A MEMORIAL DAY EXERCISE
another way to deal with life -- and death
[Note: this story was extracted from "Til Death Do Us Part?", a Kindle book by Christopher Nyerges, also available on request at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com]
It was a sunny and brisk day as Dolores and I walked up the steep stony driveway to the WTI headquarters. We were going to the annual Memorial Day gathering, which would be held outdoors. Neither of us had been involved in the preparation of this event (as we had with other events), so we were coming as “guests” with no idea what the agenda would be.
When we reached the top, we could see that several others had already arrived. Prudence approached us as I was scanning the book, and she handed each of us a hot cup of their special coffee.
“Thanks,” I said, taking a long sip. “That sure hits the spot.”
Dolores and I said hello to the dozen other guests who were sitting on chairs, or reading from a pink paper. Timothy approached Dolores and I and handed each of us a copy of something printed on pink paper.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” he said, smiling broadly with his charismatic smile. “Once those instructions are clear, you should go to a private spot with your notebook. We’ll all meet back here in 30 minutes.”
“OK,” I said. We both studied the paper as Timothy stood there.
I quickly read the instructions. We were to select three living “loved-ones” and write their names in our notebook. We were then to go sit under a bush, or sit in some private spot somewhere on the hilltop. Next, we were to mentally imagine that we get a phone call, and someone tells us that one of the people on our list have died. Each of us was to feel and experience the grief as if that person really died, and attempt to make it real. With the full feeling of grief, we were to write down all those things that we wished we’d told that person before they died. We were to do this exercise with all three of the people on our list.
“Any questions?” asked Timothy, still standing in front of us, but now he was beginning to look around as other guests arrived.
“It seems pretty clear,” I said, thinking to myself that this was an unusual exercise.
“Seems clear enough,” added Dolores.
“Oh, one more thing,” said Timothy. “It doesn’t say this on your paper, but it would be good if at least one person on your list of three is someone who is here today.”
“OK,” I responded. I knew that my father would be on my list, and so would Dolores.
I walked up the rough steps which led to the upper portion of the property, and I sat myself under an old citrus tree. It was one of my favorite spots on the property because I always felt very “invisible” there, yet I had a terrific view of the surrounding neighborhood.
I began my list. I wrote down Dolores, Prudence, and my father. I then closed my eyes, and imagined that I just received a call from my brother telling me that my father had died. I let it hit me that he was gone, dead, out of my life. I began to cry involuntarily. My mind automatically thought back to the earliest childhood memories of my father cutting the lawn, and taking me with him in the station wagon to the supermarket. I remembered the things I did wrong, and was punished for, and my mind went through a non-chronological review of various events. I attempted to mentally do a chronological review, but found it easier to just let the memories flow. I began to laugh at some memories, such as the way he and my mother would argue whenever the family was getting ready to go to the local beach for the day. My mother seemingly wanted to pack everything from the kitchen into the station wagon, and my father – with great pantomime -- would express his desire to do it as simply as possible. I remembered how upset my father would get when my mother called him a gypsy, an insult to a Hungarian.
I realized my father was by no means perfect, and yet I could see he tried to do what was right, despite his many weaknesses or deficiencies. I found myself missing him terribly, in spite of the fact that he was still alive and I had not called him for over a month.
I began to do the same with Dolores and Prudence. Dolores and I hadn’t yet married, though we were both very interested in one another and enjoyed each other’s friendship and company. Still, we had already experienced several “rough spots” together. I looked at my watch and saw that I had already been there over 30 minutes, so I quickly finished writing my notes and then headed back down to the gathering.
Most everyone was already back down at the gathering site, and were serving themselves from the delicious dishes that everyone provided. I began to serve myself a smaller than usual dish. I still felt very “shaken up” by my brief but intensive experience of “hearing that my father had died.”
Once everyone had returned and served themselves a dish and a mug, Timothy shared a few prepared readings about Memorial Day and the nature of death, mostly writings by Shining Bear, as well as some passages from Alexander Solszynitzn’s classic book where he told the story of his time in the Soviet Union’s prison camps, Gulag Archipelago.
Then we got to the part where Timothy asked each person to briefly share their experiences with their list of three people. A few people said they had experienced nothing worthy of sharing, which I found remarkable. Perhaps they were embarrassed in the unfamiliar setting and did not want to share a deeply personal experience. I could understand not wanting to share deeply personal things in an unfamiliar public setting. But I could not believe that anyone who actually performed the prescribed exercise would have had no worthwhile experience.
Prudence’s son spoke of the experience of someone telling him his father had passed away and how sad he felt. He shared a few of the things he would tell his father.
“I’m going to tell him that I love him, and I’m going to pay him back that money I borrowed from him last year,” he said with great enthusiasm. Everyone laughed.
Once each person briefly shared their varied experiences, Timothy then got back in front and, with his charismatic smile, announced that everyone now would have a rare opportunity.
“You’ve all just done what most people do when they learn that someone they love has died. However, all these people are still here. Now you need to tell them today those things that you’d regret not telling them if they died. We have two phones here, so whomever wants to use them may do so now.” [Note: this was before the days of universal cell phones.]
A few people got up and went inside to call someone.
“Or, you can write a short note or letter right now,” Timothy declared. “If you don’t have any stationery, we have lots of paper and envelopes that you can use.” He pointed to the wooden table behind him where there was a can full of pens and pencils, a small stack of envelopes, and an assortment of stationery paper.
“Now, if the person is here now,” Timothy continued, “I want the two of you to go to a private place and you can tell that person whatever it is that you want them to hear. Don’t be embarrassed. We’ll all meet back here together in about 30 minutes and share that experience.”
I was a bit hesitant to do this next step. It would be risky. It’s always risky to be completely honest and open. Nevertheless, I first went with Prudence to a private spot. It turns out that she also chose me, so we were able to “kill two birds with one stone,” so to speak.
My private-talk with Prudence went well, and both of us shared a few past unresolved issues that bothered us, and tried to make amends for some old hard feelings. We were both fairly open and blunt in both our criticism and praise of the other, and we were able to agree on a few simple steps we could do to bring things to a state of balance. I was satisfied with this experience. Next, I did the same thing with Dolores.
After a few minutes, everyone gathered again in the central outdoor meeting place. Prudence read a few passages from a book about death. I took a few notes as I listened, and also looked around at the expressions of those gathered there that day. I felt very much “startled awake,” and I could tell that most everyone had had some sort of eye-opening epiphany about life and death and how quickly it all passes.
I was experiencing an inner turmoil, a bit apprehensive about my plan to talk to my father later in the day. I was also very reflective about all the choices I make day in and out, and how everyone else affects me, and how I affect everyone else. Especially Dolores. How to do it all “just right,” all the time, I wondered? How can I live my life without regrets? I wondered, was everyone else feeling such inner turmoil, and inner challenge?
Finally, Timothy made a few closing remarks, shared a few upcoming events, and thanked everyone for coming. It had been several hours but it flowed so quickly.
LATER IN THE DAY
That evening, I called my father, and asked him if he had a minute.
“Sure,” he said, “what’s up?”
“Sure,” he said, “what’s up?”
“I just wanted you to know that I really have appreciated all the things you’ve done for me all my life. I know that at times I have seemed very disrespectful, but I….
“Is something wrong?” he asked. “Do you need money?”
“No, no, no. I don’t need money. No, nothing’s wrong. I was just thinking about you today, and how we never talk, and I just wanted you to know that I really appreciate you and really love you.”
I think that was the first time I ever told my father that I loved him.
“What’s wrong,” he asked more firmly, “are you in some sort of trouble?”
“No, I’m not in any trouble at all, I just…”
“This doesn’t sound like you, something must be wrong…”
“No, nothing’s wrong. I just realized that we rarely talk. Today seemed like as good a day as any to tell you that I appreciate you.” I had momentarily thought that I would explain to him that I’d attended the event earlier in the day, and let him know that he was part of my exercise. But somehow, if I did that, I felt it would diminish what I was saying to my father, that it was some sort of school assignment or exercise. Rather than regard it as something genuine coming from me, he would think that I was in the clutches of some sort of controlling cult and was just acting out their dictates. This had to be real. This had to be from me, because I wanted to communicate these things to him.
“Well, OK,” he responded. He paused, and said, “Are you coming over for dinner?”
“No, not tonight, but I’ll see you tomorrow.”
It was the beginning of a thaw in our relationship. There was not an instant turnaround in the way we related to each other, but slowly, slowly, I began to view him as a distinct individual, and slowly, I could tell that he did the same with me.
Later, I told Dolores how my father reacted.
“That sounds just like your father,” she laughed. We both found the exchange hillarious, and we could not stop laughing about it.
We went to dinner that night and we continued to talk about my father’s suspicious nature, and we laughed like children. It felt very good to laugh with Dolores. It was a light time, and somehow, laughing together made us closer. It also shifted the focus from problems in our relationship to my father’s character, and in that moment, it was a good thing.