The Afterlife: Do You Believe?

by Donna Kirk on March 20, 2014

When you’re dead, you’re dead. Gone, never to be heard from again. No funeral for me please or celebration of life. Those words have become a cliché to me and the celebrations are awkward. What does one talk about after the first ten minutes?

Before he died Dad said, “Throw me in a ditch. I don’t care what you do with me. I’ll never know or care.” I echo his sentiments. But others have definite ideas about honouring the remains and what, if anything happens after death.

My mother cared about what happened to her husband after he died. Dad lay in a shining wood casket for two days of visitation at the local funeral parlour, followed by a proper church dedication. No open coffin though. We knew he wouldn’t want anyone staring at him when he couldn’t talk back.

Dad was only fifty-four when he died of a sudden heart attack in 1965. My parents had been married for twenty-seven years. I can remember them embracing in the kitchen. “Have I told you today?” he asks. She wiggled from his arms, embarrassed because I was watching.

Since his death, I’ve had a recurring dream. He is still alive. He chose to leave us; his serious cardiac condition barring him from family life. He resides elsewhere in a place unknown to us. Every once in a while he returns, moody and remote, standing silently in the hallway of my teenaged home. He’s dressed in a white shirt and black pants. I’m hurt and angry that he can callously desert us. The dream makes no sense to me because he loved us so much.

In 2002, thirty-seven years later, my mother lies beside him in the plot she chose many years before. Same funerary routine, except she had only one visitation. At ninety-three, most everyone connected to her is gone. I add her name under Dad’s, and myself as daughter of the above.

Before she died, she kept pointing to Dad’s picture. “Soon I’ll be joining him.” I had my doubts, but for her sake, I hoped she was right.

With both of them gone I dug out some framed family photos and decided to make a grouping for the wall in my guest bedroom. To get the effect, I arranged three pictures on the bedspread. The first was me as a pudgy two-year old, grinning for the camera. The shadow of the picture-taker nearly covers my white Mary-Jane shoes. In the second one, Dad is sitting on the running board of a vintage Chrysler between two hunting buddies. Their shotguns are in their hands, a row of pheasants at their feet.

I placed one of Mom, a nineteen year-old flapper with a choker of pearls around her slim neck, in the middle. I lined up the photos, tops perfectly even and each separated by an equal distance. I’d hang them tomorrow.

The next morning, hammer and hooks in hand, I was shocked when my simple arrangement had been altered. The pictures of Mom and Dad were tilted, their edges touching.

Were they trying to let me know they’d been reunited at last?

In 2010, eight years later, Matthew, our forty-year old son who endured developmental disabilities and mental illness, died of pneumonia. I held him in my arms, “Where have you gone, Honey? Please let me know you’re okay.”

Nearly a year after my final words to him, Matthew came to me in a dream. One person accompanied him: a tall, rather portly man with black wavy hair, wearing dark pants and a white shirt. Matthew wore summer shorts and a brightly coloured T-shirt I recognized, along with socks and running shoes; not the clothes we’d chosen for his burial.

Matt approached me, flashed his captivating smile and wrapped his arms around me. We embraced for many moments. I closed my eyes, savouring the touch of his body and inhaling the familiar scent of his skin and glossy hair.

The companion stood far in the background, leaning against a wall, silently observing the scene.

Finally, Matthew withdrew his arms and smiled into my face. Then he and the man vanished.

I remembered my old recurring dream and realized the companion resembled my father. After Matthew was born, Mom and I often remarked how much Dad would have loved him and been his champion.

This new vision, unlike anything I had ever experienced, satisfied my longing to communicate with Matthew and see him smile. I’m no longer the smug skeptic. Now I contemplate an absorbing possibility: perhaps Dad, Mom and Matthew live on somehow – healthy, safe and loved.

Maybe when you’re gone from sight you’re not altogether gone. Maybe you do go somewhere. I’m not counting on it, but I’m leaving the door open.

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Mental Illness is Not an Exclusive Club

by Donna Kirk on February 16, 2014

Two years ago I was invited to join the local Consumer Advisory Committee; individuals who have lived experience with mental illness or are caring for a person experiencing mental illness. I can put my hand up to both categories.

As a child, I was anxious about nearly everything. Afraid walking two blocks home from school. I kept looking back – was someone following me? Panicking in church – I had to sit at the end of the pew close to the isle. Every Sunday it was hard to resist the urge to run out but I endured, sweating and taking deep breaths, until the minister led his lemmings down the aisle. But as I walked home with my parents, I worried about next Sunday. All week I invented fantastic illnesses that came on suddenly and could wipe out the whole congregation if they were exposed to me.

I fainted once in a restaurant and for decades I worried about passing out before the food came. Once, I threw up at a friend’s house. My mother picked me up and I spent the next three days in bed with stomach flu. The reason didn’t matter. For years, I couldn’t go to anyone else’s house to play.

As I grew older, these seemingly unreasonable bouts of anxiety faded. I could handle outings, school and had many friends. I guess I began to understand myself. But I had a fear of being alone, especially at night.

My father had a heart attack on a business trip when I was twenty and still living at home. Mom stayed with him for six weeks until he was able to travel. Even though I was finished school and working, I could not stay alone and lived with an aunt until my parents returned.

It never occurred to me or my parents the anxiety I experienced was a form of mental illness. People who were mentally ill were ‘put away’ in asylums. We didn’t talk about them, we whispered.

Years later, my first child, Matthew was born with severe brain damage as a result of oxygen loss at birth. His initial and most obvious challenges were cerebral palsy and developmental delay. As he entered his teen years, complex behaviours surfaced and worsened. He’d be calm one minute then become fiercely agitated with body twirling, shouting and pulling his own hair. He became a danger to himself with self-injurious behaviours, then he tried to attack other people. A psychiatrist suggested Matthew was dually diagnosed; developmentally handicapped and mentally ill. I’d never heard of such a thing. Medications prescribed for his agitated depression helped intermittently. But until Matthew’s death from pneumonia in 2010 at age forty, nothing worked for any length of time.

Anxiety over my son, overseeing the care of my dying mother, and worry over my husband who had quadruple by-pass surgery when he was only fifty-nine, wore me down. I couldn’t sleep, or slept too much. I lost fifteen pounds. I was convinced I had cancer. My doctor prescribed medication. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, he called them. They’ll help with your anxiety and depression he said. I told him I’d never been depressed in my life. I just didn’t feel well right now. I refused to take the SSRI’s.

A year later, I was back in his office. My anxiety was so severe I couldn’t function. I was afraid of myself. I took the SSRI’s.

In six weeks, I felt dramatically better. I guess I was depressed. I guess I’d had a form of anxiety and depression all my life. My mother had it too. I remember her crying if my dad was late home from work, or if I took the car and didn’t bring it back when she thought I should. She was sure I lay dead in a ditch. I guess Matthew inherited his depression from her, and me.

I told my doctor about this ‘family secret’. He said years ago the asylums were full. Many of the patients had depression but there were no medications to treat them.

Ten years later, I still take my meds. The dose has been reduced to half. But I require the help the SSRI’s give me. I fight ‘silly’ fears every day. My daily four mile walk puts me in a good mood. Healthy eating makes me feel energized.

My colleagues on the Consumer Advisory Committee have put life in perspective. They’ve all suffered. They’re all fine people. We’re trying to eradicate the stigma of mental illness. It should be easier given that twenty percent of Canadians will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime.

If you have a broken arm you have it fixed right away. Why is it so awkward to talk about getting your head fixed?

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Love and Limitations – Thoughts About Advocacy

January 20, 2014

I love to watch people and wonder about their lives. Doctor’s offices are the best venues for my type of eavesdropping. Folks sit close together and their conversation is easily overheard. If I’m really intrigued, I’ll ask questions. To date, no one has rejected me. Maybe that’s because I don’t talk to just anyone and […]

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More Apologies are Needed

December 10, 2013

  On Monday December 9, 2013, Kathleen Wynne, Premier of Ontario, and two other party leaders, apologized to the former residents of Huronia Regional Centre. They apologized for the mistreatment and abuse thousands of them received at the hands of their caregivers. Huronia Regional Centre opened in 1876 and was originally called Orillia Asylum for […]

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Win a Free Copy of Finding Matthew

December 6, 2013

I am currently running a book giveaway competition over at Goodreads.com. Click “enter to win” below if you’d like to be in with a chance to win a free copy of Finding Matthew. N.B. You will need to sign in to Goodreads to enter. If you’re not already signed up with Goodreads, I’d recommend it. It’s […]

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Never Totally Happy, Never Totally Sane

November 15, 2013

“Mom, I found a lump in my breast.” I reassure my daughter Louise that eighty-five percent of breast lumps are benign. But I can’t reassure myself. The fire in my belly is too real. Louise’s older brother Reese died of pneumonia three years ago. He was a person with disabilities. I would have taken his pain and […]

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Book Review of a Girl’s First Novel

November 3, 2013

My granddaughter has written a book: Ariel the Little Mermaid, by Sloane Eva Kirk. It’s her first, she’s four years old. When Sloane showed me the book last night, she had completed at least ten chapters. Sloane has enlisted a helper to form the words because right now, she can only write her name. The […]

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Esther, Nearly a Decade Since 9/11

September 28, 2013

I thought I’d share with you all a short piece I published this week on readwave.com. The story, based on a wonderful conversation I had with a mother in Florida, is embedded below. Please scroll down to read it. Note that you’ll need to click the pink “next page” when you’ve finished reading the part […]

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My Daughter, My Hero

September 3, 2013

Despite my daughter Kelley’s breast cancer diagnosis, double mastectomy and now, chemotherapy treatments, she is leading a positive, busy life. Her superior intelligence and talent as an artist inspire her friends and supporters. Kelley has fashioned this beautiful beaded Bra and entered it into The Run for the Cure contest. She also had to write […]

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Donna Meets Larry

July 23, 2013

Last week my friend Chris and I were seated for lunch in a restaurant that was not even half full. It was noon. Perhaps the summer trade is not vigorous. But we had to flag down a passing staff to ask for our waiter. We were told Stan, our server, would arrive momentarily. Ten minutes […]

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