Retelling Stories

We bought our first house from a community organization that bought houses cheap and rehabbed them and then sold them to people who agreed to live in them for a certain amount of time. The house was in pretty good shape. The only problem that remained, according to the seller, was that some of the radiators didn’t work.

They agreed to repair the heating system and we had a deal. There was plenty of work to be done in the house, but that was all work that Kim and I could do. We knew we had a lot of painting and sanding ahead of us.

A month later we were ready for the final walk through. We stepped into the house and there was a sixteen foot hole in the living room ceiling. The person showing us around seemed not to even notice it. He was focused on showing us the radiators they had replaced. We stared at those as well. They had put in undersized radiators to replace the ones that had been there.

We asked about the hole in the ceiling and he said that when they had hooked up the new radiators and pressurized the system, pipes in the ceiling had burst. “But,” he said pleasantly, “don’t worry. We fixed the faulty pipes as well.”

“What about the large hole in the living room ceiling?” I asked.

“What about it?” he replied.

“Well, you need to fix it,” I answered.

“No,” he said quickly, “we only agreed to fix the heating system. We didn’t say anything about cosmetic work on the ceiling.”

“But,” I said, “there was no hole in the ceiling until you caused it by fixing the heating system.”

He shrugged. In his opinion he’d done what he’d agreed to do and now the house was ours.

We continued our walk through. When we got to the garage we saw that there was no way for me to park my car in the garage because it contained the eight bad radiators they had replaced.

“You need to move these,” I said.

“We never said we would haul the old ones away,” he said.

This was my grown-up introduction of the difference between what is legal and what is right.

I drank coffee every day with a group of guys one of whom did plumbing and heating work. He made copies of a standard guide for calculating radiator size. The fact that the old radiators were still in the garage made it easy to measure the old ones and the replacements and show that the replacements were undersized. We took pictures of the holes in the ceiling. And we sent a nice letter off to the agency explaining what we would like them to do.

No response. We called and they refused to talk to us.

They had also spoken to one of the television channels and painted themselves as the victim. They were a do good community organization being harassed by a wealthy homeowner. Of course, at the time I was making eight thousand dollars a year as a graduate student.

We had a friend write them a letter on legal stationery and they responded. They didn’t see that they’d done anything wrong. We scheduled a preliminary hearing. We went down to the courthouse and were met by our lawyer. They were going to depose our contractor friend and demonstrate that he had a great deal of hearing loss.

Kim is a speech pathologist and knew that his hearing loss had nothing to do with anything. But again, there is a difference between what is legal and what is right. Their plan was to use his hearing loss to demonstrate that he gave us bad advice because he could not adequately hear what we were asking him.

For us, it was a no brainer. We were not going to put a friend through any hassle even though he said he was willing to go down and subject himself to it. We settled for them taking away the radiators and for a minimal amount and I repaired the ceiling and the other holes that were left with some help from friends.

For a while, it was our favorite story to tell. It had dominated our attention for months and we tended to talk a lot about it with friends.

And then we noticed something.

Every time we would tell the story, we’d get mad all over again. Telling the story would bring up the emotions we had felt living through it the first time. As a result, we spent a lot of the time feeling angry.

It’s important to think about the stories you tell. Because so many people asked, we spent a lot of the first week after Elena died talking about her last minutes. Talking about her death. Talking about seeing her on the table at the Emergency room. Talking about Kim giving her C.P.R. until the rescue team arrived. We’ll talk more about those times – just less and less frequently.

Now we mainly tell stories of Elena from when she was alive. For a moment we are able to relive the emotions we felt during those happy times.  Just after telling them, there is a sigh where we again feel the loss of her presence. But we would feel that loss all the time if we weren’t telling stories.

Here’s a quick story. On Friday, Maggie got the dates for her next Girl Scout camping weekend. Until this year, Elena has been too young to go on camping trips with her troop. So whenever Maggie and Kim would go on their camping weekends, Elena and I would have our own adventure. She would set the menu. Generally we’d end up cooking hotdogs on a stick over our gas stove. Then we would toast marshmallows and sing songs. Finally, we would pop Jiffy Pop and set newspapers on the floor of the living room and put the popped corn between us and tell ghost stories. She loved to tell ghost stories in her scary voice. Long non-sensical ghost stories with as much gore as she could describe.

The stories we tell and how we tell them – so powerful in almost a magical way.

Published in: on March 13, 2006 at 8:11 am  Comments (8)  

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Your blog is the first thing I read each day. I want to say I’m a mom of 4 with a new one born Feb. 10th and you’ve really changed my perspective regarding how I treat my children. Thank you. shauna (pajama momma)

  2. Retelling stories of good times really can bring back the warm feelings, even through the feeling of loss. My parents were fortunate enough to be married 57 years before my father passed away last year from a debilitating illness. One of their favorite stories they told was of a trip to Vienna they made maybe 20 years ago. They were at an outdoor cafe and a string ensemble was playing waltzes. There was a dance floor and no one was dancing. My father looked at my mother and said “let’s dance.” They got up and were the lone dancers for a while. Soon, several other couples joined them, and more than one said thank you to my parents for encouraging them.

    When my father was ill, it was very difficult for my parents to stay focused on good things, since his illness so profoundly affected their daily life. My mother told me that they would sometimes just sit and hold hands and then one of them would say “We’ll always have Vienna!” I really believe that the feeling that memory brought back had a healing effect, even though they were sad they would never have such an opportunity again. This story continues to work its magic, for my mother, for me, and for my children who can also retell it.

    Knowing how profound the loss of my father was for me, I cannot even imagine what you and your family have been going through with the loss of Elena. Telling and retelling the good stories of times together will hopefully bring some comfort, and it will certainly keep Elena’s spirit alive for all who miss her.

  3. Daniel, Thank you for continuing to write this eloquent blog. Your stories of Elena are so magical. I read your blog daily and am often moved to comment, but can’t find the words.

    I think of what you said on Elena’s birthday about reaching out to people you might not usually notice. Here’s my story of just one small way that Elena has touched our lives. For years I have encouraged my sons to greet the crossing guard on our walk to school. They are introverted and tend to mumble “Hello” while looking down. We’ve talked about Elena and all of the people she touched. I mentioned that Mrs. Simmons came to the funeral and would miss Elena’s smiles and greetings. For two weeks now, without my prompting, my older son says a very loud and enthusiastic “Hello” to Mrs. Simmons every morning as we cross the street. And I think of Elena smiling.

    Susan

  4. Bravo, it seems to me that you have realized one of the most important things about honoring a person’s memory… re-live the memories that bring you closer to their life, not their death.

    The worst thing to do is to not talk about Elena at all.. that would deny her life, her existence, her prescence in your lives.

  5. […] I was reading Dear Elena and his latest post hit me. Granted, he is dealing with something much larger. I could never imagine what it would feel like to lose a child and hope I never do. But he talks about how after Elena died that the stories they told about her were about her last moments and that it evoked the emotions that happened at the same moment as the story. […]

  6. Daniel:

    I just found out about this today. we dont really know each other, but we did converse briefly at the OSX mac conference a few years back (and Mac Hack a few months before that). I just want you to know that in the brief interactions that we had, I was impressed by your love for life and your passion to be fully engaged with everything around you. I was really encouraged when you told me that I should write something on Redezvous for java.net. That meant a lot to me, you didnt even really know me, and were encouraging me to “go for it”, in spite of the fact that you didn’t even really know who I was. I have thought about that from time to time and smiled. People matter to you. And that is a rare, precious thing. I for some reason have been profoundly moved by this situation. I am not normally brought to tears by reading recounts of others’ lives. But I was today. I think John Donne got it right when he said “No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” This hit me like a ton of bricks today. Please know that your work is important and that my prayers go up for you and your family. Your few encouraging words made a big difference for me. Please keep the words coming.

    Mike

  7. I have been reading your blog and being touched by it for a few weeks. I’ve wanted to make a comment, but since I don’t know you I wanted to make the post something that you might find meaning and comfort in.

    Early this week I took two days off to help Mother clean out the closet in my room. While I was there, I found an old scrapbook that I had made when I was in high school and several old photograph albums. I had been looking at silly old photographs, the kind that teenagers take when they have a lot of film, a lot of good friends, and a lot of time. I was laughing remembering all the good times. My friend Shelly, being a bit of a showoff, was in many of those pictures. I laughed out loud remembering the times we had. In the scrapbook I came across the newspaper article telling of Shelly’s death at the age of 18. There was another article dated a few months later about grieving the loss of a child. Shelly’s mother said that the thing she feared most was that people would forget Shelly. Almost 20 years later, I have not forgotten Shelly. I don’t think of her every day, but I often stop and remember the fun we had, the funny things she would do, her beautiful singing voice, and the warm way she had of comforting me, and especially how she always knew when I needed a hug or a few words. It’s one thing to say at the time that you’ll never forget someone, but quite another to look back after 20 years and smile at the memories.

    But maybe, some will say, that was because we knew each other for so long. (Fifteen years is a long time for a seventeen-year-old!) Maybe, but I don’t think so.

    A while after we looked at the scrapbook, I found a book that had been given to me by Rebecca, my first best friend. We met each other when we were six, and she moved to India when we were eight. Did I miss her when she moved? You bet. Did I forget who she was, or what we did together? Not yet, and I don’t think I will ever.

    I hope you will find some comfort in these. And I hope that you don’t mind if I picture Elena much the same way Shelly looked when she was that age. From what I know of Elena through your blog posts, they shared many qualities that I was glad to have known. Shelly is a luminous presence, even twenty years after she left this earth.

    One other note: I always thought of Kitty as Shelly’s mother. I still do, even though Kitty is now with Shelly again.

  8. Great site you have here.. It’s difficult to find high-quality writing like yours these days.
    I honestly appreciate individuals like you! Take care!!


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