, it’s close enough that we can smell its rank and fetid breath. I love Christmas. I really do. I love Christmas carols. I host Christmas in July every year. I love the idea of a fresh start in the dead of winter, the idea that Christmas reminds us that the most precious of all things are seldom those things we receive, but those things for which we hope beyond the point where hope is reasonable.

But…

Christmas is not a season for ‘buts.’ It’s a season for mindless optimism and giddy assumptions. It’s a time for tinsel, for foolish philanthropy, for tipsiness if you’re inclined that way, for sober rejoicing if you’re not. Christmas is about abundance, about overflowing tables, trees teetering in the centers of Everests of gaudy packages. Christmas is cinnamon, and sugar, and nutmeg, and hot chocolate, and standing in the snow in warm boots and a scarf and staring at the lights on the house.

Christmas is about overdoing it–eating too much, traveling too far, spending too much, and too much time spent with too many relatives.

But.

But this year, like lots of people, my sisters and I have had to rethink Christmas. We all own businesses that provide services. We don’t have bosses; we have clients. Economic climates like the current one tend to send clients scurrying for shelter. For the first time, we sat down and cold-bloodedly decided to not give each others’ kids Christmas presents. This was neither easy nor comfortable. Over the years life has taught us that warm, loving bonds are to be treasured and celebrated. It felt wrong not to give the kids anything.

But.

Wrong or right has little meaning at the bank, or the grocery store, or the IRS. It took me about five minutes to realize that this year, if I wanted to show my love for my family, I was going to have to do it in some way other than whipping out my checkbook.

And so I resorted to that old standby that everyone always claims to believe, but few have the nerve to actually put into practice. I’m making my sisters’ children a gift. To be precise, I’m making them a recipe book, filled with the chili Grandma made when we visited for Christmas, my father’s fudge recipe, my mother’s cheese cake and vegetarian casseroles, my sister’s potato soup, four recipes for potato salad, my nephews’ barbecue recipes and chicken enchiladas recipes, and on and on.

Gathering the recipes has reminded me that families like ours mark our history with food. As my mom, my sisters and I decided what should go in (everything we could think of) we found ourselves asking each other, “Do you remember when…?” I’ve realized that this is more than a recipe book; it’s a code to our family history. It’s the literal trail of bread crumbs, leading from who we were to who we are. Why, for instance, are there so many potato recipes? Specifically, why do we need four recipes for potato salad? And a recipe for potato pancakes? And a recipe for potato candy? Why do we have a recipe for chowder that goes down well with chemo patients as well as one for healthy people? Why are there a few Vietnamese recipes in a German family’s cookbook?

The book is our code, as integral to us as our DNA. We are what we have eaten. This year I am giving the children in my family the key to the code–starting with Grandma’s chili recipe.

Want this recipe for your very own?
Double-click on the image and you’ll get a downloadable pdf.
Happy holidays!

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Good question. It used to be that self publishing was seen as the “easy way out” for books that couldn’t make the grade at mainstream publishing houses. For years, saying someone had self-published led to barely-suppressed smirks. Of course a self-published book would be sub-standard, went the reasoning. If it had been good enough to be profitable, a publisher would have taken it. Right? Somehow we all assumed that a book was good only if lots of people wanted to read it. There is a grain of truth in this; publishers, like responsible businesses everywhere, must keep a healthy bottom line, or they cease to exist. Clearly they have a responsibility to select the best books that they believe will appeal to the widest audience, and generate the greatest returns on their considerable investment in time and resources.

But what about the wonderful books that may address a desperate need in a comparatively small audience? Books that don’t seem likely to meet the benchmark for sales are often simply rejected by mainstream publishers, no matter what their literary or social merit may be, because they simply don’t offer adequate returns on the publisher’s investment.

The recent advances in self-publishing have changed all that. The proliferation of self-publishing and digital publishing, combined with Amazon and the major book-sellers’ online sales and distribution outlets, have largely removed the bottom line as a criteria in determining book production. At this point in history, for probably the first time ever, anybody who has about fifty dollars can produce and distribute a book for worldwide sale–or for an audience of one.

The upside to this is that now all those wonderful books for niche markets stand a chance of actually seeing the light of day. The downside is that it’s awfully easy to make a damfool of one’s self in print, and on a worldwide stage. It’s a scary thought. Self-publishing is great. I do it regularly. It offers me a way to maintain control of production and quality to a degree that authors who work with traditional publishers only dream of. Call me a control freak, but I like that.

But the decision to self-publish shouldn’t be make lightly. Before you select that pdf file and hit “send,” consider the following:

1. Are you considering self-publishing because you don’t think your book will appeal to a mainstream publisher? Why not? If you’re dealing with a limited subject with a limited audience, and you doubt that your book would pull enough market share to earn back a publisher’s substantial investment in getting your book from your manuscript onto the shelves in Borders, self-publishing might be right for you.

If you’re considering self-publishing because you think it’s an easy way out of doing all the editing a conventional publisher would require, maybe the question isn’t self-publishing or mainstream publishing, but whether you’re ready to publish at all. Though the requirements for self-publishing are different, and to a great degree driven by the author’s own standards, self-publishing is no substitute for good workmanship.

2. Have you done your homework? Most self-publishers offer a variety of packages. Each package includes a variety of services. The quality of those services can vary wildly from very good to very, very bad.

Take, for example, the matter of editing. Some self-publishing companies hire qualified editors, who do sterling work. Others seem to hire first-graders and provide them with a checklist of grammar rules. I’ve seen “corrections” that edited errors into the manuscript. And any attempt to clarify the finer points of grammar for the “editor” was met with mulish insistence on following the list.

If you’re doubtful about the quality of the services the self-publishing company offers, run far and run fast. If you must use them, consider hiring your own skilled editors and, if the self-publishing company allows it, designers. Some, like XLibris, require customers to choose from a limited palette of designs, and all design and editing must be done in-house. Others, like CreateSpace, provide templates, and allow customers to set up their own books, and use their own editors and designers.

Again, there’s an upside and a downside to this. For the writer who happens also to be a skilled typesetter such a system allows for far better quality control. For someone who is stumbling through the process, the system allows for those aforementioned unparalleled opportunities to embarrass one’s self.

Self-publishing can offer an amazing opportunity to produce the book you want, and get it to the audience you want to reach. But before you make your decision, ask yourself if you feel confident that you, experts to whom you have access, or the company you have chosen can reasonably be expected to produce a book of which you can be proud.

If you want to typeset your own book and design your own cover, take the time to educate yourself in some of the finer points of the tasks. Consider that there are people who actually go to school to learn how to do this. If you have doubts about your ability, check out some of the blogs on the blogroll; there are several run by excellent editors. There are some book designers here, too (stands up and waves hand).

3. Do you know how you will distribute your book? Most self-publishing companies offer to produce your book for you, and to offer it for sale–on their site, and perhaps on an affiliated site. Look for the ones that offer broader distribution. Some, like CreateSpace, will make your book available internationally through Amazon, if you wish, as well as through one of the major mainstream book distribution houses. What this means is that your book is available not only to people who know about and visit the self-publisher’s website, but to millions. A stranger across the nation can walk into a Barnes & Noble store and order my book–and get it. Make no mistake, one of the key factors in your book sales is the distribution system you choose.

5. Marketing. I’m planning a more detailed look at book marketing shortly, so I won’t go into great detail except to say that whether you publish with a mainstream publishing house or a self-publishing company, you should plan to market if you plan to sell books. Shrinking marketing dollars must be spent where they can be expected to earn the most return. If you’re a first-time writer, unless you have a dynamite book on a dynamite topic, this is quite likely not  your book. Publishers openly acknowledge that the books that sell the best are those in which the author is most actively engaged in promotions. There should be nobody who works harder than you do to make sure your book sells. That’s true across the board.

So–what about it? Are you ready to self-publish?

If you’d like to find out more about self-publishing through sites like CreateSpace (no, I’m not sleeping with anyone who works there, but I’ve tried several online publishers and I like their services the best) visit them online. If you’d like to see what I’ve done with within their very generous parameters visit my Amazon Author’s page. If you’d like a closer look at my work, email me for samples.

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Susan Wittig Albert

NYT Bestselling Author

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