Tag Archives: grief

Dear Diary: Connie Rodriguez and What I’ve Realized About My Blog

Student Biking

Student Biking (Photo credit: University of Denver)

I stopped keeping a journal when I graduated from high school.  My journal was a daily escape from ages eight to seventeen.  Upon graduation, I stopped keeping a journal because its contents would then become volatile.

Before that, I journaled compulsively, usually to Sarah McLachlan’s Surfacing cd, which spun at such high volumes in my stereo, I could hear the hum of my parents’ hardwood floors.  I didn’t do it because I wanted to.  It became something I couldn’t forgo if I wanted to, like the trail of my parents’ cigarette smoke.

Today, I sit here with a paper plate full of Triscuit crumbs and smears of cream cheese, wondering why I cannot continue writing a series of flash fictions for Goddard without first writing a blog post.  I’ve wondered why I had to do this after the Boston Bombings, the Newtown tragedy, the loss of Alexandra Kogut last semester, and other experiences I’ve had like wishing I could call my grandmother on her birthday.

The blog has become, in some fancier way, my diary, which is why, for weeks, I am able to not write a thing, and then some days, I can’t not write.  My blog entries typically come out in an hour or less of writing.  And now I understand why.  It’s the same muse in action that has you jotting down story ideas on a fast food napkin.  I blog because I cannot continue my daily routine without writing about whatever it is I’m obsessing about.

For the past few days, it’s been Connie Rodriguez, one of my students from this past fall, who died over the weekend.

My husband scolds me after tragedy, as though he expects me to react any differently:  I am as guilty as anyone who grips the controller to watch the terror unfold before them.

I found her old submissions from my creative writing course.  I needed proof.  I couldn’t believe she was my student just last semester, it wasn’t so long ago, and I hadn’t seen her since.  I read a Facebook friend’s page religiously, but not for posts about her daughter like I usually do, but for photos of Connie, who was her friend.  I Googled her name to see if her obituary had been posted yet or if anyone had written about her.  Just before writing this, I found a university news article about her.  I had to write.

As her instructor, I knew these limited things about Constance Rodriguez:

She wrote one hell of a short fiction piece for her portfolio–a story about twin sisters who would not stop battling each other, who would wake each other in the middle of the night to physically and brutally terrorize one another.  The story ended with a blaze, the house catching fire, the girls running away.

She was the first to share her writing on the first day of class.

She lost her mother.

She had seen things and lived a life that I could not ever fathom– a life she wrote in her poetry and essays that I will not post here.  She was a survivor.

From reading the article, from looking at pictures, Connie was a bubbly girl, a forgiving friend.  What I can’t stop thinking about is this: the pain beneath her pretty smile.

We like to think we are heroes, that we can save the world, that the future is ours for preserving.  I wonder if I could have done or said one thing to make her life, then, easier.  I couldn’t have healed a thing for her, a tough girl enduring a tough time who’d lost her mother just before she started my class.  Had I known her deep state of grief, would I have been able to be fair?  Should I have been able to be fair?

I haven’t stopped thinking about her since Sunday, when I learned of her passing.  I printed her poems that had been archived away in my college email, the first creative essay she wrote for class.  I read them at 10 o’clock on Sunday night.  I re-read them at 4 pm on Monday, and not more carefully than I did when I graded them, but differently–with the urgency to pull her back, to prevent the loss of her after it happened.

I grieve in a different way from her friends, from her family, who grieve the loss from their guts.  I am sad about the small part of her I knew, the small part of her that pulled back into herself towards the end of the semester, who veered away from school into sadness.  But I remember her as something bigger, as part of a future unknown, as part of a difference we are afraid to make.


My Late Grandfather’s Literary Debut

My grandfather, Thomas Lotze, pushing me on a swing, 1984.

My friend and I talk about these strange things that happen after someone you love passes.  We share these moments that transcend realms partly because it validates them, makes them less a figment of the imagination, somehow more real, if shared.    And partly because it heals.

For my grandfather, this image is an elephant.  I see them everywhere.  My aunt had a license plate staring at her from the car in front of her that read: L AFONT.  I sometimes pause for a long time at the bedtime pictures of elephants in my son’s books–and it seems each one has at least one elephant.  The page will always swing open to it first, in any book, before the other pages.  Perhaps I’ve creased it harder.  I also saw more pregnant women when I, myself, was pregnant.  I’m aware that the mind is always at work, but there is a magic, too.  And no harm in believing.

In class the other day, I shared the news that my grandpa’s piece was accepted for publication with my students.  He was on my mind.  Twenty minutes later, as class was ending, I described the upcoming assignment: that students would be required to experiment with the craft elements that poet Bruce Smith used in his book, Devotions.  Only, I said, “You will experiment with the craft elephants–”  and giggled before saying, “Let me try that again.  Craft Elephants.”  I’d said it again.  The entire class laughed with me, and I simply said, “Elements.  Craft Elements.”  And excused my misspeak by explaining that my grandfather appears at the least likely moments.

So here’s Grandpa’s literary debut, “File No. 209,” from The Diagram Magazine.


A Letter to My Grandfather Regarding Ghosts

I’ve been reading a lot about the paranormal lately, Grandpa.  Today, I finished The Sweet By and By, by Jeanne Mackin, which I

The Elephant

The Elephant (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

love mostly because it explores the mind in grief, the desperation to believe in afterlife, in spirits, ghosts, visitations, posthumous contact.  I can see how even the hardest skeptic, Grandpa, will come around after losing someone they love dearly.

I imagine you in this space, in your home in Pittsburgh, before you died, but after Grandma passed, longing so hard you believed that Grandma was still there.  Is that why you left her recliner there even after she was gone?  They looked like twin seats, you the pilot, waiting for your copilot before take-off.  I can feel her, too, Grandpa, sometimes.  Sometimes the tin cookie cutters Aunt Hilary gave me fall from their hanging place on my kitchen wall, and though Cory tells me it has been sliding down the nail since I last replaced it, inching its way off the hook, I believe Grandma might have thrown it at me, playfully, if I’ve sworn, or messed up the gravy, or said something unkind, or perhaps argued against my conservative husband.

I wonder these things, specifically: were there ever mysteriously more ashes in the ashtray–a slow mounting of phantom ashes next to yours?  Perhaps a whiff of her perfume, the scent I can still glean from Grandma’s chenille scarf you gave me shortly after she passed, the scarf that I preserve in a ZipLoc bag because of its scent, because of trace white hair, her hair, that clings to it still.  Or this–a warm dent in the mattress, a dent just grandma’s size, slight and still, but warm.  I wondered these things while I read this novel.  I hoped you had these tiny moments of peace.

After you passed, Grandpa, Sammy was born.  I keep coming back to this because in your last days, when I couldn’t see you, everyone told me you said some things about Sammy and Johnny.  Everyone says it’s the promise of children that helps one approach death, though I think that’s something you alone could grasp on that day.  Sammy was born the next day, three weeks before he was expected, but the day after you passed.  A signal, perhaps?

Grandpa, my close friend is learning life without parents, as is my father, now, and I don’t know what to say, but you managed so gracefully, so wonderfully, beyond your own losses.  I wonder if some contact from beyond guided you.

Last April, a year after you passed, Aunt Hilary gave me one of your writings–not the standard limerick you wrote, but a short nonfiction piece titled “File No. 209.”  It was about Grandma’s toes, how she could use them as fingers.  I remember family talk of the “Lotze toes,” characterized by an abnormally large space between the first and second toes, and wondered if it was this phenomena that had you writing this piece.  Either way, I learned you had sent it out in the 60s, and that it had been rejected.

When I sent your piece out again, fifty years later, I did so hesitantly.  It is one thing to submit your own work to a magazine, to prepare yourself for rejection, but it is another thing to feel responsible for the work of someone you love.  For my own rejections, after the first few crying fits, they became less-intrusive than paper cuts.  Rejection, in some way, becomes a state of permanent grief after tearing open the envelope, a way of saying, “Eh.  I didn’t think Third Coast would want that essay,” the same way one might wake on the 417th day after losing someone they love and say, “Oh.  Right, they’re gone still.”  That they’ve gone somewhere without you, left you, uninvited.

When Aunt Hilary sees an elephant randomly in her day, she tells me.  Or a note you wrote to Grandma in the 80s wafting to the floor from a bible she’d just picked up.  Or this: when I’m hit with the smell of eucalyptus from nowhere, but in my mind, from your condo in Cincinnati.

I knew the odds.  I knew the magazine I sent your writing to only accepted approximately .8% of submissions (according to unscientific data, so you probably are rolling your eyes), but I also knew this piece was stunning, endearing, but wondered if it was just our family that loved it.

Then, last week, the editor at DIAGRAM was happy to accept your piece, “File No. 209”  for publication, and I thought, for a moment, maybe the worlds had converged.  Maybe you were here, watching me jump and dance and scream in a way that no other acceptance has made me do, in a way that had my German Shepherd’s head cocked.

We all look for peace somehow, Grandpa, mostly in the everyday: the first cup of coffee or cigarette after rising; the shower water, once warmed; the space one hides in after telling a bad joke.  Then there are moments when peace is not found, but is bestowed: your name in print as though you’ve never left; an acapella proposal that Grandma would have loved; a baby, being too patient, making us all wait on edge.  But soon, we all know, these moments come like the quiet grasp of a finger.