She’s being followed by a moonshadow

“I’m dying.”

That’s what my dear friend Lynn said when she called me on the last Monday in February. She had just returned home from a visit with her oncologist who had given her the shattering news that her already grim prognosis of three to four months to live had abruptly changed to weeks and that she was being released into hospice care. Her doctor was on point – she died exactly three weeks later, two days before her 68th birthday. What happened in those 21 days in between was one of the most transcendent experiences of my life. Lynn took me to the thin place between this life and the next one and I hope I never get over it.

This is the story of how I got there.

Lynn, Joy and Kathy (Lynn’s wife) on our wedding day in May of 2014.

I became friends with Lynn through marriage – she and my wife Joy were best friends for almost 25 years, so, when I got Joy, I also got Lynn – a way better gift than monogrammed towels. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the spring of 2017 and underwent surgery followed by chemotherapy. She lost her hair and felt like shit. The past six years, she was on the fickle rollercoaster of good scans/bad scans and endured several more rounds of chemo. Fuck cancer. But cancer doesn’t get to steal Lynn’s story – I just needed to give you some context.

Lynn’s Facebook post after she got the dire news in January. She always was a straightshooter.

In January, Lynn’s oncologist told her that her tumors were aggressively growing – even while being blasted by chemo – and Lynn had only a few months to live. I picked her up from her appointment that day and she delivered the news to me straight – no chaser. That was Lynn’s style. I felt like I was in a movie – a bad one – as I grasped for something remotely lucid to utter. I’m sure my knuckles were white on the steering wheel when I heard her say, “I’ve started planning my funeral.” I know that my voice cracked when I replied, “Make it a damn good one.” She nodded her head slowly and said, “Yep. I deserve that.” And she got one on par with Queen Elizabeth, but more or that later.

Kathy and Lynn in happier times -ringing the bell after Lynn’s first round of chemo was completed on the day after Christmas in 2017.

We always assumed that Lynn would eventually die from her cancer and it was a faint undercurrent to our time together, but she kept making plans and we were on board for them. In the last year or so, her bad days far outnumbered her good ones and this past Christmas, Joy wondered out loud if it might be Lynn’s last. I didn’t have to say anything as my dear wife read my dark face. But that’s the thing about hope – it’s the last one to leave the party – and we made the most of our holiday time with her. Looking back on it now, fate was kind to us. Lynn and her wife Kathy spent several hours with us on Christmas Eve when their power went out during a wicked cold snap. Lynn sat bundled up in her puffy coat by the fireplace in our living room for three hours – talking, laughing and drinking hot chocolate. Thank you, Duke Energy.

Christmas seemed so far way when Lynn called Joy on a Saturday morning in mid-February and said she needed to go to the ER – her pain had reached an unbearable level. Kathy couldn’t take her because she had been up all night with a stomach virus. Can you say piling on? Joy was with Lynn for several hours until she was admitted. Tests and scans revealed that the gruesome pain was being caused by the tumors obstructing her kidneys. A few days later in the hospital, Lynn and Kathy were faced with a Sophie’s Choice – either die in a few days from kidney failure or have a nephrostomy – a surgical procedure to make an opening from the outside of the body to drain the urine into tubing attached to a bag. The doctors said this procedure would give Lynn a few more months.

I think Lynn had already made peace with dying, but she had some things she wanted to take care of before she checked out, so she opted for the surgery and returned home a few days later with her “pee purses” – her words – in tow. Lynn had a penchant for accessories and we were grateful, as always, for her indomitable sense of humor. She needed that in spades a few days later when her oncologist delivered the death knell – even with the nephrostomy, her time on earth was down to weeks, not months.

That’s when she called me and we boarded the L-Train to Parts Unknown. It was a group tour with our tribe – Lynn, our tour director, Kathy, our friends Lori and Sue, and our other Lynn. One of the many gifts of being gay, at least in my experience, is creating your own family. This unit doesn’t always preclude your biological family, but this is the family that doesn’t vote against you in every election, the family that loves you unconditionally, the family that knows and loves you for who you are – regardless of pronouns. And I know you don’t have to be gay to have this kind of family, but I do think that my people have perfected the concept. After all, we’ve had centuries of practice.

Lynn and me back in the day when we robbed banks together.

Lynn had one sibling, a sister, who we shall refer to as Cruella for simplicity’s sake, and they were estranged for some time before Lynn’s death. But Lynn’s other family, her heart family, was huge – in fact, about 40 folks formed the processional (Lynn’s idea) behind Kathy at her memorial service. I didn’t know all of my other family members, but I do know that we were all damn proud to be in that number.

When Joy finished work on that woeful Monday night, we went to Lynn’s house, not knowing what to expect. And there she was in her recliner in her sunroom looking like she was ready to host book group. She had a beatific look on her face as she announced, “I’ve decided that I want to die on the same day as Jimmy Carter, so we can hold hands and jump together.” We didn’t see that coming (understatement). And that was pretty much every day until she died – one astonishing conversation after another. Oh, and President Carter, she’s waiting for you.

There were joyful surprises along the way, too. Kathy’s niece Dani and her wife Cat flew in from Iowa the very next day to spend time with Lynn and help with 101 things. I had never met them but was immediately smitten when I picked them up at the airport. They are in their late 30’s – lovely, bright and brimming with possibilities. I soon nicknamed them “the kittens” because they were so cute, sweet, and far removed from sickness and death. We all just wanted to pet them. They stayed for ten days with the promise to return for Lynn’s memorial service. And they did.

The Kittens – Cat (yes, her real name) and Dani in front of Lynn’s favorite tree.

Lynn continued to lean into her death, giving us the glorious gift of celebrating her life while she was still with us. And boy, did we. The first Saturday in March, we held a surprise drive-by parade for Lynn. We had originally scheduled it for two weeks later – right before her birthday – but we were keenly aware that time was not on our side. We weren’t sure how many folks would be able to come on such short notice so we were gobsmacked when about 40 enthusiastic friends turned out with festive decorations and signs. There were even leprechauns! It was an unusually warm day for early March and a camp chair at the edge of her yard served as Lynn’s review stand.

No one was going to rain on Lynn Parsley’s parade.

Everyone blew their horns and cheered – Kathy had prepared the neighbors on their cul-de-sac for the shenanigans. Each car stopped when it reached Lynn and everyone got out and hugged her. Most of them cried, but Lynn never did. She held their hands as they stooped down to her level and she looked into their eyes, and said things like, “I’ll see you on the other side.” Later that evening, Kathy told us that Lynn had been reflecting on the day and said, “I’m already in heaven.”

Our tribe has a monthly supper club, only we call it Cabana Night. That was my idea because the first one actually took place in a cabana. It’s the highlight of every month and Lori and Sue host and give everyone an assignment. And there’s always a theme. Always. Sometimes, there are even costumes. We’ve had almost 60 by now and we knew we had to give Lynn a final one. Lori and Sue had been out of town for a week when I informed them that they would be hosting a dinner party on the evening after the parade. I’m just that kind of friend. I broke the news to them on the phone while driving and by the time I got to their house – about a 15-minute drive – Sue had already selected a theme – Campfire Girls – and the e-vites went out within the hour. Never doubt what a few committed lesbians can accomplish on short notice. I think Margaret Mead said that.

We didn’t have s’mores, but we went through three boxes of Girl Scout cookies.

See: Eating your feelings.

Parade day had been a lot for all of us – most especially Lynn. She was feeling nauseous from her pain meds when she arrived for dinner and sat in Kathy’s car for a long time with her eyes closed. None of us dared to say it out loud, but I’m fairly certain we were all thinking the same thing –  what an idyllic way that would be for Lynn to depart this earthly life after such a glorious day. She rallied and made it inside to the couch where she stayed for the duration. We took turns sitting with her during dinner and when it was my shift, she asked me if I would give the eulogy at her memorial service. Gulp. I told her it would be the honor of my life.

My dear wife had been terrified that Lynn was going to ask her to do it because she knew she would never have the composure to get through it. Lynn laughed when Joy confessed her fear and assured her that she would never put her best friend through that. A visibly relieved Joy told Lynn she thought she might ask Jack, her male best friend, and Lynn laughed again and said, “Are you kidding? He cries more than you.” I’ll tell you this – you may not choose Joy or Jack to give your eulogy, but you couldn’t make finer selections for best friends. Lynn knew that and I like to think she knew that I could deliver the eulogy she deserved.

Lynn in her happy place – smack dab in the middle of her tribe.
Photo: Back row – left to right: Lori, Joy, Kathy, Lynn and Sue. Front row – Cat, Dani and our other Lynn. Big head: Me.

She was only able to eat a deviled egg that night, but she smiled a lot. We all did, especially when we toasted her. We had decided prior to dinner that every toast that evening would be the same – Lynn Parsley Forever! And we were ridiculously pleased with ourselves when we added the Wakanda hand signal and crossed our arms over our chests each time we raised our glasses. That toast may be the only one we ever need.

Lynn Parsley Forever!
We gave Lynn the Wonder Woman accessories before her surgery in June of 2017.
I think she liked them.

Kathy and Lynn’s sunroom was busier than a Trailways bus station during Lynn’s last few weeks. She had visitors day and night – friends from third grade, sorority sisters, half of Ardmore – the beautiful neighborhood she lived in for 25 years. Kathy was the traffic cop and would gently try and steer folks out who were staying too long. Only one snag – Kathy is Norwegian, she’s terminally polite and gracious, and bouncer is just not a good fit for her. Keep in mind that Lynn was in great pain – in spite of heavy-duty narcotics – during a lot of this time. She somehow managed in-person goodbyes to her book club, her movie group and her not so small small group which she led for several years. Once again, she left most of them sobbing while she kept smiling.

Lynn selected this photo for her obituary. She was a very witty girl.

There were some lighthearted moments, too. Lynn was a bit of hoarder – not in a nasty way – she just had a lot of stuff and she was determined to give away a lot of it before she died. She was the Imelda Marcos of Skechers shoes – she had over 50 pairs. She liked matching her shoes to her outfit. I mean, who doesn’t? We wore the same size and she was delighted to give me first dibs. One problem – I am married to a minimalist and we live in a small condo with limited closet space. And honestly, I’ve never felt a need for pink shoes. I took a few pairs, but I know I’ll never fill her shoes.

The more smiles change, the more they stay the same. I’d know that sweet one anywhere.

And there was that magical Friday night when the universe conspired to give us one last perfect evening. Lori and Sue had dropped by for a brief visit with Lynn but found her sleeping, so they didn’t stay. Lynn was not at all happy that she had not been awakened to see them. “I’m not dead yet,” she barked to Kathy and the Kittens. Kathy called Lori and Sue – who had just arrived home – and sheepishly asked them to come back. And, of course, they did. Meanwhile, Joy and I had gone out for a bite to eat for the first time in weeks and as we were finishing dinner, we got a text from Lynn, which simply said, “Come over if you want to.” We practically ran to our car. And when we walked into the sunroom, there was Lynn holding court in her recliner – not looking at all like someone who was going to die in 10 days. Her pain was stable and she looked like, well, Lynn. And then she directed Kathy to open a special bottle of prosecco – her favorite – that was in the fridge. The party was on and we felt like a giddy pack of unchaperoned 8th graders.

Time stood still that Friday night – or at least we weren’t aware of it. Lynn didn’t feel sick and we didn’t feel sad. Cancer was just an astrological sign and not a serial killer. We were all kittens that night – playful in the moment – no aches, pains, or worries. It was our Make a Wish dream come true and Lynn’s sunroom was our Disneyworld. I took a photo of Lynn that night that I have looked at almost every day since she died. It reminds me to be present in the moment. We all stayed late that night and when I got home, I texted Lynn and thanked her for showing us that sacred and mysterious space between life and death. She texted back, “It’s been a great ride.” I didn’t want the night to be over, but when I finally drifted off to sleep, I knew I was still smiling.

Some people just know how to live.

We texted a lot during those last few weeks and it will be a very long time before I delete those messages. One of the best nights was “watching” the Oscars with her. My wife usually makes it through the first award and heads to bed, so it was so fun to share snarky comments with Lynn throughout the show. She had some good ones, like “Brendan Fraser looks like a young Rodney Dangerfield” and “Is Tilda Swinton a ghost?” but the one below literally made me laugh out loud.

Milk Duds will forever make me smile.
(Lynn’s texts are in the grey background.)

All of us who have had extensive dental work join Lynn in that prayer.

When Lynn had accomplished most of the things on her to do list – financial and legal matters that would make things easier on Kathy – she decided to have her nephrostomy reversed, knowing that would expedite her death. The tubes coming out of her back were terribly uncomfortable and her pain was getting harder to manage. She was ready. Unfortunately, our healthcare system was not and it took a lot of phone calls and navigation to get the greenlight to proceed. Finally, on Wednesday, March 15th, Lynn had the procedure to remove the tubes. I texted her that morning to tell her I was thinking of her. What she texted back has become a mantra for me in the days since her death.

She made us believe it.

Lynn returned home that morning for the beginning of the end. She had originally planned to enter our local hospice as her death drew near – she didn’t want Kathy to have to live with the memory of her dying in their home. Kathy thought she would be okay either way, but “I think that’s what Lynn would have wanted” was a phrase she spoke softly time and again in those last days – when Lynn was no longer conscious. It was such a sweet affirmation of their commitment to each other.

Her pain was increasing each day as her body was shutting down and under the supervision of her hospice in-home team, she was taking more drugs more frequently. The upside was no pain, the downside was fewer periods of clarity. Joy had arranged for a few days off from her work – thinking she would be giving Kathy a break at hospice during Lynn’s last days. We went to her house on a Thursday evening and could see that her descent was beginning. She had a hard time keeping her eyes open and her speech was weak and slurred. Our conversation was spotty when Joy, her voice cracking, asked Lynn if she could see into the next world. Lynn’s eyes grew wide open as she replied, “Oh, I’ve been seeing into it for a while now.” Joy asked her what it looked like. We both leaned in close to Lynn’s face as she answered, “The path is lit up waves.”

The moonglade as seen from Lynn’s condo balcony. “The path is lit up waves.”

Joy and I needed something stronger than prosecco after that revelation. I loved Lynn’s imagery and it seemed almost poetic for her. Her favorite place on earth was her beach condo in Garden City, SC. Her condo is on the fifth floor of a high rise and features a huge balcony that practically hangs over the ocean. You feel like you are on the deck of a grand cruise ship when you are standing on it. Many times, when we were there with her, we would marvel at the moonglade over the ocean and in the weeks since her death, it has comforted me to think of her on that familiar path.

That was the last conversation we had with Lynn. The next morning, Kathy was having difficulty getting Lynn adjusted in her recliner – Lynn was in a stupor from her medication and unable to help her. Lori and Sue happened to drop by at just the right time and it was starkly apparent that this was not a drill – Kathy needed help. Sue was calling me on her phone when Joy arrived at Lynn’s house. The next four days were like that – we were all on the same page, seamlessly working together with one purpose – keep Lynn as comfortable as possible as she made her exit. We never discussed who would spend the night – we all did – or who would do what – we just did it.

This crew is true blue and we were so grateful for all the friends who dropped off food and hugs.

Our vigil became a sacred sleepover of sorts and took on an almost tribal ritual feel. A hospital bed was delivered and placed in the middle of the sunroom – her favorite room in the house. And Lynn remained in that bed with us surrounding her until she died. Her priest came and administered the Last Rites and we all laid hands on her. And then we waited. And waited. And waited some more. Death wants to make sure you’re paying attention.

Time management is an important skill for caregivers.

At night, we slept in increments of 55 minutes. Lynn could no longer swallow her pain meds, so we had to give them to her by dropper every hour. Kathy was the head nurse and Joy was her assistant. We became as proficient as a NASCAR pit crew. One of us would gently hold her head up and another would massage her throat to help the medicine go down. Kathy would set her phone alarm for an hour and the rest of us – sleeping on assorted couches, would pop up to help when it went off. Funny aside – Lynn was a world class napper and strongly believed that every room should have a couch – just in case she felt the need – the need for sleep. She was right – and we played musical couches each night.

The second night, I slept on the couch in the sunroom next to Lynn’s hospital bed. My head was just a few feet from hers and her deep labored breathing was the only sound in the entire house. It felt like being in the passenger seat when I was a kid – long before car seats – curious about where my dad might be taking me. Only this time Lynn was driving and I wondered what she might be thinking as I stared into the living room where Lori was sleeping. There is something deeply comforting about sleeping under the same roof with people you dearly love. I didn’t really sleep, but I floated in that space with no fear – just an overwhelming peace that wherever Lynn was going, she would be okay.

My view from the passenger seat. Lynn kept steering us out of the dark.

Early Sunday morning, Lynn began the death rattle – that eerie gurgling sound from the back of the throat that usually signals that death is very near. Or not. After a few hours during which we hung on her every breath, she returned to the deep breathing she had been doing the past few days. She wasn’t leaving just yet. The hospice nurse came that morning and encouraged us to talk to Lynn and tell her that it was okay to go. We all smiled knowingly and we told the nurse that Lynn had been telling us it was okay for her to go for weeks. We decided that Lynn was enjoying being the absolute center of our attention too much to leave just yet.

We were all a bit delirious from sleep deprivation, which can only explain why Joy and I sat down on the couch beside Lynn’s bed and decided to start singing hymns. You might be thinking that was a really lovely thing to do, but you’ve never heard my wife and me sing. It’s not pretty. We know how awful we are and we giggled and declared that if our dreadful crooning didn’t take Lynn out, nothing would. Mercifully, we ran out of hymns and everyone joined us in the sunroom and we began playing a two-hour mashup of Lynn’s Top 100 on our phones. Lynn loved music – all types – and we covered every genre – including songs from marching bands – she played the French horn in her high school band. We played everything from 25 or 6 to 4 to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and wait for it – Midnight at the Oasis. Lynn’s bucket list trip was Morocco – her planned trip in 2020 was scratched by COVID and she deeply regretted never getting there. We really belted out that one for her and at one point – just for a nanosecond, Lynn seemed to bob her head with the music – absolutely true story and I have fairly reliable witnesses.

DJ Joy in da House!

Send your camel to bed…

A hospice nurse – Nurse Cindy, our favorite – came on Monday morning and after taking Lynn’s vitals, told us that Lynn would probably go soon. Or not. Hospice nurses are awesome, but they’re not the betting type. Nurse Cindy told us what a good job we were doing caring for Lynn – and yes, I’m sure she tells everyone that, but it was a lovely lift to our weary souls that morning. Our other Lynn arrived with goodies and fresh energy and Lori and Sue went home to shower and change. When they returned, Joy and I left to do the same. And, of course, that’s when Lynn took her last breaths. Kathy was napping and Sue shouted at Lori to go wake her – STAT. A few minutes later, Lynn was gone. Death is like that – it keeps you waiting and then it makes an Irish exit.

Sunrise from the sunroom on the day Lynn died.

Lori had called me to tell us to hurry back, but we were too late. I was worried that Joy would be heartbroken that she was not with Lynn at the very end. Here’s the thing about my wife – she is the most grownup person I have ever known. I mean it. She is just so annoyingly mature. I told her I was so sorry we didn’t make it back in time and she said, through her tears, “It’s okay. I’m just so glad Lynn is finally out of pain.” See what I mean? Later, after she had spent some time alone with Lynn by her bed – holding her hand and stroking her hair softly – Joy told me that she thought Lynn had died while she was gone to make it easier on her. I love that thought and I want to be like Joy when I grow up.

We all left Kathy with Lynn in the sunroom while we did the things you have to do when someone dies. I called hospice to let them know and they told me that Nurse Cindy would be over shortly. Someone had the idea of cracking open a bottle of prosecco to toast Lynn off. And wouldn’t you know it, just as Sue was popping the cork and Joy was holding the flutes, in walks Nurse Cindy. She seemed a bit startled. I guess not everyone celebrates the end of a loved one’s life so festively. Well, Lynn Parsley wasn’t everyone, and she would have loved every minute of it. Joy even asked Nurse Cindy if she wanted a little sip. That’s my wife – ever gracious. Nurse Cindy politely declined and began all the paperwork she needed to do before the folks from the funeral home arrived. She was so tender with Lynn, even tearing up a few times. When it came time for her to leave, she said she hoped she had such a devoted group around her when it was her time. I think she really meant it. And then we all hugged her – genuine hugs of gratitude. I told her that I hoped I would never see her again – at least not on the job – and she laughed.

Then two very dapper men from the funeral home came to take Lynn away. They, too, were so very sensitive and kind. We followed them to the door and stood at the top of the steps as they prepared to place Lynn’s body in their Dodge van. What the hell? Lynn was a car fanatic – buying a new one every few years. She had a couple of Jags and sports cars and really nice rides over the years. A Dodge van would not have been her style at all, but I guess death has a sense of humor. And then one of the men slid the van door open and we saw that there was another body inside. Joy, who is usually the most reserved in our tribe blurted out cheerfully, “Oh, look! Lynn has a roommate.” I thought I might fall down the steps from laughing so hard and then Kathy sweetly said, “Lynn would love that.” That was our Lynnie – making new friends wherever she went.

We went back into the house, which felt deafeningly quiet and Sue decided to make dinner reservations for us that evening at one of the best restaurants in town. And so, a few hours later, we sat in a very private nook in a very fine restaurant and told story after story about Lynn and toasted her with almost every sip. Someone had tipped off our server to the circumstances of our celebration and he was wonderful. As we were leaving, he said, “I hope you all enjoyed your evening – and the one not here, too.” Even he knew that Lynn was still with us.

Lynn’s memorial service was held ten days later on the last day in March. There were over 300 people in attendance. I don’t even know 300 people. The service was magnificent – just as Lynn had planned it. The music was gorgeous – the prelude included a piano, viola, and trumpet – and a lyric soprano sang. I think I did okay with my eulogy. My sister, who lives in California, happened to be on the east coast for business and was able to attend and I decided to focus on her when I began to speak. I was about three words in when I saw her beautiful face crumble into a full-on ugly cry and that immediately relaxed me. She’s a tower of strength, that one. I kept it short and sweet and a little bit funny and told a few stories about Lynn that I hoped everyone could relate to.

I shared that Lynn and I had recently reminisced about one of our favorite movies – Starman. There’s a wonderful scene in that film where an alien, played by Jeff Bridges, is sharing his observations about humans with a scientist. The alien says, “You are a strange species. Not like any other. Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you? You are at your very best when things are worst.” That was Lynn Parsley. And when things went from bad to very worst in the last months of her life, Lynn was the one who made us feel better. She never gave up hope and she never stopped teaching.

I ended my eulogy with this excerpt from Mary Oliver’s poem In Backwater Woods:

To live in this world,

you must be able to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your own bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to

let it go,

to let it go.

Lynn knew this and she gently helped us to know it, too. I think of her every day, especially when I run across something clever on social media that makes me laugh and I want to share it with her. I miss laughing with her. And I miss talking about deep things. Not many people like to go there, but Lynn did and we went there often – especially near the end. I read a fascinating article shortly after Lynn’s death (she probably sent it to me) – an excerpt from a book by Mimi Zhu – Be Not Afraid of Love: Lessons on Fear, Intimacy and Connection. Zhu writes that “grief is an ancestor who teaches us to exercise constant and immense gratitude.” She goes on, “To this day, grief has shown me that love does not die at the face of death; it is transformed. When you grieve deeply, you are shown your abounding capacity to love. Love does not die. Love sprouts from the ground we have nourished with our tears.”

That last sentence reads like a prayer to me,

Lynn loved Star Wars and well done sarcasm. I sent this to her in my head.

I had the most amazing dream about Lynn the other night. I was sitting outside at a picnic table with Joy and her on a beautiful day. Lynn was still dead but looked great – not sick at all. She said she had come to tell us that heaven looks like you’re wearing 3-D glasses all the time. How awesome is that? Lynn loved all the Marvel movies, so the heavenly 3-D effect is so on brand for her. She was terribly excited about it all and I kept touching her arm to see what it felt like. Spoiler alert – it felt like an arm. It was such a happy dream that I could hardly wait for it to be morning so I could tell Joy about it.

And now the image I can’t get out of my head, not that I would ever want to, is of Lynn and Jimmy Carter in heaven with their 3-D glasses on – blissfully chewing on Milk Duds – and watching the latest Guardians of the Galaxy movie together. Somehow, Lynn knew it all along – every little thing is going to be all right.

Lynn and Kathy will always have Paris – September 2022.

The back of the bulletin for Lynn’s memorial service. Her idea, of course.
“No Hard Feelings” by the Avett Brothers – what a way to go.

Rest well, dear friend. We’ll see you on the other side.

Postscript: In one of our last conversations together, I told Lynn that I would most certainly write about her death. She smiled and paused for a second before saying, “I’d be disappointed if you didn’t.”

And as of this posting, President Carter is still with us. No hurry, sir, but Lynn has saved you a great seat.

Eulogy for Lynn Parsley

Note: My dear friend Lynn Parsley died on March 20th, two days before her 68th birthday. Cancer sucks. Lynn gave me many gifts, particularly the last few months of her life, and I will most certainly write about them when the time is right. She also gave me the great honor of giving her eulogy at her memorial service last week. I think these things are meant to be spoken, not read, but I’m sharing it with you anyway. I think Lynn would like that.

Lynn Parsley, ten days before her death. Living, not dying.

I married into friendship with Lynn Parsley. Lynn and my wife Joy were best friends for almost 25 years. So, when I got Joy, I also got Lynn. Lucky me! And Joy? Well, she got my grumpy cat. Life is not fair, friends.

I loved Lynn Parsley – and so did all of you. Lynn made meaningful connections her entire life and perhaps more remarkable than that, she kept most of them. The parade of visitors through her sunroom the last month of her life was like an episode of This is Your Life on steroids– friends from 3rd grade, sorority sisters, most of Ardmore, dogs, on and on for days. Lynn was never careless with her relationships. She nurtured them and treasured them, but you know that. You may not know the person sitting to your left or right, but it would not take long to make a connection while playing Six Degrees of Lynn Parsley. It might be Book Group, Movie Group, GLADS, Sunday school, Cabana Night, Sherosa, Adam Foundation, therapy, or you just happened to stand in line with her one morning at the DMV and you had an amazing conversation about the multiverse and became friends. Lynn thrived on connection and being with her people, and if you were her friend, you were her people for life.

Lynn Parsley was an ever-amusing array of opposites. She was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known – she could quote Richard Rohr and Honey Boo Boo in the same sentence. Her cake was never baked. She was endlessly curious. She traveled all over the world, but perhaps her favorite journey was the drive to Garden City and her beach condo – with the mandatory stop at the Strawberry Patch – always two scoops. Lynn loved ice cream more than anyone I know over the age of 12.

She was famously frugal – have coupon, will shop – and in her honor, our local Kohl’s store is closed today.

And yet, she was abundantly generous to charities and anyone in need – usually in quite ways – never giving for recognition. And Lynn was one of those people who never had to be asked to give. She just did – over and over again.

She had a wicked sense of humor and it never deserted her. She could tell one of her goofy Delbert and Doreen jokes and then land the wittiest retort.

A few weeks ago, I texted her a picture of a bumper sticker I saw in the Harris Teeter parking lot. It proclaimed, Enthusiastically Episcopalian.

Lynn immediately texted back, “Well, that’s an oxymoron.”

One day she would be telling me about a fascinating Japanese documentary on Albert Einstein and a few days later she’d be raving about much she loved the latest Minions movie.

Lynn loved movies and she texted me during the Oscars and said she hoped there would be movies in heaven and Milk Duds that wouldn’t pull out her fillings. May it be so.

We reminisced about one of our favorite movies, Starman, a few weeks before she died. There’s a wonderful scene in that film where an alien, played by Jeff Bridges, is sharing his observations about humans with a scientist.

The alien says, “You are a strange species. not like any other. Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you? You are at your very best when things are worst.’’

That was Lynn Parsley.

And things certainly went from bad to worse in the past few months and Lynn was always the one that made us feel better. She never gave up hope – her faith sustained everyone who loved her. And, of course, no one loved her as much as Kathy and I cannot speak of Lynn today without speaking about Kathy. And Lord knows, she hates that. I’m sorry, Kathy.

Kathy Ausen was the love of Lynn’s life. Lynn always felt like she won the lottery with Kathy – her beautiful Norwegian, and if you’ve ever had Kathy’s chocolate chip cookies, you know that she did. Their relationship was filled with love and humor and all the things that good marriages are made of, but it was also brimming with integrity and respect. Their relationship was shiny in all the best ways – like a beautiful crystal prism reflecting the best of both of them.

Bearing witness to Kathy’s strength and grace these past several years has made me appreciate the vow “in sickness and in health” in a truly sacred way.

Thank you, Kathy, for always holding us up with your elegant mettle.

When Lynn’s prognosis suddenly changed from months to weeks, she leaned into her death – certainly not happy about it, but peacefully accepting. Joy and I went to the house that night not knowing what to expect. There was Lynn in her recliner with a beatific smile on her face. She said, “I’ve decided that I want to die on the same day as Jimmy Carter so that we can hold hands and jump together.” She’s waiting for you, President Carter.

Lynn’s serene acceptance of her death gave us the glorious gift of celebrating her life while she was still here with us, and boy, did we! We had a drive-by early birthday parade and she was able to sit outside on a beautiful sunny Saturday and say goodbye to so many old friends. Most of them cried, but Lynn didn’t. She smiled that winsome smile and held their hands and said things like, “I’ll see you on the other side.”

Kathy told us later that evening that Lynn was reflecting on the day and said, “I’m already in heaven.”

Lynn loved the poet Mary Oliver and a passage from her poem, In Backwater Woods, perfectly captures Lynn’s presence in her final weeks.

To live in this world, you must be able to do three things, to love what is mortal, to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it, and when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.

Our beloved Lynn has let go, but the good news is that we never have to let go of her.

Lynn Parsley Forever!

Deborah Lynn Parsley, March 22, 1955 – March 20, 2023

Odd couple

How do you measure a year in a life? Remember the love.

Grief is a greedy bastard. You can quote me on that.

My mother died twenty years ago today. No Hallmark cards for this milestone. Come to think of it, I bet there are – I just haven’t seen them, but now I’m certain to get a pop-up ad in my Facebook feed. Anyway, I knew I would write about this anniversary and well, let’s face it, I’ve had a lot of time to gather my thoughts. I had decided a while ago that I wanted my post to be more of a celebration of my mother’s life than a somber reflection, maybe share some stories that would tell you what I want you to know about her. The kind of stories that reveal someone’s true character. Like the time my conservative Republican mother cared for one of my suitemates in college after she had a miscarriage. Yes, it sounds like an Afterschool Special, but it really happened.

I attended college at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia – the small town I grew up in. I lived on campus and was quite the naïve freshman when I met my two suitemates from Northern Virginia – Molly and Julie (yes, the names have been changed). They had been good friends in high school – schools much larger than mine and they arrived at JMU with a lot more experience in all manner of things than me. They seemed nice enough, but I rolled my eyes when I saw their matching Winnie the Pooh comforters when I walked past their room on move-in day. I had to readjust my initial impressions after they both snuck their boyfriends in that first night. It was a lot for a greenhorn virgin to process. I was terrified we would all be expelled if Mrs. Layman, our dorm mother (shut up, I’m old), discovered the contraband boys. Fortunately, Mrs. Layman was ancient and could have never made it up the three flights of stairs to our suite.

Me my first night at college.

Turns out Molly and Julie were fun, sweet girls and I really liked their boyfriends, too. We became fast friends and they schooled me in some of the more colorful electives of higher education. I’m not sure what my mother thought of my new friends, but she was nice to them – fed them, let them do laundry at our house – real perks when you’re living in a dorm. One weekend that fall, most of us went away for some reason – I can’t remember where – and Molly was the only one left in our suite. She had seemed edgy for a few days and I assumed it was a combination of boyfriend issues and cramps – a debilitating duo for sure.

When I got back to campus that Sunday evening, I went to check on Molly. She was tucked under the covers in her bed, looking rather wan. I asked her if she was okay. And then she told me about her weekend. She had been feeling bad on Friday evening and went to the infirmary – where she had a miscarriage. I think I stopped breathing and I became very aware of my own racing pulse. She told me that she thought she might have been pregnant – she had missed a period – and that’s why she had been so upset lately. The infirmary released her on Saturday and sent her home with a few parting gifts. Turns out an 18-year-old young woman scared and away from home needed more than some Ibuprofen and a box of Maxi Pads. So, she called my mother. At this point, I remember thinking having a heart attack would have been preferable to talking to my mother about what had happened. And what did my mother do? She picked up Molly and brought her to our house and gave her ginger ale and Saltine crackers and let her spend the night in my old room. Now I was ready for a trip to the infirmary.

My formative years were pre-internet. There was no Siri. The struggle was real.

Mom was a wonderful mother in many ways, but she never had “the talk” with me. Everything I learned about reproduction growing up was from a grainy film I saw in the basement of the Health Department when I was in Girl Scouts. Let’s just say that I did my own research. I barely dated in high school – mainly because I knew I was gay and well, such things just weren’t talked about back then. My mother was strict and I knew she would have a strong opinion about Molly’s situation. When I finally gathered the courage to call her to tell her I had gotten home safely from the weekend, she didn’t mention what had happened. We small talked for a bit and when it was time to hang up I somehow managed to form the words, “Thank you for taking care of Molly.” Gulp. I braced myself for her onslaught of disapproval, but her response was brief and resolute: “She needed a mother.” We never spoke of it again and I think that might be the only story about my mother that you need to know.

I’ve certainly known that feeling of needing a mother over the past two decades. I deactivated my Twitter account a couple of weeks ago. It’s not like I had a following or anything, but creepy Elon Musk was just a bridge too far for me. I did enjoy some of the snarky humor on the site and once in a while, it was fun to connect with a celebrity or two. I followed the actor Mira Sorvino – I found her posts relating to #MeToo very insightful. Her father, the late great Paul Sorvino, died this past July and Sorvino made a post I understood all too well.

Stars. They’re just like us.
When Twitter is used for good and not evil.

As a writer, I cherish words and I swoon when someone chooses just the right one. Unmoored. Mira Sorvino nailed it. I knew exactly what she was speaking of – that uneasy and sometimes scary feeling of drifting with no sense of direction. Pilots can sometimes experience this as spatial disorientation – feeling like they are flying in a straight line when in reality, they are leaning into a banking motion. Spatial disorientation was determined to be the cause of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane crash near Martha’s Vineyard in 1999. Kennedy was confused about his plane’s position over water while descending at night and lost sight of the horizon. In simple terms, he wasn’t where he thought he was. I think grief is a form of spatial disorientation. There have been many times during the past twenty years that I thought I was doing fine – or at least okay – when, in truth, I was drifting dangerously off course. Once in those early years, I spectacularly crashed and burned and hurt people I deeply loved. These days I try to practice gratitude over regret, but the residual damage can never be undone.

What it feels like when grief is your co-pilot.

I grabbed for any lifeline when I was searching for the horizon and my younger sister was the one who most often caught me. She was only 38 when our parents died. We have taken turns rescuing each other over the years and in those truly despicable moments when we have both been dismally adrift, we have somehow managed to keep each other upright. During these times, we often recall stories about our parents – most of them not as dramatic as the one I shared from my college days. Most are funny and sweet and quite ordinary. The sharing of the knowing is what keeps our loved ones alive and we treasure these conversations. Often, when we’ve made it through a particularly rough ride, we find ourselves laughing at our own resilience. And we always express our gratitude for each other. We know our parents would be proud of us in these moments.

Sister’s got a hold on me.

So, I knew I wanted to be with my sister to commemorate the anniversary of Mom’s death. It’s a little tricky since my sister lives in California and I’m here in North Carolina, but she’s always been a bit of a gypsy and as fate would have it, she’s on the east coast for several weeks for work. I wanted us to meet in a place that was meaningful to all of us – me, her and my mother. The town we grew up in no longer holds any comfort for us. It’s a funny thing when you lose your parents, you lose your hometown, too. We have no connections there – just the house we grew up in. Charlottesville, Virginia has always held a significant place in our lives. My mother spent a lot of time there as a child – her mother’s sister lived there and they often visited from their home in Lynchburg. My father attended the University of Virginia and passed his love of all things UVA on to my sister and me. My brother went to Virginia Tech, so the UVA gene skipped a sibling – but that made for a lively rivalry over the years. My sister also studied at UVA for a while and I lived in Charlottesville for a dozen years when I was a department store buyer for Belk. It remains the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived in and some of the happiest times of my life were spent there. It feels like home to me in a way that Greensboro or Winston Salem never have.

Wait, I may have buried the lead here. On a blustery Saturday night in December of 2002, my mother took her last breath as I held her warm hand in a quiet hospital room in … Charlottesville. Her death was beautiful and peaceful, so Charlottesvile felt like the perfect place to celebrate her by doing some of her favorite things – like shopping and drinking champagne – both aerobic activities in her book.

And then, on a Sunday night a few weeks ago, three University of Virginia football players were gunned down on a charter bus in a parking lot on campus as they returned to Charlottesville from a class trip to Washington, DC. Unfathomable. Charlottesville was once again the site of unthinkable violence and thrust into the national spotlight for the most heinous of reasons. My wife and I awoke to the horrible news on that Monday morning when we turned on the TODAY show. There have been over 600 mass shootings in the United States this year – this year – we rail at all of them, but when they feel personal, it is different. I was gutted. I immediately texted my dear friend Chris who has lived in Charlottesville for almost fifty years. It felt important to be connected with someone else who was heartbroken.

The fallen Hoos. Those smiles…
Charlottesville knows how to grieve. Mourning on the Lawn.

That’s another thing about grief – it stirs our innate communal needs. We desperately long for union with others who feel the same way. Anderson Cooper has a new podcast about loss and grief, Is That All There is With Anderson Cooper. It reached No. 1 on the Apple Podcast charts in the United States after two days in release. Turns out grief is the Taylor Swift of podcasts. Cooper is 55 and lost his father when he was 10 and his brother, to suicide, when he was 21. Cooper has known grief but kept it at a distance until his mother died a few years ago and he had to deal with sorting out her things – and, in turn – his unattended grief. He felt isolated and wanted to hear about how others navigate this lonely journey. The podcast is very personal and deeply moving, especially when Cooper’s voice cracks with emotion as he articulates his own grief. You see, grief is also a great equalizer – it can even bring intrepid war correspondents to their knees.

A good listen with a good listener.

I listened to each episode of Cooper’s podcast at my desk because I wanted to take notes. I can be nerdy like that. The other day, I went back and reviewed them because I knew there would some pearls of wisdom I had gleaned about grief that I would want to share in this post. Turns out that nothing I wrote down that Cooper and his guests had shared was anything I had not said or thought myself these past twenty years. I had just found so much comfort in hearing other people say these same things. Grieving is such a solitary act that this communal experience felt so affirming to me – life affirming, because to be alive – to be human – is to grieve. As Dr. BJ Miller, a hospice and palliative care physician, succinctly sums up in Episode 3 of the series, “A full life includes sorrow.” The title of this episode slayed me – Sorrow Isn’t an Enemy. In fact, sorrow is often our link to others and why we share our stories over and over again – to feel connected and keep our lost loved ones alive.

There will be lots of stories in Charlottesville this weekend and on Saturday evening we will have dinner with some dear friends who knew and loved my parents. They will have stories, too. There will be lots of laughing and most certainly a few tears. And my mother will be gloriously in the middle of all of it.

You see, joy and grief may seem like a peculiar pair, but they really can coexist. Perhaps not always peacefully, but the good news is that they mate for life.

Joy comes in the morning. Photo credit: The University of Virginia

The missing years

My dad passed away peacefully on a beautiful Sunday morning 20 years ago today. These deathiversaries – as I am wont to call them – have become sacred days on my calendar and I try to celebrate my father in a special way. He loved being outdoors, so you’ll most often find me on a long walk or a stroll in some gardens. And I find myself almost always happy. That was one of my father’s most indelible traits – he was an eternal optimist. Damn him. It’s a tough act to follow for sure.

Twenty years is a big one to wrap my head around – so I did some math. That’s funny because I’m not good at math but I did figure out that I have now lived 31% of my life without my father. That’s almost a third of my life – you can check my work on that. I’m not sure why I did that because it certainly didn’t comfort me. I guess this is just my convoluted way of telling you that I have lived a long time without my father.


Lately, I’ve been imagining a conversation with him – probably over a Coors Light – his beer of choice. I would give him a recap of some of the highlights of the past two decades. (There are a lot of ways to measure 20 years.) Without a doubt, the very first thing that I would tell him is that his beloved University of Virginia Cavaliers won the NCAA National Championship in basketball in 2019. Nothing on this earth would have made him happier. Nothing. My father loved sports – as a participant and a fan. More importantly – to me at least – he was a good sport, too. He was a humble winner – although his teams didn’t do a lot of that – and he was the rarest of men – a gracious loser. No one was louder than him watching a game – well, maybe me and my sister. We inherited his sonic capacity for yelling. I don’t use that voice very often anymore – it terrifies my cat and makes my dear wife question her choices in life. Dad was always in it to win it, but was amiable in defeat and would optimistically lament, “We’ll get ‘em next time.”

Here’s an ironic sidebar. That magical night UVA captured the national championship, I watched the game alone in my condo silently while said dear wife was sleeping. You see, she cares less about sports than anyone I’ve ever known. It is one of her few flaws and I have learned to live with it. Let me remind you that that game went into overtime. Silent overtime. Granted, I was ferociously texting with my sister in California and my dear friend Chris in Charlottesville – but I didn’t make a peep. That said, I’m fairly certain that I damaged some internal organs by keeping all of that emotion inside. When the game was over and UVA had finally won THE BIG ONE, I wept with unbridled, albeit hushed joy. And I swear I could smell my father’s cologne. He was right there beside me. He still is in so many ways.

Rarer than a Bigfoot sighting – my dear wife enthusiastically cheering at a football game. (Probably because it was over.)

I would also tell my dad about the lore of the Bubba lucky charm. He had season tickets to UVA football games – no doubt where he honed his good loser skills. After he died, I kept the tickets for a few seasons. They were great seats, and it was nice to get together with Chris in Charlottesville on sun dappled fall afternoons. I don’t recall exactly how it began, but we invented a good luck ritual to use during games – the Lucky Bubba. My niece and nephew called my father Papa Bubba, and it became an endearing nickname that we all used. Chris and I decided that during each game we would be allowed three “Bubbas” to use when we needed something good to happen for UVA. We took this lark quite seriously and used our three lucky charms strategically. Sure, more often than not, UVA would still lose the game, but the Bubbas worked enough times to keep us engaged. And when a Bubba brought us to victory – well, that was the best. We still rely on Dad’s lucky charm – mostly by text. Laugh if you will, but we’ll always have that 2019 national championship.

Me (quietly) celebrating UVA’s Natty with my dad. And yes, those are of tears of joy.

I would most certainly tell my dad that I got married – real married. A lot can happen in 20 years. He would be pleased that I married a woman who shares his very best qualities. My wife is also an optimist and like my father, wakes up cheerful every morning. And like him, she is tall. My father regarded height as a virtue. He was 6’4’’ so I guess he did have a particular perspective on the subject. My wife also shares my father’s reverence for nature – particularly flowers. He had a green thumb and grew the most beautiful roses. He loved caring for them, and I can still picture his long frame bent over pruning his beauties on a hot day.

My dad was an everything’s coming up roses kind of guy, so it makes sense he had such a way with them.

I don’t know if I would tell Dad about the pandemic, but I have often thought that he would have done well with it. My dad was a resolute handwasher. He grew up dirt poor on a farm with no indoor plumbing, but I guess my grandmother instilled the importance of proper handwashing in him. He had big hands to match that tall frame and when he would come in from working in the yard, his first stop was always the kitchen sink to wash his hands. His hands were graceful, and he was never in a hurry as he scrubbed them. He was almost prayerful about it – as if he were giving thanks for the beauty of the earth and the soil between his fingers. I can just think of him washing his hands and feel peaceful.

The lucky truth is that I have a conversation with my father almost every day. These chats can run the gamut from fuchsias to flounder to Tony Soprano. My dad is in so many of the things that I love, too, and I’m sure that’s no coincidence. I don’t have to search for a connection to him – it runs deep inside me. No, I’m not the eternal optimist he was, but I am more often hopeful than not, and I think he had something to do with that. And Lord knows, I’m a good loser and I have found this to be an invaluable gift in this life.

My father had a mantra long before mantras were fashionable. He would tell us, “Only cry in victory, never in defeat.” As I kid, I thought he was talking about sports. Turns out it can be applied to all sorts of situations and his words have been a compass for me these past 20 years. And that is why should any of my tears fall today, they will gently land on the corners of a smile.

Thanks, Bubba.

I keep this photo on the bookshelf in my office. It is the essence of my father – outdoors, shirt off, cold beer in his hand and a smile on this face. Cheers, Dad! And keep those Bubbas coming – we need them in all sorts of ways.

Permanent ink


Fractions have always frightened me a bit. They’re so cold and emotionless – I just don’t trust them.

I can probably trace this irrational fear back to my high school algebra teacher – Miss Sullivan. She must have been around 87 when I took her MANDATORY class. She was 4’ll” in sensible pumps, a wiry whirling dervish of a woman and I have no doubt that she could have easily kicked the football coach’s ass if she needed to. And she was the most intimidating person I had ever met at the fragile age of 14.

She had no patience for students who were not proficient in the way of polynomials and she could hunt us down like a shark in bloody waters. I still take considerable pride in the fact that I never cried in her class. Lord knows, I wanted to. And for the record, unlike baseball, there is crying in algebra.

This is a rambling way of saying that I’ve been thinking about fractions a lot lately. Today marks the 15th anniversary of my mother’s death – a heady milestone for sure. 15 years is a very long time and maybe it was The Ghost of Algebra Teacher Past who made me realize that I have now lived over a ¼ of my life without my mother. Damn. And I thought fractions were emotionless.


Frances Elizabeth Garbee. My mother as a child.

These deathiversaries have always been important to me and I try to observe the big ones in meaningful ways. On the 10th anniversary of Mom’s death, I hosted a high tea at a beautiful hotel for several women who had become mother figures in my life. It was an elegant late afternoon affair – an event my mother would have loved – especially since we transitioned from tea to champagne as evening came.


December 7, 2012. High tea at the O’Henry Hotel.

I shared remembrances of my mother and a few folks read poems as we sat on plump loveseats.  The hotel was decorated for Christmas and we were bathed in the warm holiday lights. It was the perfect celebration that I had envisioned.

A lot has happened in the five years since that evening. I married my dear wife – whose middle name just happens to be the same as my mother’s first name – Frances. A divine coincidence that has pleased me enormously. They have much in common besides a name. My mother was always a lady – graceful and gracious – as is my wife. Although, my wife is much more even-tempered which also pleases me enormously. I’m certain they would have enjoyed sipping champagne with one another.

And there have been some big transitions. I moved 30 miles down I-40 to a new city and I lost a job I dearly loved and along with it some friends that I thought were, well, friends. And I found a new spiritual home – just when I needed it most after the desolation of the 2016 election.

Oh, and I rode on a boat up the Grand Canal in Venice. It is a good thing in life to be dazzled occasionally.


I lament the sights and sites my mother didn’t live to see.

There were highs and lows and all the everyday stuff in between that make up a life. And I missed my parents every single day but I finally learned to co-exist peacefully with grief. It wasn’t an Oprah “a-ha” moment where everything suddenly crystalized. No, it was more like blowing out a candle at the end of the evening. A gentle rush of breath and then the hushed still of the night. I finally stopped wrestling with grief and then it seemed to not be that interested in me. Grief is fickle like that.


Both of my parents died in 2002. This is my favorite photograph of them taken in the early 1960’s.  They look like the movie stars they were to me.

But I still wanted to do something special to mark this milestone. I thought about another gathering of my “mom” figures – there are some new ones in the circle as others have drifted for reasons known and unknown. But I just wasn’t feeling it – besides, this year felt more like tequila than tea.

So the next logical way to celebrate my mother was to get a tattoo. WTF? I thought that might get your attention. When the idea came to me, I smiled my cheeks off. And then one word came to mind – disdain. That’s how my mother would have felt about a tattoo – any tattoo. But she always supported me in whatever path – misguided or not – that I took, so I think she would feign disdain but secretly like my new tattoo.

Yes, I really got a tattoo to honor my mother. And I love it. And I don’t care what anybody else thinks about it. It is a glorious gift to myself.

My mother was a true daughter of the South in all the best ways – well mannered and charming. She could be yelling at me or one of my siblings like a banshee one moment and then answer the phone with a voice so warm it would melt butter. She taught me how to set a formal table, write a timely and engaging thank you note, and never to chew gum in public.

She was also a steel magnolia. A few hours before she died from cancer – a brutal one but I suppose they all are – her oncologist came to her bedside to pay his respects. He looked at her unconscious body and then turned to me and my brother and sister, shook his head reverently and said, “Your mother was tough as nails.”

That was nothing, of course, that I didn’t already know. She was grace under pressure and I can only hope I have a thimble of that fortitude.

So, I knew my tattoo had to be a magnolia blossom. That was Mom’s favorite flower and she would often decorate with them – layers and layers of magnolia leaves at Christmas. When she died, a family friend painted an exquisite watercolor for us – “In Memory of a Steel Magnolia” – and we used the image on thank you cards.

I took one of the cards I had saved into Newport Tattoo when I was in California recently visiting my sister. I showed it to Kareem, a tattoo artist and the shop owner, and he gave me his thoughts on the size and positioning and I made an appointment for a few days later.

If you ever want to feel older and squarer than you are – go to a tattoo shop. It’s a little hard on your ego but everyone treated me very kindly considering I was the oldest one in the shop by at least 20 years. Okay, 25.


Newport Tattoo, Newport Beach, CA. It’s good to get out of one’s comfort zone.

I really didn’t have any second thoughts about my plan, but I did get a little anxious as the day of inking arrived. I have three small tattoos – all black – and they didn’t take long to complete. I was nervous about my two-hour multi-colored tour with Kareem. And when you’re getting a tattoo in honor of a steel magnolia you better not be a wimp about it.

You might be wondering about now, “Why a tattoo?” I don’t know if it will make sense to you but for me a tattoo is like a short story – a visual manifestation of a personal narrative. A tattoo is an intimate expression that becomes a constant companion along the journey.

My tattoo is on my inner forearm. I almost always wear long sleeves, except for t-shirts in the summer or at the gym, so my tattoo is truly for me. Full disclosure: Dear wife wasn’t thrilled about it but she is a lot like my mom when it comes to supporting my sometimes quirky ideas.

There’s also something about the cultural aspect of tattoos that I find fascinating. There are some studies that suggest that in ancient times tattoos were used as part of a healing or strengthening ritual. I know that my tattoos feel like talismans to me – touchstones of calm and peace. I certainly don’t need permanent ink to feel close to my mother – I feel her presence daily – but my tattoo is a tangible reminder of her elegance and strength.

I suppose there’s something adventurous and bold about a tattoo that speaks to me, too. It’s like literally wearing your alter ego on your sleeve. In my real life, I am pressed to perfection – my creases have creases thanks to my dry cleaner. I have played by the rules most of my life and I think the events of the past couple of years have made me rethink the wisdom of that approach. Getting a tattoo feels liberating to me.


My mom and me.

My mom was a rule follower, too – that apple didn’t fall far from the tree. She died at 70, which has always felt like a huge rip-off to me. There were so many things she never got to do – like watch her grandchildren grow up or see Paris. “Life isn’t fair” she would often say to me when I was a sullen teenager complaining about being told no when I wanted to do something ALL my friends were doing.


Words to live by.

Turns out, she was right. Life isn’t fair, but it does hold a lot of wonderful surprises in between some staggering disappointments and maybe my magnolia tattoo is a moderately bold reminder that one can be a lady but still break a few rules along the way. Maybe I just want my mom’s blessing to be a bit of a badass and take more chances.

I think daughters never get over wanting their mother’s approval. I recently saw a YouTube video of Anna Wintour interviewing Meryl Streep and at the end of their conversation, Wintour hands Streep the current issue of Vogue that features the most decorated actress in the history of forever on its cover. Streep gushes as she views her glamorous  photograph and then shakes her head a little wistfully, sighs, and almost whispers, “I wish my mother were alive to see it.” And in that moment, Meryl Streep looks like a little girl.

I know that girl.

The longing for my mother’s presence is a steady undertow that rarely ebbs even after 15 years, but today I’ll celebrate the beauty and richness of her life instead of dwelling on those pesky fractions. Sure, I suppose they’re useful, but I bet even Miss Sullivan knew that fractions make lousy tattoos.

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“In Memory of a Steel Magnolia” – tattoo by Kareem Masarani.


Ink imitates art.