I was nine the summer Elvis Presley died. Though my mother was among the age group mired in grief that day, she’d never caught the Elvis bug and was largely unaffected. In turn, his passing seemed inconsequential to me, but I do remember a couple things about that day:
1) My friend’s mom stopped chewing her gum and put it in a scrapbook to commemorate what she’d been doing the moment she learned of his death.
2) She also donned black garments and went into mourning.
As a nine-year-old, I thought it was curious how someone could be so moved by the death of someone she’d never met that she would memorialize him with her bubblegum. Forget that he was “The King;” it seemed plain odd.
All these years later, I understand a little better. I, too, have been immersed in grief over the death of someone I didn’t have the chance to meet – a fellow mother-writer named Emilie Lemmons. She might not have been “The King,” but to me, Emilie was much more impactful and special, and the tears I’ve shed in the wake of her recent passing have been as real as any.
Regretfully, I could not be at Emilie’s funeral today. Instead, around the time of her burial I was swimming laps at the local YMCA. There in the water, on reprieve from the demands of mothering, I was overtaken with thoughts of Emilie and her family. I tried to push through the sadness but finally was forced to stop. My goggles were filling up, not with pool water but tears.
It’s been difficult finding a fitting way to share this grief. But if it’s true what John Donne said, that “No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main,” then it’s equally true we need one another in such times.
How, though, could I begin to explain my feelings to the people around me? Who would understand the panic that settled in my heart last week upon reading Emilie’s blog and learning she’d gone under the care of hospice? Who would understand the sadness that engulfed me as I realized this person I’d come to adore from afar was slipping away from the earth?
Certainly my husband couldn’t, nor would I expect him to, comprehend my aching over the latest news regarding my “periphery pal,” someone I’d met online through a writers’ list serve, Facebook, email and the blogging world but had never even seen “in real time.”
The night I learned Emilie was, in fact, preparing to die, I received an email message from Marie, another mother-blogger who lives in my area. Both of us had been following Emile’s blog. “Have you read the latest post?” she asked, and before we knew it, we were making plans for our husbands to watch the kids so we could meet – for the first time. We were like magnets, drawn to one another in our mutual heartache over Emilie. We talked easily that night about mothering and writing and our worries over Emilie, all the while recognizing with gratitude that if not for Emilie, we would not be enjoying one another’s company.
Just days later, as I was making final preparations for a Christmas Eve trip to Minnesota, I decided to check Emilie’s blog to see whether there were any new posts. Indeed there was one, but it wasn’t written by Emilie. Instead, her husband had posted a bittersweet note to announce her passing. My daughters watched with concern as I sobbed at my desk and asked what was wrong. Just then my husband, who’d recently arrived home from work, popped into my office. “The van’s running. Are you ready to roll?”
No, no! I’m not even close to being ready, I thought, knowing there wasn’t time to explain. “Yes, I’ll be right there,” I said, wiping my eyes and moving briskly to catch up with the life that awaited me.
I carried my fresh grief into the van, out of North Dakota and into Minnesota. Marie was far away now. The people on my writers’ list where I “met” Emilie also seemed far, far away. Everyone would be engaged in Christmas preparations. I was on my own.
But later, I learned that I was not alone; I just hadn’t known it. Another blogger, Mary, posted this on her blog a few days later:
I wanted to post about Emilie’s passing as soon as I read the sad news on Christmas Eve, but I found myself unable to put into words the strange grief I was feeling. As you know, I never met Emilie, never even spoke to her by phone. I knew her only through her blog and our common bonds as mothers, writers, bloggers and spiritual seekers. I was awed by her strength in the face of tremendous hardship, in her ability to enjoy every minute with her young sons even while she was dying, in her grace and honesty right up until the end. When I learned of her death, I wept, not a few sentimental tears for a stranger’s sorrow, but hysterical, overwhelming, sob-inducing tears. I found it odd that I could feel such strong emotions for someone who was never in my life in any concrete way.
The same day I found Mary’s post, a friend of Emilie’s set up a memorial on Facebook so those who had known Emilie either in person or through her writing could “gather” online to share remembrances and news regarding her life and death. One of Emilie’s friends referred to the memorial as a “virtual wake” and said he thought Emilie would be intrigued with such a concept.
This online memorial “gathering” has been a blessing to me, allowing me a place to grieve in spite of my absence from the funeral today.
As Victoria Alexander says in Words I Never Thought To Speak, “Every griever has three needs: 1) to find the words for the loss; 2) to say the words out loud; and 3) to know the words have been heard.”
I’m sure this was true of Kay, who posted these words on the online memorial:
I checked in on Lemmondrops last Friday and read she was starting home hospice. Ben came up to me and said “Mommy, why you crying?” I couldn’t explain it to him. I was crying over the news that someone I never met in person but befriended online was dying. The word hospice hit me hard, it truly was the end, as she said she was entering the last chapter of her life – right before Christmas. Ben touched my arm and pointed at the screen. “That lady on the ‘puter is pretty.” He was pointing at the ethereal photo of Emilie glancing down. I said, “She sure is – she is a beautiful person.”
On the same Facebook memorial, another poster, Jessica, said:
I, too, am someone who indirectly knew Emilie from her blog. She unraveled her personality and beauty with such zesto behind her keyboard. My favorite aunt is doing chemo for the 2nd time because of her spreading breast cancer and her blog helped me cope. She was a beautiful mother, writer, and friend to so many in her life and in her blog. God Bless her and may the angels sweep her off her feet and deliver her to the gates of Heaven. Amor.
I am especially grateful to Emilie’s longtime friend Regina, who started the online memorial and welcomed me to it even though I hadn’t known Emilie as intimately as she had. Though welcomed there, most of us “newcomers” to Emilie’s life seem apologetic when posting our thoughts, as if we’re uncertain we really belong. We seem to know in our hearts that what we’re experiencing is real, but we’re still grappling with the logic of it.
In earthly terms, it might not make sense, but spiritually, it makes perfect sense why we are so drawn to Emilie. After all, our connections to one another are not limited to the absolute tangible. We are not simply earthly matter, but spiritual beings in an earthly body.
Think of the artist who, in daring to expose her very soul through her art, affects the hearts of many, even through space and time. Artists like Michelangelo, Beethoven, Emily Dickinson, and yes, Emilie Lemmons, too.
In a poem by Henry Van Dyke left in comments on Emilie’s blog, we are told that “Death comes in its own time, in its own way. Death is as unique as the individual experiencing it.” Grief, too, comes in its own time and in its own way and is as unique as the individual experiencing it. Nobody has a monopoly on grief – or death.
I was drawn to Emilie and her blog through her honest yet grace-filled portrayal of an uncertain future, not because I had a curious fascination with the dying process, but because, at first, and as a fellow mother and wife, I wanted so desperately for her to pull through. When it seemed obvious she wouldn’t, I stayed near because I knew she had a lot to teach me about living, and that she did.
Even now, through others in her life who have taken the time to show me more of Emilie and the remarkable woman she was, the lessons of life and how to fully live it continue.
Through all of this, I am assured that Emilie and The King are now properly united. Not King Elvis, but the true King, the One who welcomed her home.
The following poem was left in a comment at the end of Emilie’s blog, “Lemmondrops: Sweet and Sour Stories of Life, Love and Little Ones:”
So many different lengths of time
by Brian Patten
How long does a man live after all?
A thousand days or only one?
One week or a few centuries?
How long does a man spend living or dying
and what do we mean when we say gone forever?
Adrift in such preoccupations, we seek clarification.
We can go to the philosophers
but they will weary of our questions.
We can go to the priests and rabbis
but they might be busy with administrations.
So, how long does a man live after all?
And how much does he live while he lives?
We fret and ask so many questions –
then when it comes to us the answer is so simple after all.
A man lives for as long as we carry him inside us,
for as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams,
for as long as we ourselves live,
holding memories in common, a man lives.
His lover will carry his man’s scent, his touch:
his children will carry the weight of his love.
One friend will carry his arguments,
another will hum his favourite tunes,
another will still share his terrors.
And the days will pass with baffled faces,
then the weeks, then the months,
then there will be a day when no question is asked,
and the knots of grief will loosen in the stomach and the puffed faces will calm.
And on that day he will not have ceased
but will have ceased to be separated by death.
How long does a man live after all?
A man lives so many different lengths of time.