Friday, August 31, 2007

The Necessity of Denial and Other Things

When I find myself weeping and the object of loss fades away until my depressive mindset substitutes another reason for tears, I try to slap myself inwardly: I try to allow tears about Rachel without bleeding into tears about my extremely negative self-view. So I am lost in the middle of a dark wood at 52; what’s more important is she whom I lost.

When you lose someone very close to you it ignites other fears. The thought of losing Kathleen is or one of my other daughters is unendurable, of course. How could a man bear that? How do mothers with multiple sons lost to war cope?

One of the saintliest men I ever knew was a cardiologist, Dr. Srinatha. He lost his entire family in India in one crash (he was the only one not in the vehicle). He was the most compassionate of men, patient to a fault, willing to explain anything, and he never complained about being called to the CCU at 4 AM. His presence was always calming and his smile spiritually reassuring. I do not think his demeanor was solely a product of nature; I like to think grief helped transform him into the saintly being he became. Although grief can also bring lead to bitterness and isolation, the economy of the closed heart must eventually fail.

We need others too much. I hope I’m not leaning too hard on Kathleen. Sarah tells me to be a “poshead” and not a “neghead.” I’m in total agreement save for the wiring in my brain.

As for living with the conscious threat of a loved one’s death, it can’t be done sanely. We simply cannot operate while consciously cognizant of mortality, our own or theirs; such knowledge is existentially crippling and must be practically delimited, yes suppressed, to accomplish the smallest endeavor. Every action depends on faith, whether we trust our legs to rise out of a chair or trust gravity while pouring water in a glass.

We must live in denial to live. We cannot indulge in the Descartian (Cartesian) luxury of questioning every underlying assumption. That leads only to an obsessive unbelief in our own existence. Derealization, as the shrinkolas call it.

One thing that mixes up my grief: The writers conference. I was told point blank by two agents that my writing couldn’t earn money, that hardly any writers earned money. Writing for money had been my new goal of self-redemption, a way to get off the disability wheel that throws Protestant guilt at me like a gorilla heaving turds from a cage. And now I hear from the experts that my dream is wrongheaded.

This is no time to listen to them or analyze my chances, but the timing didn’t help. I was sad enough not to need my face rubbed in it. I don’t want to give up hope but this is no time to globalize about my future and my future goals. This is a time to take the long way home through the graveyard.

Sarah leaves tomorrow; God bless her! I may get back to the work of writing when she’s gone. I didn’t want to waste my time on it while she was here.

I’m in a public library trying not to cry. Earlier during my lunch break between the two halves of my mushroom identification class I did cry. But I cleaned up pretty good.

Last thing I want is to have someone stop me and say, “Woman, why do you weep?” Who wants to hear of your loss? Why spread the peanut butter misery of this world any thicker on the planet's crust?

My essay in Blue Fifth will soon be re-printed in the Schuylkill Review (forgive the spelling). Always nice to be wanted.

My sister wrote Kathleen that she worries about me sometimes if I don’t blog. I wish I had the energy to visit the blogs of all those generous enough to comment here.

I still don’t get the Princess Di thing, ten years after her death today. I think it was her innocence, or the innocence we projected upon her—the same kind of innocence Marilyn conveyed. The same kind of innocence Rachel looked back to. We don’t want the innocent to suffer. We want to save them.



Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I can't rate myself

If I were to return to writing poetry, no doubt over a matter of years one good poem might be yanked from my heart to join what pieces remain, but that realization is a long time away.

While on the subject of death, I thought I'd just post some poems on the subject. Whether they are helpful or not, I can't know; I don't know much of anything now except allowing myself to cry when I need to and doing the daily things: wash, dishes, pay the bills, garden. Most of all I just hang with Sarah, my 18-yr.-old, who is the greatest comfort a father could wish for in enduring the loss of a another daughter, although buying her return tickets made me cry. I don't want her to leave, as in never--of course, impractical.

I have been teaching her to drive and she now has her driver's permit. Tomorrow she has to learn to change a tire. Today we went over required fluids.

Here are the poems, I won't bother to say where or when they were published:

The Dead

Are we gentler with the dead
than with the living?

We lower them like glassware
into the earth
and speak well of them,
careful of their feelings.

We adorn their tombs
with photos and tulips.

Their rest is so sacred
we need a court order to disturb it.

It is easy to love the dead.
They make no demands.
They are not in competition.
They can't be more dead.

A Time to Kill

It was given us by a farmer,
found in a field.
I cupped it in my hands like snow.
Suddenly it sprang
to the hardwood floor.
Captured again, I held it close.

A splotch of blood stained my shirt.
I checked my cuticles then noticed
a toothpick of a bone
jutting from the ripped fur
and the large hind foot
(the lucky one)
hanging limp as a broken flower.


The cricket's hibernation
and the dream of the seventeen-year locust
are pure, like the silence of God during prayer.

I see death as an old coot in a rocking chair
spitting tobacco while bullets fly,
knowing how westerns end.

We are eternal or eternal myth:
No one believes in their own death.

Mom's Passing


Two months ago she did
the Sunday crossword with a pen.
Now she cannot tease the rubber band
from my gift of roses.
Distantly she smiles.
She is in no pain.
She knows her diagnosis
as you might a brand of toothpaste,
a detail too irrelevant to ponder.

At dinner tonight she ate
her salad with a spoon.
She was not embarrassed.
For the first time I see
her face without worry.
It is not her face.

I might have noticed sooner
if she called at times other than cocktail hour
when I expected her speech to slur.
It wasn't until she wrapped the potatoes
in newspaper for baking
that we suspected.

After a brain scan and biopsy
the doctors said radiation might extend her life
by temporarily shrinking the tumor
but it wouldn't restore her mind,
so we passed. She always said
she didn't want to linger.

We chose to care for her at home.
My youngest brother took the last watch.
I remember him lumbering
down the Spanish stairs to say,
“She's passed.” None of us cried.
How could we mourn a mute
and waxen body in blue diapers
as if it were our mother?
Death is so impersonal.


Three legal miles from landfall
I felt her ashes between my palms,
silky as talcum powder and odorless.
I sprinkled them on the sea
where they sunk underwater
like snow in a snow globe.

Funeral flowers followed:
leopard lilies, white carnations,
scarlet roses, birds-of-paradise--
and her beloved pink antheriums,
strange flowers without scent
from her bedside, outlasting her.

We circled twice and headed home.
I watched the flowers rock
in our widening wake
like the paper boats
she taught me how to make.
She folded them so perfectly.
She could fold a fitted sheet
so you couldn't tell it
from a flat one.

I can't rate myself.

Craig Erick

Thursday, August 23, 2007

What I greatly fear...

My essay, "Four Kinds of Poems," is now available at Blue Fifth Review.

There is also a poem of mine, "Almost Eden," with an audio there.

There's also a new book out by Emily Martin, ethnographer and anthropologist, from Princeton Press, entitled Bipolar Expeditions. She has honored me by quoting one poem of mine at the very beginning and one at the end. I recommend the book for a new societal take on manic-depression, especially mania in the marketplace.

The entry below was written yesterday, August 22.


This morning, after my first cup of coffee, what I greatly feared came upon me. I had a brief thought about my disability and how I had failed to deliver myself from its charitable bondage through being a writer, or by returning to medicine, or in anyway becoming “a useful engine” as Thomas the Tank, my grandson’s favorite, advises. Inevitably this thought was followed by the familiar spiral of worthlessness and failure to which I had become accustomed in my depression. Then I began to think about my darling Rachel and how selfish it was of me to think about me and my failings, which made me erupt in tears, of course, during which the object of my tears changed to the loss of Rachel. But I don’t know if that change was genuine or engineered to escape my own guilt about grieving over myself and my failures instead of my loss.

I know all grieving is grieving for yourself, for how can you possibly grieve except for your loss? I suppose one can genuinely grieve about the lost potential of a life cut short, but that seems like a historical insight. The loss of a loved one can never be so intellectual at first touch. It is more of an emotional amputation, sometimes accompanied by a “phantom limb” syndrome. You imagine the person is there but they’re not. Where they were is an emptiness they used to fill. In searching that negative shape for memories, a cascade of images appears in my mind of Rachel from babyhood to adulthood: all the joy she gave me, how she stretched my love, how she taught me unconditional love simply by being my child. How can you lose that?

In Kenyon’s case it is easier. I look behind me in the car and he is not there. I walk beside a river and he is not swimming. I glance to my heel and he is no longer heeling.

I have two other daughters that need me. They are technically adults and don’t need me like they once did, and I try never to infantilize them in my mind. But right now I need to hold them, to see them, to believe in them. They are equally dear as Rachel. But are they? Nothing is as dear as that which has been lost, as in the parable of the lost sheep. Rachel, coincidentally, whose name meant “ewe,” has left a whole collection of stuffed animal sheep behind, of which Sarah has become the curator, just as I am now the curator of Rachel’s collection of Oz books.

Jacob’s dad did not even attend the memorial service and is incommunicado. I don’t know when I’ll be able to see Jacob again, the last living vestige of Rachel I can hold in my arms (though he doesn’t like that, preferring to scramble out of them).


I wish I could say I was in grief or depression; I think still more grief than depression; but as the grieving process proceeds, will grief simply be replaced by the obsession of depression, or will the two morph into some new thing?

I woke up afraid yesterday, not numb. That is more a symptom of
depression. I squired Sarah and her friend around to several beaches and enjoyed watching them enjoy themselves. Sarah is grieving, yes, but she is not depressed. She doesn’t cry about her own sense of failure and then segue to losing Rachel. She does have some guilt about her last conversation with Rachel, but her sad-feelings are all Rachel-oriented. Of course, she is lucky enough not to have a mood disorder, for which the whole family gives thanks.

At Glass Beach I let the wet particles of sunlit gravel and glass fall through my spread fingers over and over in a sort of hypnotic ritual. I lost myself in that. God bless the gravel.

I do not want to dishonor the memory of my daughter with a depression, though to ascribe any control to myself over that is ridiculous. Kathleen says, “Just let it all out. You can’t distinguish the two. This is not a time for that.” Good advice, I think. I try to take it.

Someday I will stop crying, I guess. Or maybe never. I was once a star in this world, a power, a doctor over other doctors, a paid musician and teacher of poets, and now I am what? A small voice in the wilderness? A pinpoint on the Net?

Did I mention how the Mendocino Coast Writer’s Conference spent three days crushing my dreams during the weekend between Rachel’s viewing and memorial? I had paid extra to meet with an agent for half an hour. Her first words to me? “You’re in the wrong business.” And why did she say that? Because on my application I had the temerity to say “I want to make money writing.” Most writers don’t make money, so I was told. I think I knew that.

I gave the first ten pages of my thriller to another agent, and she e-mailed me to say it lacked “pageturnability,” that too soon I segued into some philosophical tangent. Me? C’mon. I’m as literal as concrete.

I was well received for my music at the Art in the Gardens festival, through which I sleepwalked just as I have been sleepwalking through life since Rachel died, except when I break down, which I think is a kind of waking. To stay busy, to move my body, to take the girls to interesting places, this is all good. But when the carousel stops the lack of motion assails me with all the inertia of death.

“Pray for us sinners at the hour of our death.”


Like Rachel, I am a dreamer. I, too, think the world is unfair and that Peter Pan should never grow old, that Puff the Dragon should not be deserted. Unfortunately, to be too enamored of childhood is against nature, which cautions: “grow or die.” Part of my great grief for Rachel is the knowledge of how painful it was for her to negotiate the world while her deepest psyche was dominated by a vision of an overidealized childhood, which became a lost paradise.

Expulsion from paradise is initially separation from the womb, after which comes psychological, and ultimately, with the cessation of nursing, a new kind of physical separation from the mother. Later childhood Freud called "the latent period," as ages 5 - 12 are fairly conflict free. It is the age of Tom Sawyer and Harry Potter. It is the adulthood of childhood, where the illusion of independence is encouraged and supported by the family on which the child actually depends.

The terror of independent identity dominates adolescence, which is the process of finding an adult personality: who you will be for the rest of your life. Failing this last stage means too much dependence on others for the rest of your life (though we are all dependent to a degree). Some remain, intrapsychically, at an earlier stage where separation and independence have not truly been achieved, where only merging insures safety. And the price of that missed stage is often drama, testing those who love you to reaffirm an intense merging, usually through reciprocal emotional pain--accusation, forgiveness and resolution--to be repeated over and over.

Unlike Rachel I grew up too independent, unable to ask for help, afraid to be a bother. Perhaps depression is in part nature's revenge for my claiming emotional independence at too early an age. But that's who I was; it's not as if I chose it.

Unfortunately my early independence did not make me any better at the practical details of life, since I, too, am essentially a dreamer. At 52 I have no money saved and no health insurance. I am often charged with overdraft fees of $35 from my bank. I have not bothered myself about the practical aspects of life; they have never particularly interested me, though when too long neglected they always bite me in the ass. This dereliction towards reality may or may not be part of a poet’s nature, though I now refer to myself as an ex-poet, though that newly assumed mantle has more to do with the practice of poetry than my nature. Even in my grief I have resisted the urge to poetry.

Today I permanently deleted several more of my poems. I aim to get my oeuvres down to a manageable 200 poems worth preserving. Worth preserving for whom? For me. So I have something to point to after 40 years of scribbling, to be able to say: “This is my best. This is the best I have done.”

Here’s an unpublished poem about an interaction with Rachel when she was perhaps three years old, one editors have never favored but one that I won’t delete:

Home Surgery

Daughter, when I freed
the glass sliver from your heel
you screamed, you shook, your foot lurched—
so I gripped your ankle with all the firmness
love could muster.

Plucked from your sole, the fragment shone
like a jewel in the bathroom light
while blood streamed, mixed with water,
into the white altar of the sink.

At the moment you hurt more
from my maneuvering,
did you doubt me?

That thought wounds my heart
more deeply than the matador
can bury his long blade.

No doubt the poem is too direct, even maudlin for today’s sensibilities. It is what it is, a record of a parent who must inflict pain to deliver a child from more pain, which requires a great deal of trust. For all her trust in me, Rachel was the kind of child who would prefer to let a sliver fester than have it out due to her fear of pain. As she grew older, even the pain of a lecture or punishment was too much for her to bear so that her feeling of being hurt made her forget the point of the lesson. As I’ve said before, she was too much like the Princess and the Pea, except that she could do with an imaginary pea.

Kathleen and I had such trust with Kenyon. When I performed surgery on him in Mexico after the veterinarians had bungled the job twice, the anesthetic wore off before I finished stitching up his chest. He looked at me but never moved; his eyes trusted me implicitly. Animals are so much easier, duh!

In her defense, Rachel could be convinced of the right thing to do, the right path to take, the responsible decision, and with all her heart she would commit herself to that course of action. But within a day she would usually forget her former resolve and go wandering about seeking another solution, as if the problem had never been addressed. I made so many lists for her in her life, partly due to her ADD, since she had only 20% of normal auditory memory, which makes teaching a difficult thing. I am amazed when my daughter, Sarah, does something after being asked once, and yet that is the norm (within the limits of willful disobedience).

I promised I would not turn this blog into a journal of grief about Rachel, but if I write from the heart I have little choice at present. And the writer’s drama is now, for those who have been following my blog: Will CE again succumb to depression? And for how long? And with the complication of grief, can his chemicals possibly be balanced? Will he feel hope again? Will he feel like a useful engine someday?

One thing I fear is that I may be down for the count, damaged and depressed in some fashion for the rest of my life. I’ve always come back before but I’ve never had a blow like this follow so soon after a nascent recovery from an extended depression.

Will I retreat into myself more and more, keeping the world at bay, avoiding participation? Or will I strike out once more in the hopes of feeling human again?

In the interests of the latter I did do something courageous yesterday; I signed up for two fall courses, one in Creative Writing and the other in Mushroom Identification. Presumably when I identify the right mushrooms I will be able to write more creatively.



Monday, August 20, 2007


We returned from Rachel's memorial with our youngest daughter and her friend, "Barfie," in tow.

It's a great comfort to have Sarah with me now; neither of us can fill the hollow left by Rachel's death, but it helps to have Sarah fill her own space.

Rachel is more defined by what she has left behind in us, a retreating, conforming space like a death mask or a mold for making a bronze.

I've never had so much space missing before.

I believe I am in grief, not the dreaded other condition.

After 12 hours of travel yesterday, Kathleen bravely woke and went to work. My idol.

Sarah and Barfie enjoy picking blackberries. They're city girls.

On a more important note, I want to thank all of you who have spiritually supported us during this time; rarely have I felt so supernaturally buoyed by the prayers of others.

Craig Erick

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Kenyon must leave us, too.

Sadly, in this time of intense grief, Kenyon's life has ceased to be neutral and consists mainly of the slow endurance of pain, punctuated by a few treats. Kathleen has bravely decided to put him down tomorrow. As she pointed out, even if we left him here with someone during our trip south for Rachel's memorial, he wouldn't eat; he might not even get up. He lives for Kathleen. He rises on his trembling, aching joints and shuffles forward for her. He would do anything for her; he would stop his suffering for her if he could.

The timing could be better but Kathleen's right; it's time. We intend to take him out for one last swim today. His appointment with the vet is tomorrow at 4:15 PM.

Some of Kenyon's story appears earlier in this blog when he was kidnapped and held for ransom in Mexico until we won him back. He's now been back with us longer than he was apart from us, which is a blessing.

Kenyon's a little over 14 years old. For the record, I am not a "dog person," but he is the bravest and most loyal animal I have ever known, and a beauty besides. And a champion swimmer. Even now people comment on his beauty as he limps along the beach.

Kenyon has been Kathleen's service dog for many years (though he now needs a hearing-ear dog himself). I wanted to hold onto him past Rachel's memorial service but Kathleen is right; that would be selfish. It is time, perhaps even past time.

I have never seen a bond between a human and an animal like Kenyon and Kathleen have; it's uncanny. I call him her "familiar."

At least we knew this loss was coming. I don't know if that makes it easier.

Craig Erick

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Sitting Shiva

The Jews sit Shiva for a week and then go back into the world. Yesterday Kathleen went back to work and I returned to my writing. Despite a sense of unreality and a constant feeling of exhaustion, it is time to soldier on. This will, of course, not prevent bouts of weeping and the thousand-yard stare; but continuing in life is best when walking through grief.

The Jews also set one year aside for mourning, after which it was officially over. These recommendations fit the needs of the human spirit well, though no law should be made of them. "The Law was made for man, not man for the Law.".

I am especially grateful to my sister, Elisa, who has given me the luxury of having no financial worries during this time of arranging plane flights and motel reservations. I also want to thank Tom Summers, Rachel's great uncle, whom I think paid for the viewing and cremation. When I went into the office to pay, the funeral person said, "It's already been taken care of." (I aim to pay him back but will not burden myself with such concerns at this time.)

Several things have occurred after Rachel's death which, for those who know our family history, will be instantly recognizable as something to do with Rachel.

1) While nuzzling Kenyon the night after the viewing, I apparently hurt his left shoulder and he bit my nose and bruised my eye; nothing serious, though blood was spilled. I am only the second human he has bitten.

2) Though I have needed shoes for months, the first day we returned to the coast we walked into a shoe store in a daze and each bought a pair of shoes.

3) While walking through the flora near the beach, the local salt-marsh flies attacked me en masse and I have been scratching myself ever since.

I have no intention of turning this blog into a journal of grief, but when it bubbles up I won't repress it. My writer's conference begins tomorrow and I have two musical performances on Saturday.

It's cool and humid here.

I sleep but I never feel rested.

My pants are tighter.

What's this about weight loss and grief?

Kiloneutral and holding,

Craig Erick

Monday, August 06, 2007

Rachel Elizabeth Chaffin: 11/11/1977 – 7/29/2007.

Here's a picture of Rachel with her son, Jacob (I obviously picked this for Rachel, as Jacob looks as if his gruntle has been dissed):

Here's one of her partying with her friend, Ritchie:

Ironically--isn't everything ironic?--on the last day I blogged I was to later receive the incomprehensible news that my eldest, Rachel, had died the night before.

Rachel, my little blue-eyed lamb with the beautiful coppery hair. She apparently died on the evening of July 29 and was discovered by a neighbor the following morning. It was not suicide, it was an accident. A coroner’s report is pending.

Rachel was 29, a single mother embroiled in a custody battle with a man who promised to marry her but continually added conditions to the prospect until it was unattainable. Not one for whom adult responsibilities came easy, I was so very proud that she proved she could handle them.

When visiting her apartment the day before the viewing, one daughter of mine said to the other: “So who gets the piano?” “Only Papa plays,” said the second. “Will you take it, Papa?”

Whereupon someone else said, “Yeah, let’s see if it’ll fit in your van.”

I never thought about whether I wanted this ancient spinet. But it was far easier to say, “Yes” than dispute the direction of others, so I ended up driving its tonnage through the curving two-lanes of the Redwoods and on home.

She was the most beautiful of children. Her pediatrician, who had two of her own, called her “one of the most beautiful babies I have ever seen.”

Indeed. Rachel grew up irresistible, irrepressible, with a smile sweeter than an apricot, her hair thrown into Shirley Temple coils by the least humidity. I loved to watch her hair change hues through the sun’s daily arc. She was the most trusting of souls. She was the sort of person who would always trade her cow for some magic beans, never questioning the other's motive.

This was Rachel’s favorite of my poems:

Under Noise

By repetition noise escapes us:
the dishwasher’s cycling, the radio’s drone,
the whine of sirens over the shuffle of traffic,
the refrigerator's hum, all
inhibit alarm by repetition.
Below observation
in the deep recess of impression
the same damaged record spins
until we no longer notice the crackle
because it is too familiar.

Listen: I give you the soft carpet
of diminished volume, no sound now,
no sound but your heart pumping
and your lungs filling
as in surf throbbing
and breathing through
the polished sand.

Listen to your own Atlantis
wreathed in kelp and coral:
Beneath the green depths
your quiet is unspoken,
given by the blank waters.
You have no tongue to disturb
the imperturbable earth’s revolution
moving with some silent purpose.

She was verbally and mathematically gifted and could understand nearly any poem after one reading, puzzled that her sisters didn't get it so quickly.

When I was trying to explain to my grandson about his mother’s death, I showed him a picture of Rachel on my knee and told him that just as he was her child, so she had been my child.

“Jacob,” I said, “I’m so sorry that you lost your mother.”

Avoiding eye contact and splitting his attention between a toy in his lap and a video, Jacob replied: “I’m sorry that your daughter died.”

Jacob is five.

Everything is new now. I drive into town and notice things I never noticed before; formerly familiar clerks are re-examined like potential aliens. Actually everything is alien.

I wander in a world so changed even the most basic of facts seems questionable. I think of myself in the third person a lot. While weeping I sometimes imagine how I look weeping and whether my grief is only a show—even though I am most often alone when I weep.

Such thoughts are remnants of my depression.

Thank God my psychiatric medications began to work three days before I heard of Rachel's death, and that so far my precarious chemical status has held. I can’t imagine what this experience would be like if complicated by self-doubts about the authenticity of my grief, in view of the depersonalization that depression and grief share. Depressed, the sufferer often thinks he's only "faking it." Thank God that due to medications I know I’m not.

As for tragedy, I've learned never to ask "Why?" The Book of Job cured me of that.

When Job argued with God about "undeserved" tragedy, God said: “Can you make this whale swim in a direction you prefer? Can you put a ring in the nose of a giant warhorse and guide him? Can you instruct a crocodile?”

Job sees God's sovereignty and gives up his complaints. “Who am I,” he says, “to claim to understand the Almighty? I repent in dust and ashes.”

What makes Job indispensable to any religion is his courage to confront God with the very principles God had ostensibly taught him. Job, and even more his notorious "comforters" were guilty of the illusion that success in this world is a sign of God’s favor. Jesus knew that one by heart: “He maketh the sun to rise on the just and the unjust.”

Whatever the horrors of this world, I cling to the irrational belief that God is God, as Job teaches, and that God is Love, as the Apostle John wrote. His justice is greatly overrated as having any influence in this world, though there’s always talk about a future reckoning. But if God is indeed Love, who cares about a future reckoning?

Who ya gonna believe? The truth or your lying eyes? Aye, there’s the rub.

I believe Rachel continues and is at peace. In my heart’s heart I feel assured of this, a certainty based neither upon the psychosis of a manic-depressive nor the wish-fulfillment of a devastated parent.

If anyone would like to attend, or send cards and flowers, Rachel’s memorial service will be held on August 18, 2 PM, at

Grace Lutheran Church.
6931 Edinger Ave
Huntington Beach, CA 92647
Phone: (714) 897-0361

If a donation is preferred, please send one on her behalf to TARA.

In grief and shock but kiloneutral,

"Dr. Papa Craig"

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