Nora McInerny has become a reluctant expert in difficult conversations by bringing empathy and wit to difficult subjects. She is host of the American Public Media podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking and founder of the on-line support group the Hot Young Widows Club. I recently spoke with her about her new memoir No Happy Endings where she describes her exploration of the reality of being changed by loss without being completely defined by it.
Within the span of a few months, Nora lost her husband to brain cancer, miscarried her second child, and saw the passing of her father. Not long after those tragic events, she found love again in Matthew, her new husband. Through it all, she describes the awkwardness of being a widow, the difficulties of becoming a single mom, and the guilt of finding love again.
With great humor and sensitivity, Nora reminds us that there will be no happy endings in life, but there will be new beginnings.
It’s National Sibling Day and instead of thinking about the short life I spent with my brother Roland, I’ve given thought all day to his funeral. Perhaps is was because I was preparing for an interview with author Nora McInerny. Her book, No Happy Endings, is a memoir that chronicles the personal tragedy of losing her husband to brain cancer not long after they married. She writes, often with great humor, about the awkwardness of being a widow and how being around people became increasingly difficult. Which brings me back to my dead brother and the awkward day of his funeral.
My brother Roland died in 1999 at the promising age of 36 from complications resulting from the treatment he received as a kidney patient. After his body rejected the first kidney transplant, he had a 2nd operation that we thought was successful after living for 4 years with it. I’m not sure I was ever told what the official cause of death was.
A day or so before he passed, I received a call from my uncle Mike who said, “your brother isn’t doing well and I think you should come home.” I was dead asleep in the guest room of our house (because I snored like a growling bear) when the call came from my mother. My wife walked in the room and handed me the phone. My brother had passed before I could get there. I howled for quite some time as my childhood flashed before my eyes. Cried until there were no more tears to cry. Death had never come so close to me.
I learned a lot about my brother during his funeral. He was well respected by the faculty of the theology school he attended and by leaders from his church. Great moments of pride swelled my chest. The church was full of family, friends, church members and school mates. So many people that I could find a quiet place to think. I couldn’t breathe.
As grand a send off as it was, I hated the entire affair. I have always found funerals to be a morbid and unnecessary ritual. Looking at dead bodies is a creepy exercise and I was in no mood to socialize. My brother was a devout Christian and his funeral was as about as Christian as a funeral could be. Christians view funerals as a “home going” event, a reason to celebrate. Yet I was in no celebratory mood.
I had what could only be described as an out-of-body experience that day. Aside from my wife, who understood what I was going through, and my sister-in-law who was devastated upon losing her soulmate, everyone seemed to me to be attending a different event. The laughs and smiles, jokes and hugs all seemed foreign to me. There I was in my grief having just lost my only brother and people were engaging me as if we were attending a church picnic.
The thoughts that ran from the depths of my mind to the tip of my tongue were held back only out of respect for my mother. “What the fuck are you smiling at?” “You find this to be a fun event?” “Yes, I haven’t seen you in quite some time. Now get out of my damn face.” “Yes, upstate New York is beautiful country…now piss off.” I wanted to grieve. I needed to grieve. But these people did not understand the needs of the heathen black sheep of the family. The non-church attending son. The one yet to have his body snatched by space invaders. They didn’t understand the immense guilt that I carried knowing that the last conversation that I had with Roland was an argument about my not being saved.
I helped the other men carry my brother’s body to the dead person’s car. Weak in the knees, he nearly slipped from my grip. What a total dick I would have been if I dropped my dead brother to the ground. But I held on tight.
I still carry the guilt of not saying goodbye and the guilt of not donating a kidney and likely always will. It’s difficult separating that guilt from the memories. It’s a burden I’ll happily bear if it means that I can still remember the sound of his voice, his laugh, and his trying to save my lost soul.