Category Archives: Death & dying

Firsts and Lasts and In Betweens: I Miss You, Jeni Flock

Truth be told, it was Jeni who made the first move.

Before I drew a wider circle, Jeni reached out to me. I didn’t know at the time the extent to which she was a boisterous extravert, a curious humanitarian, a mushy marshmallow heart linked to a wickedly smart and witty mind. But I was soon to find out.

She sent me a private message on an adult adoptee forum we were both members of. That message meant so much that I saved the email alert sent by the forum’s platform. Dated February 18 2010:

hmmmmmmm. not sure if you’ll take this in the way it’s intended….

i like you.  io REALLY do not want to like you, but i do.  that is all i have to offer right now.

oh….that, and i like your blog very much.

jeni

That was the first contact between Jeni and me.

The In Betweens

Once I drew that wider circle in Jeni’s adopted city of Atlanta, Jeni and I became fast friends. We’d talk on the phone about her latest conversation with the nail lady or share with me a chapter of the memoir she was writing (she was especially proud of this passage about forgiveness) or when she was in the depths of despair about the double rejection of her birth mom (Jeni once posted that Sallie said she wanted to be notified of her daughter’s death by email — what kind of person assumes she’ll outlive her daughter?).

lori holden, jeni flockJeni came to stay with my family on a business trip later that year. Along with her service dog, Gracie, we took my kids to a festival in the town square and at one point Jeni and I were able to duck into a tavern for a quick drink on a hot day — a salty dog for her and a mojito for me.

We could not stop laughing hysterically about the line, “An angry adoptee and an evil adoptoraptor walk into a bar….”

Oh, gawd, how I loved her laugh, her big, raucous laugh that vibrated through her entire being and was infectious to all around.

Ever generous, Jeni brought me a designer purse that visit, which I happened to be using at the time of her death last week. Being a practical sort, I don’t subscribe to many fashion rules, but I do know that this purse is a fall-winter accessory. I can’t imagine transferring my stuff into something more springy now. Ever (but I’m sure eventually I will).

big moose community church pillowThat winter, Jeni returned to Big Moose in upstate NY, near where she grew up. Jeni sent me a pillow made at a balsam bee at her church there. I wish it were possible to digitize the pillow’s balsam fragrance so I could share it with you. Smells like earthy love (not a euphemism!).

Jeni was not one to brag about her considerable accomplishments (except for one — she was going on 5 years smoke-free, and she did love to let us know the number of days via Facebook status). I found out about many of Jeni’s talents accidentally. She was a Japanese interpreter, having learned the language in school (I lived in Japan and lemme tell ya — hat’s off to her). While growing up Jeni was an accomplished ice skater and ballerina (if you are Friends with her on Facebook, check out this and this, but first prepare to pick up your jaw from the floor). She later was an impressive golfer, as you can see by the header she chose for her blog. And —  news to me this past week — Jeni was once a popular disc jockey!

I was really looking forward to reading that memoir she was working on. Jeni was a woman of greatness — great love, great loss, great breadth and depth of experience, great passion.

Speaking of passion, Jeni loved Gracie and all animals fiercely, and she was on a personal mission to teach the law regarding service animals to anyone who gave her a hard time about Gracie  (looking at you, taxi drivers and car-rental clerks). She campaigned relentlessly to open access to original birth records for all adoptees. She was known all over Facebook for reminding people small ways each of us can help the homeless (“Donation idea: when donating canned food, try to offer pop top cans. Not all homeless people have can openers.”). Jeni served as volunteer chef for awhile at a men’s shelter.

Jeni was a consummate connector. I don’t have enough fingers to count all the Facebook friends I have because of Jeni said to each of us, “You two are both awesome and you should know each other!”

Jeni and my daughter Tessa struck up a friendship. I have not yet told Tessa that her email penpal has died (but I will).

The Last

Our last interaction of significance was when Jeni declared she would cheer for the Broncos in the Super Bowl. “You were my reason for picking the broncos!!!” — she told me. I filled her in that we’d recently gotten a dog, and showed her a picture of Dexter in a Broncos shirt. She was so happy for us, especially for Tessa, whom she knew had been lobbying for a dog ever since Gracie visited us.

Jeni died March 18 or 19. I’m not sure which. If she were alive this morning, she’d tell us all via social media, “No texting in church.”

Oh, Jeni, what a bunch of happy memories you’ve left me with. I wish we’d made more. I didn’t know that would be our last conversation — that’s the trouble with lasts.

Jeni leaves a simple legacy: Be kind. Carry that thought with you today. For my friend, Jeni.

Some of us are sitting shiva for Jeni on March 27. Join if you’d like. And a fund has been set up to donate to Jeni’s causes: adoptee rights, an animal shelter, and a food bank.

No one laughs at God

That September morning, a boy awoke excited. He was about to become a teenager. He was the eldest of his generation in the family, and he was thrilled to be the one to break this ground. Just two more days and his life would change.

He had no idea. None of us did.

It was during first period at his middle school that he was pulled out of class, along with his twin brothers in the grade below. It was probably at the same time that I got the call from my parents — his grandparents (he is my sister’s son).

His father had been found dead.

There was a letter.

This September morning — today — that same boy is again awakening, this time with an odd mixture of excitement and loss. He is about to become a man. In two days he’ll be eligible to vote, he’ll be invited to register for the draft, he’ll have all the freedom and responsibilities that go with being 18.

And he marks five years finding his way without his dad. With his own resilience and the support of family and friends, this young man can finally say:

I feel content
I feel at peace
You’re so close to me
Even though you’re out of reach

Jake, my nephew, (center, with his brothers) has been grieving and healing in fits and spurts for five years now. Whereas my therapy is blogging; his is rapping. Today, he releases his latest creation, No One Laughs, with haunting backdrop by Regina Spektor. I am honored to share it with you. (Safe for Work version.)

Have a tissue box ready for the ending.

Consider this my love note to Jake, Ben and Ross today. I love you boys with my whole heart, and my love extends to everyone who has contributed to making you you.

Happy birthday, Jake.

Time Warp Tuesday: Left Behind

Let’s see…which ultimate demise shall I choose  — “by one’s own hand” or “eff-ing cancer”?

I’m talking about my options for Time Warp Tuesday, the monthly blog hop offered by Kathy at Bereaved and Blessed. This month’s theme is Left Behind, and our assignment is to find an old post tells what it was like to live on after the death of a loved one. And then to write a new post explaining why I chose that post and what has happened in my life since. Continue reading Time Warp Tuesday: Left Behind

All that’s left

About the time I started middle school (or, as we used to say, “junior high”) I had exasperated my piano teacher to the point where she decided I had to find a new teacher. I still don’t know how I flummoxed my mom so. I suppose it could have been my legendary stubbornness.

(Example: My parents told me I could practice any half-hour of the day I wanted. Could be before school or after school or in the evening; I could manage the time as I pleased. I did not like this edict, even though I liked learning to play piano and was quite good at it. Know how I responded? I set the alarm each morning at 3:30, got up and banged my etudes and sonatas as loudly as I could  until 4 am and went back to bed. My parents, to their credit, didn’t mention it at the time, although I know now that middle-aged people don’t sleep very well and absolutely abhor being awakened 3 hours before the alarm.)

Mom found a new teacher for me, a world- renowned composer and teacher who had been featured in the newspaper for publishing her latest opus. Remarkably, she lived within walking distance of our house, but she was not taking any new students. Somehow my mom finagled an interview and audition for me.

I was really nervous for our meeting. But Mrs D, as her students fondly called her, seemed genuinely charmed by me, earnest girl that I was. Mrs D had not one but TWO grand pianos in her living room (a wall had been knocked out to make room) — talk about impressively intimidating. I played for her my best Für Elise on one of the pianos and poof! Mom was no longer saddled with me as her piano student. Soon both my sisters followed me under Mrs D’s tutelage.

Mrs D was quite a character. She taught us not only the notes but to “sniff the keys” — that is, to feel the music and not be afraid to get demonstrative with the keyboard. She would tape ping-pong balls to our palms to counter our tendency to flatten our hands. She was brilliant, whimsical, odd, unafraid, tough, loving, and the most fascinating person I knew. She was a renaissance woman — she wrote novels, painted paintings, traveled the world with her beloved husband, and composed and played songs that evoked a range of emotions for both the listeners and the players. The first time I ever saw my name in print was when Mrs D dedicated a sonatina to me.

Once as a teen I ran away from home…to Mrs D’s house. She listened to me, opened up a can of black olives to console me (our bonding food — with her I was odd, too), and patted me on the bottom as she pushed me back toward home. Another time she and her husband were preparing for their imminent trip to Europe. Not wanting to pay high prices for stuff they could easily bring with them, they one day had me help them make martinis and pour them into seal-a-meal packaging to put in their suitcases. I didn’t realize exactly what I was doing, but it was a merry time helping them get ready.

Several years ago Mrs D’s husband died after a devastating Alzheimer’s decline. She missed him terribly but stayed vibrant and modern, though she was nearing her 90s. She hung out on Facebook, kept composing and publishing music for children, and wrote her autobiography. Turned out she was a codebreaker in WWII but had been under a 50-year veil of secrecy.

Eventually she grew frail and could no longer live in home with her two grand pianos. She was moved to a nursing home where she charmed the staff and entertained the other residents with her piano-playing and storytelling. My sisters and I visited her Thanksgiving of 2010 and sang her this song in harmony. She held each of our hands and made lengthy eye contact, loving us through and through. “Please come back soon, my sweethearts,” she said.

My mom and I visited her last Spring, about this time. We filled her in on our lives, listened to her reminisce, and told her we’d visit again.

Mrs D died last June. She was 92.

I attended the estate sale at her home this weekend. All of Mrs D’s  belongings were on the lawn being picked over by passers-by (the pianos were gone, in the possession of her son). Remnants of a life — junk really. Travel books from the 1970s that no one will ever read. Wall hangings and artwork that look hopelessly dated. Ten thousand travel photos that have meaning only to the two people who took the trip.

I browsed. I time-traveled. I was back in junior high. I was sitting through recitals in that living room. I was either eating black olives or packing green olives in liquid. I was visiting Mrs D while home from college. I was introducing her to the man who would become my husband. I was chasing my toddler around in that living room, trying to keep the knick-knacks safe from her grasp as I showed her off to Mrs D. While my life was ascending, I didn’t even notice Mrs D’s corresponding counter-arc.

This is what’s left of a life. Tchotchkes that outlive their owner, untethered and unowned. Doomed for a landfill. A wave of grief swept over me for the loss and love of Mrs D, the inevitable loss we face, the complete disconnection that waits for everyone. What would my estate sale look like?

I decided to salvage only one item, as impractical as it is symbolic.

A different type of keyboard, to be sure. But a touchstone to a woman who touched my life in a profound way.