Sunday, May 15, 2011

(It's been) 366 Days of Eric: A Sister's Tribute

“Today is April 26, 2010, four months and 18 days ago Eric died. I still don’t like to think of him in the past tense. Eric is my brother.”

Liz and her younger brother Eric,
many years ago....
Elizabeth Reitman Waller typed those words, the first entry in her blog, 366 Days of Eric, twelve months and twenty six days ago. It’s now nearly a year and a half since her thirty-two year old brother collapsed while running a half-marathon, bled into his brain and died. And, as of this week, nearly 366 blog posts later.

Readers of Lunch Box Mom might remember my interview with Liz last summer. She had just started her writing project, still months away from a few painful but anticipated passages of the ensuing year: Thanksgiving, the December date on which Eric died, and what she hinted would be, sometime several months later, the birth of her third child, the first who would never meet his uncle.

“...I started the blog because I felt like I was in a fog,” Liz told me recently. “All I could think about was Eric and no one knew or appreciated it. I felt stuck. I definitely don't feel stuck anymore, the fog has lifted.”

She’s written through the dreaded days, such as the one before what would have been Eric’s 34th birthday.

So here I am in Savannah celebrating the New Year with my parents and finding it increasingly hard to breath. Is it the increased humidity, the baby weighing down my lungs, or the fact that Eric’s birthday is, would be, should be tomorrow? I don’t even know how to phrase it. It’s hard to believe on this beautiful, sunny, warm day that terrible, unexplained things can happen in this world, and yet they do and have.

Tomorrow Eric would have been 34 and a young vigorous man with a beautiful new wife and a promising life ahead of him. Instead we mourn and remember and hopefully celebrate the life that he did get to have. We bought a bottle of champagne to toast him with and I’m lobbying for popcorn for dinner in his memory. It’s not enough, but nothing will ever be enough when it comes to this.”

The following day, in contrast to her sadness or perhaps to honor Eric’s sense of humor that surround her still, she posted a birthday card. “Despite Eric’s best efforts, no-one guessed “Bangkok.”"

You can image the far-side inspired cartoon of a charades game that went along with this. (If not, you can see it here.)

And so it has gone with 366 days, a title and commitment in keeping with Eric’s iconoclastic take on the world.

We’ve learned that Eric took out two IRA’s and listed Liz’s sons as the beneficiaries. That he loved pizza, and longed for it so much that even during a stint in Thailand, he’d have Domino’s delivered. That he was extravagant in his presents and whimsical in his NCAA bracket picks.

Dates and events over the past year inspired posts and Liz linked most things back to Eric. But then, new things happened: the birth of her third son, Andrew Eric Waller, and the news in early May that bin Laden was dead.

This is the largest single event since Eric. I know I would be talking to him about it were he still here. I’m sure we would relive our 9/11 memories (I was working in the hospital, he was working in Riyadh) and talk about where the world goes from here. I miss his unique perspective on things.”

Reading another person’s reflections after a devastating loss is a phenomenon of the modern blogosphere. Liz and I went to college together and it was through her Facebook status updates that I first came to read of her brother’s death and later her blog. I had just finished Elizabeth Edward’s book, Resilience, in which she spoke, as she had before, of the death of her teenage son, Wade.

Edwards said she’d race back into the house and search her son’s dresser drawers, as if against logic she might find him inside of one.

I had mostly thought of grief as a sense of sadness, but here was the obsessive and anguished side of it—the wishful thinking and intellectual defiance of a particular reality.

It seemed achingly brave to revisit that kind of pain, but Edwards said she eventually found support online.

I thought of  that when Liz started her blog.

In post #267, sometime in January, Liz posted “Permission to do it My Way,” in which she said she was relieved to read the Time Magazine piece that argued a new take on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief. Liz, a neuro ophthalmologist, wrote this:

Apparently most people manage to get over the majority of their grief symptoms in six months with or without treatment. Six months? That seems a little quick to me, but then again I haven’t conducted any studies. Most of the studies mentioned in Time were conducted on people who have lost spouses. That may be a special kind of loss. I also think sudden unexpected loss probably is different to recover from than the long drawn out loss from illness. The loss of the young is also different from the loss of an older person. No matter how we recover or how long it takes, a part of me is relieved that I don’t have to follow the Kubler-Ross stages. Of course another part of me didn’t like the part of the article that said discussing and writing about your experiences didn’t help with recovery. Maybe, probably, I would have gotten here anyway (if I’m considered recovered), but I know this blog helped. But I also know it wouldn’t help everyone. I feel like I’m rambling here, but maybe that’s the point. Not everyone grieves the same way and not everyone has to. I feel a little freer now.”

When that freedom took hold is something Liz may know best, but as a reader, I sensed noticeable changes in her writing over the year.

Liz with baby Andrew
photo: Allison Fowler Photography
“More and more the posts are tangentially related to Eric instead of directly,” she told me. “It's hard for me to admit I'm running out of pure Eric stories, but easier to forgive myself if I have an off day.” She has reason to be forgiving with a nursing baby and an internet connection that she says is more often “from my phone than my computer these days.”

Still, her nonfiction blog has brought us to a turning point as poetic as any in a scripted movie.

It was post #358, "It Just Happened"

I ran yesterday. I didn’t plan to nor did I want to. Those of you who read regularly will know that since Eric the thought of running terrifies me. I’ve never really liked it anyway and I thought I would never do it again. I’m making my husband jump through all kinds of hoops (stress echo scheduled for next week) before I’ll let him run. But it happened.

I was out for my usual walk through the neighborhood. It was overcast when I left but I didn’t think much about it. It’s been overcast a lot lately and frankly it’s nice to walk in that weather because it’s cooler.

About halfway through my walk I started hearing thunder. It got darker and darker and I started to feel ridiculous in my sunglasses. I was almost home when the skies opened.

I ran home. I took out my ear buds, cradled my iPhone to my shirt, mentally thanked my parents for minding the baby so he wasn’t with me and ran. It was a stretch of road that I vividly remember running with Eric and resenting him the whole time for goading me into running and out of my comfort zone of walking. He and my friend were way ahead and I was panting behind. But I did it.”

Am I allowed to use a racing term to describe what comes next? As you read this, Liz is a few posts away from 366. If you’re inclined to welcome her into the homestretch, you can click here to let her know that her tribute to her brother, and her own brave exploration, were not done entirely alone.

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1 comment:

Annabeaninc said...

This was such a poignant and honest post, loved reading it. AnnaBean is now following Lunch Box Mom!