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Tag: writing obituaries

in memoriam…

you might want to look away. but the horrors of the last two weeks demand we do more than pause and pick right up again. this week, the place was a school in a small town in texas, a fourth-grade classroom the site of the worst of it. ten days before, it was a supermarket in buffalo, new york.

ever since my second or third day on the job at the chicago tribune, i’ve been writing obits, those few short sentences or maybe a handful of paragraphs in which we try to capture the essence of who someone was. it’s a record for the ages, ones that used to be pasted into the pages of a family album, or carefully scissored out of the paper and tucked in the page of a bedside book or a bible. or a wallet. the ones in wallets always choked me up the most, when years later someone would pull out from their purse or their back pocket a worn leather billfold, and know right where to reach for the newspaper clipping of someone they’d loved. sometimes you found out the words you wrote in a newspaper stuck around for a very long while.

i’m afraid the someones who can change things are looking the other way, too many of them. and i won’t make even a ripple sitting here tapping out postage-stamp-sized obits for each of the 32 souls now departed, now torn from the ones they so dearly loved, the ones they would have clung to, if given half a chance. but to read of the simple quotidian joys, to assemble the notes of how and for what they were remembered, was and is a devotional gesture. it’s a genuflection in short sentences, a way to begin to absorb the hell we have wrought here.

no one should have to worry that running into the store for strawberries for shortcake might be our very last act. or that hiding in the closet of your fourth-grade classroom will be the place where you take your very last breath. something is wrong here. very very very very wrong. something is twisted and cruel and the drip-drip-drip of it all is anesthetizing, a toxic numbing takes hold. you can start to not notice.

the postage-size stories that follow are what i could find on each of the 32 victims, those from uvalde and those from the massacre in buffalo. it’s a long list, and you might not make it to the end. i’m writing it anyway. because to tell even a wisp of their stories is to begin to make real the horror of all that’s lost. their stories are utterly ordinary, a fourth-grader who swooned for a second baseman, a grandpa who ran in a store for a birthday cake.

yesterday’s news snapped into the sharpest focus the dimensions of grief we can’t grasp: the husband of one of the two uvalde teachers died of a massive heart attack in the wake of his wife’s murder. they’d been together for 24 years; high school sweethearts who married, and had four children. that’s what grief can do.

here are their stories, first the children and teachers of texas, and on to buffalo and the ten who died there…

In which, in a posture of reverence, we pause in silence to first hold up each of the 22 blessed ones who died in the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas….

Here’s the little we know:

Irma Garcia, 48, a fourth-grade teacher at Robb Elementary, a mother of four, had been married to her high school sweetheart, Joe, for 24 years. Irma died in the slaughter inside the school. Joe died of a fatal heart attack on Thursday. Their four children, two sons and two daughters, range in age from 12 to 23.

Eva Mireles, 44, a fourth-grade teacher who co-taught with Irma Garcia. Her daughter Adalynn posted this on Twitter on Wednesday: “Mom, you are a hero. I keep telling myself that this isn’t real. I just want to hear your voice,” the tribute read. “I want to thank you mom, for being such an inspiration to me. I will forever be so proud to be your daughter. My sweet mommy, I will see you again.”

Amerie Jo Garza had just turned 10. She tried to use her cell phone to call police during the shooting. Her father, Angel Garza, is a medical aide who rushed to the school, and he told this story to CNN: 

After arriving at the scene, he saw a girl covered in blood who told him that someone had shot her best friend. When Garza asked who her best friend was, the girl replied, “Amerie.” His daughter.

“I just want people to know she died trying to save her classmates,” said Amerie’s father. “She just wanted to save everyone.”

Xavier Lopez, who was 10, had just been lauded at the school’s honor roll ceremony. He was funny, never serious, and he had a smile….a smile, his mother said, she would “never forget.”

Uziah Garcia, also 10, and “full of life.” He loved anything with wheels. “The sweetest boy that I’ve ever known,” said Uziah’s grandfather.

Jose Flores Jr., 10, loved baseball, video games, and was “an amazing big brother,” especially to his baby brother. “He would just be like my little shadow,” Jose’s mother, Cynthia, said. “He would just be helping me with the baby. He had a thing with babies, like my friends’ babies. He just had a thing with babies. He was always nice.” His sister, Endrea, was in another fourth-grade classroom. She survived.

Lexi Rubio, 10, made the All-A honor roll. She loved baseball and basketball and wanted to be a lawyer when she grew up. “Please let the world know we miss our baby,” said her father through tears. “All I can hope is that she’s just not a number. This is enough. No one else needs to go through this.”

Tess Marie Mata, 10, had been saving her money to go to Disney World, according to her sister, Faith. She loved Ariana Grande, TikTok dances, and the Houston Astros, especially second baseman José Altuve.

Nevaeh Alyssa Bravo was 10. She put a smile on everyone’s face. Navaeh is heaven backwards.

Eliana ‘Ellie’ Garcia was 9, just about to turn 10. She dreamed of becoming a teacher, but in fourth grade she loved the movie “Encanto,” cheerleading, and basketball. She was the second oldest of five girls in her family.

Annabell Guadalupe Rodriguez was 10. She died in the same classroom as her cousin, Jacklyn Jaylen Cazares.

Jacklyn Jaylen Cazares, “a little firecracker,” according to her father Jacinto, was “full of love and full of life. She would do anything for anybody.” She was 9, and died in the hospital almost three hours after the shooting.

Eliahana ‘Elijah’ Cruz Torres was 10. “Our baby gained her wings,” said her aunt Leandra Vera.

Jailah Nicole Silguero was remembered as “a bespectacled 10-year-old,” whose mother Veronica Luevanos posted updates to Facebook all through Tuesday night into the wee hours of Wednesday. She’d started posting in the hours when she didn’t know what had happened to her daughter, and she was begging for answers. When Jailah’s mother finally found out, she wrote: “I’m not ready for this,” with an image of a broken heart, and a link to Jailah’s obituary. Just before 3 a.m., Veronica wrote: “I’m so heart broken.” Later she added: “My baby you didn’t deserve this neither did your classmates. R.I.P my beautiful angel.”

Jayce Luevanos, 10, whose cousin Jailah (above) was also killed, lived with his grandfather, and every morning Jayce made his grandpa a pot of coffee. 

Miranda Mathis was 11, and very smart. Her best friend was her brother, who was in another classroom when the gunfire broke out in Miranda’s classroom.

Makenna Lee Elrod was 10. She loved to dance and sing and she “made friends everywhere she went.” She was beautiful, smart, and funny, and her smile “would light up a room.”

Layla Salazar, 10, won six blue ribbons at her school’s field day. Her father, Vincent Salazar, shared a video of his daughter on Facebook; he captioned the video: “Run with the angels baby!”

Alithia Ramirez had just turned 10. When her parents welcomed Beto O’Rourke into their home in the hours after the shooting, birthday balloons and her artwork were still taped to the walls. “They want the world to know what a beautiful, talented, happy girl she was,” O’Rourke wrote.

Maite Rodriguez’s age is unknown at this time, though there is a photo of her proudly holding her honor roll certificate in front of the school banner. Her mom’s cousin, Raquel Silva, wrote on Facebook, on behalf of Maite’s mother, Ana: “It is with a heavy heart I come on here on behalf of my cousin Ana who lost her sweet baby girl in yesterday’s senseless shooting. Our hearts are shattered.”

Rojelio Torres, who was 10, was not identified nor his family notified till almost 12 hours after the shooting. His aunt Precious Perez told a local TV station: “We are devastated and heartbroken. Rojer was a very intelligent, hard-working and helpful person. He will be missed and never forgotten.”

and, just 10 days before, 10 more lives gunned down in the aisles of a grocery store.

Pearl Young, 77, a grandmother to eight, spent every Saturday morning volunteering at a food pantry run by her church. A “strict but loving” mother, she still worked as a high school substitute teacher. She was, her son Damon Young said, “full of joy. She just loved life, and she loved the church.” She’d stopped at the Tops Friendly Markets after going out to breakfast. Her son was going to pick her up, but suddenly her text messages stopped, and Damon’s phone filled instead with news alerts about the hell unfolding inside the store.

Ruth Whitfield, 86, was “a blessing for all those who knew her,” said her son, the retired Buffalo fire commissioner, Garnell Whitfield. Ruth had stopped at the Tops after caring all day for her husband of 68 years in the nursing home where he now resides. She was the mother of four, and doted on her family––especially her husband, constantly cutting his hair, ironing his clothes, dressing him and shaving him. “There’s very few days that she did not spend time with him attending to him,” her son said. “She was his angel.”

Andre Mackniel, 53, went to the Tops to get a birthday cake for his son. He was “selfless and generous,” a loving father and grandfather who used “to check in on everyone.” On Facebook, Mackneil’s fiancee wrote this: “Today my baby was born but today my soul mate was taken. How do I tell my son his daddy’s not coming home? How do I as a mother make it ok? Someone please tell me because I really don’t know,” she wrote.

Katherine ‘Kat’ Massey, 72, “the glue” of her very close family, had stopped at the Tops and asked to be picked up in 45 minutes. When her brother came by to get her, he saw police putting up crime tape. She sometimes wrote for the local newspaper, and one of the topics she was most concerned about: guns.

Celestine Chaney, 65, was described by her son as a “survivor,” who twice had survived brain aneurysms. Her son, Wayne Jones, said that when he was 12, he was twice called out of school to rush to the hospital, where he was told his mother wouldn’t make it through the day. His grandmother, he says, made him “go to the foot of the bed and pray.” She later survived breast cancer, but she didn’t make it out of the grocery store. “She was a beautiful person, a spunky, independent woman,” Jones said of his mom. “The life of the party, just a joy to be around.”

Margus D. Morrison, 52, was a school bus aide, a lovable guy who liked to joke. His younger brother Frederick, who said the two were “tight like best friends,” couldn’t find many words in the wake of the killing. But he did say this: “It hurts me so much right now because I wasn’t expecting to lose him.”

Heyward Patterson, 67, was at the Tops because he often drove members of his church to the store, helping them load their groceries, and then taking them home. “That’s what he did all the time,” his cousin Deborah Patterson said. “That’s what he loved to do.” He was gentlemanly, and sprightly, a “real-life, down-to-earth man.” He was a deacon in his church, and loved to sing. One relative compared him to Smokey Robinson ––“only better.”

Aaron Salter Jr., 55, a retired Buffalo police officer, was described by the Buffalo Police Commissioner as “a hero in our eyes.” He was the security guard on duty at the Tops, and he tried to take down the gunman, to spare any lives. “I’m pretty sure he saved some lives,” the commissioner said. 

Roberta Drury, 32, the youngest of four siblings, had moved from Syracuse to Buffalo to help her older brother who was undergoing treatment for leukemia, and to help care for his children. Once her brother had gotten through the treatment, she’d decided to stay on and help him rehab an old bar he had bought. The Washington Post reported that as an African American child adopted at 18 months into a White family, Roberta (known as Robbie) was “no stranger to racism.” In her family, “race never mattered,” said her sister, Amanda. “So this is just ugly on a level that as a family we can barely wrap our heads around.”

Geraldine Talley, 62, was described as “the sweetest.” An avid baker, her Facebook page was filled with desserts she made for the people she loved: cream cheese apple cinnamon bread pudding, peanut butter pie, strawberry filled cupcakes. She had gone to the Tops with her fiance to get sandwich meat for a picnic down by the waterfront, and she sent him to grab a certain tea. That’s when the shooting started. According to family members, her fiance started calling her name, but didn’t see her, and then hid inside a freezer. The gunman shot the door off the freezer, but the fiance survived, and Geraldine died in the store.

may their memories be a blessing, and may their names and their stories not soon fade into the cavernous silence….

special edition: mary ellen sullivan & the soul of the hummingbird

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i don’t usually write on wednesday mornings, but this is no ordinary wednesday. my beloved friend, the one to whom i said goodbye on friday, the friend i’d not named here — out of respect, out of privacy — she died on sunday afternoon. her name is mary ellen sullivan, and before she died, she asked that i write her obituary. my knees nearly buckled when i opened the email friday night that held that blessed and soulful and wrenching request. mary ellen was a writer; we met 35 years ago, when i was a nurse learning how to be a journalist, and she was fresh out of boston college, ready to take on the world as a magazine writer and editor. we stayed friends for all the years and all the life that has tumbled by since the summer of 1981. i was in her wedding, she was in mine. i was there, too, when her marriage ended, and for the weeks and months that followed. she drove me to the hospital the bitter-cold night when my first pregnancy was suddenly slipping away. i drove her home from the airport the gray winter’s afternoon when she returned from her six-month trek around the globe all on her own; it was during that car ride that i told her i was again pregnant, this time with the baby who would become my firstborn. when mary ellen started a blog four years ago, i became a careful reader and devoted follower. i knew — because i’d been doing it for five years by then — just how exposed you can feel, just how much it matters that this curious form of writing be held to the very same standards we’d both learned at medill’s school of journalism (i loved it once, not so many months ago, when mary ellen caught a typo in one of my blog posts, and she called to make sure i correct it; i had mis-typed “their” when it should have been “there”). and we both knew that an even higher standard comes into play when you commit to what we do here: you write from the heart, you speak the deepest truth you know, and when you hit the “publish” button you unreel a prayer.

so in the hollow hours of saturday, wholly aware of the weight of the assignment — “write mary ellen’s obit” — i turned to mary ellen’s breathtaking blog, on the wings of the hummingbird. as i pored over her entries, i melted. and i started to smile a very deep smile. i realized that mary ellen had already written much of her obituary. her words were so poetic, so infused with the essence of who she was and ever will be, i simply began to snatch up whole passages, lining them up in what felt like the wisest order. i realized that mary ellen might have had a hunch that i’d figure out the way to write her obit: let her write her obit. and so i did. i stepped out of the way, made hers the voice of the obit.

it is serious business — in my book, perhaps, the most serious business — to write an obit, anyone’s obit. a whole life is distilled. the message of a lifetime is trumpeted, is illuminated. it is daunting to sit down and try to capture the whole, the beauty, the poetry. and so, every time, before i lift a finger, before i put a finger to keyboard, i close my eyes and i pray. 

the answer to my prayer on sunday afternoon, minutes after i learned that mary ellen had died and it was time for me to begin my assignment, is today in the chicago tribune; it’s what’s known as the “lead obit.” mary ellen would love that. and that makes me smile in a week when my heart is sodden with sorrow.

with love, here is a life story i want you to read. mary ellen’s wisdom, her poetry, her clarity — the whole of her — takes my breath away. from today’s chicago tribune:

Mary Ellen Sullivan, who wrote a blog on joy, dies at 56

Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

On the day she was wheeled into surgery for recently diagnosed ovarian cancer, Mary Ellen Sullivan wrote words that would become her clarion call, words that ring with the insistent urgency of a prophet: “If you are sleepwalking through your life — wake up — before the universe does it for you.”

She posted the words on her blog, On the Wings of the Hummingbird, a compendium of wisdom and joy, under the title, “A rare piece of hummingbird advice.”

Sullivan, 56, who died of ovarian cancer Sunday at Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, wasn’t in the business of giving advice.

She was a writer and traveler, a diviner of joy — joy unexpected, unlikely and against the odds. “In a time of chaos (now righted),” she wrote in March 2012, “on a day in which joy seemed eclipsed by uncertainty, I committed to writing about joy every day. I figured that if I can find joy when I’m in the mud, then maybe I have something to say about joy.”

Sullivan, a longtime Chicago resident, was born in Harlingen, Texas, and, from the beginning, crisscrossed the continent and the globe.

“I grew up a nomad,” she once wrote, “living in 10 different places by the time I was 19 because my father’s corporate job took our family across the country and around the world. Some of it was glamorous — San Francisco in 1969, Europe for my college years — but other parts were, as you might imagine, difficult.”

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Boston College in 1981, majoring in English, with philosophy and art history minors. In 1982, she earned a master’s degree in magazine journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

Upon graduation, she took a job as a magazine editor at General Learning Corp., a small educational publishing house in Highland Park, and five years later, she moved to Advocate Health Care, in Oak Brook, where she ran the publications department for another five years.

She was putting down roots, falling in love with Chicago, from the lakefront she biked by the mile to the backstreets and blues joints and countless holes in the wall. She explored the city with an adventurer’s eye and a journalist’s curiosity. After a decade, though, she was ready to travel the globe. All on her own.

“On the heels of a short marriage, a grueling divorce and some burning career questions, I took an extended leave of absence from my job to travel around the world by myself,” she once wrote. “I skied the mountains of New Zealand and biked through the Chinese countryside. I bargained for goods at the Bangkok night market, shopped the glittering stores of Hong Kong, touched the crumbling Berlin Wall, swam along the coast of Australia and holed up in Somerset Maugham’s former hotel room in Malaysia to write.

“Mine was nothing less than a spiritual journey in which I peeled off layers of cultural conditioning to get to the essence of my spirit,” she wrote.

Unwilling to return to the corporate world, Sullivan launched a freelance writing career that brought her bylines in the New York Times and various women’s magazines, as well as travel guides, a book about Chicago’s “Cows on Parade” public sculpture exhibit, and liner notes for a jazz record label.

She designed her life, she said, so that she could continue to travel, paradoxically deepening her roots the farther she roamed.

“I spent one winter in South America, another on Tahiti and Easter Island. Along the way I fell in love with Africa and returned to this land of my heart, time and time again. I began studying with the ancient medicine men and women around the world, and found a community here in Chicago of like-minded people who became my tribe.”

While in Chicago, Sullivan convened a writers’ group that influenced a memoir, a novel, a self-help volume and a historical text, “The Warmth of Other Suns.”

She might have found her deepest calling, though, as a keeper and chronicler of joy. Her blog, which she started in March 2012, was a reflection of the way she lived her life.

She began by putting a journalist’s sharp eye to the world around her:

“I noticed how unconscious most people were, blind to the joy all around them. They walked with their heads down and their defenses up. They saw without seeing, heard without hearing, spoke without thinking, remembering nothing. It actually hurt my heart to watch. And then, as the economy got worse and the natural disasters quickened, I saw fear, anger and incivility. Drivers became ruder, sales clerks surlier, tempers shorter.”

And so, she set out to right that, recording joy day after day. She named her blog after the hummingbird: “My favorite description of hummingbird magic comes from Ted Andrews, who wrote the seminal book on animal totems called ‘Animal Speak.’ He says, ‘There is something inside the soul of all of us that wants to soar through sunbeams, then dance midair in a delicate mist, then take a simple bath on a leaf. There is something in our souls that wants to hover at beautiful moments in our lives, making them freeze in time. There is something in us that wants to fly backwards and savor once more the beautiful past. Some of us are just hummingbird people.’”

“Guilty as charged,” Sullivan added.

And she ended one blog entry with this insistent instruction: “And if you love the life you have, please, please, practice gratitude. Wake up every morning acknowledging just how much beauty is in your world. Pay attention to it, honor it and keep your heart and your eyes wide open. You won’t regret it.”

Sullivan’s partner of 18 years, Michael Schmitt, died in 2014.

She is survived by her parents, Donal and Martha Sullivan; two brothers, Bill and John; and a sister, Sheila Zimmerman.

Memorial services are pending.

Barbara Mahany is a freelancer reporter.
Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

blessings, my beautiful friend. blessings upon blessings. and thank you. thank you with all my heart….

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this is the headline that wound up in the newspaper edition of the story. she would love this headline, as do i. oh to be known as a “chronicler of joy”….blessings, my hummingbird friend. i will be watching for you, waiting for the brush of your wings past my brow. and my heart…..