For months, Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update anchor Chevy Chase would look into the camera and announce “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.”

Steve and I were high school juniors back in the fall of 1975 when Franco died. We would watch the show each week in his parents’ basement at least through the fake news cast. This line resonated with us.

The line may have been created in reaction to all of those death watch stories where we were told week after week prominent aging or sickly person “is still alive”.

Hearing week after week that Spanish dictator Franco was “still dead” was pretty funny. It was a fact that didn’t need restating. After all, once you’re dead there’s no real need for an update. Things may change about your legacy or former possessions or family and friends. But you don’t have much of a choice. You remain dead.

Except that that’s not really the way it is for the family of a dead person.

After Elena died, friends suggested books that we should read. One of them was Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking.” At one point I picked it up and started reading it. I wasn’t ready then. I’m may be ready now.

This morning, CBS Sunday Morning ran a story on a one woman play based on Didion’s book starring Vanessa Redgrave. The story showed Redgrave on a sparse stage talking about shoes. She just couldn’t give away her dead husband’s shoes. What would he wear when he returned.

And that is the year of magical thinking. It’s what Kim and I have struggled with for a little more than a year now. In the news story, Didion puts words to this vague feeling that Kim and I have not been able express.

“I discovered that, literally, I was holding two contradictory ideas in my mind at the same time. One was that he was dead and the other was that he would come back. And I don’t mean come back in some — I’m not talking about religious resurrection. I’m talking about come back. Walk in the door. Wondering why I had given away his shoes, you know?”

And so thirteen months later, Elena Maxine is still dead. I think, however, upstairs in her closet we still have her shoes.

Published in: on March 25, 2007 at 10:04 am  Comments (4)  


Kim and I had to run up to the grocery store for a minute. Maggie was playing at a friend’s house. As we headed in to Heinen’s we ran into Diane and her mother on their way out.

We stood outside and talked for a while. Diane is the math department secretary at Case. We’d talked a lot while I was there. Kim’s office was right down the hall from Diane’s and it might even have been Diane who suggested I go down and talk to Kim.

Diane turned to her mother to introduce us saying, “this is Daniel and Kim. You’ve met them before. They both used to be at Case.”

We talked a little bit with the mom and a little more with Diane and then they carried their groceries to their car and Kim and I grabbed a cart and went into the store.

I looked at Kim.

“I know,” she said. It’s one of the many things I like about her. She and I often know what the other is thinking.

“Still,” I said.

“I know,” she said again.

Diane’s mom hadn’t really known who we were. She was just being polite. Kim and I both knew — or assumed we did. When we’d gone into the store, the mom had looked quizzically at Diane had said, “those are the people who lost their little girl last year.” And then the mother would have remembered who were were.

I know.

Kim and I got home and finished putting away the groceries about the time that Ruby’s mom brought Maggie home. Kim was putting laundry in the washing machine so I walked out to the car. We didn’t yet know Ruby’s parents very well and I thought I should say something about Elena. I don’t know why, but I felt it explained a lot.

I started to say something and Kathy cut me off and said, “I know.”

And then, as if she was reading my mind, she added, “everyone knows who you guys are.”

Published in: on March 15, 2007 at 10:44 am  Comments (1)  

Trick Birthday Candles

A birthday isn’t a birthday unless there is a birthday cake with candles. The adults want to know what kind of cake it is but the kids just want to look at the frosting. The design might be Blue from “Blue’s Clues” or Hello Kitty. On year Elena’s cake had an African American Barbie on it.

You have to be careful placing the candles. They need to be in a nice, neat, regular pattern — but they shouldn’t mess up the picture underneath. You’re allowed to move a candle over if it would be placed on Barbie’s nose.

And what kind of candles should you choose. There are the traditional skinny candles. There are the decorative big ones that you can center on the cake with the smaller ones spread around. This is the fatter candle that is in the shape of the number of the birthday.

Today it would have been a nice round eight for Elena.

At some point we would have brought out the cake and lit the candles. Elena would climb on on a chair to see better. She’d have squeezed her eyes tightly shut and started to make a wish.

“C’mon Elena, the candles are melting on the cake.”

“Maggie,” Elena would whine, “I’m making my wish.”

“Well hurry up Elena. There’s wax melting all over my piece.”

Elena would pause just long enough to let Maggie know that she was in charge. She’d give her eyes an extra squeeze, move her lips slightly while making her wish just so whoever was in charge of wishes would hear her, and nod her head to signal that it was done.

She’d open her eyes and say, “o.k., I’m ready.” And then she’d look at the cake.

She wouldn’t just glance at it. She’d take a long look. She’d drink it all in. This was the cake she’d chosen. She’d look at Kim and me knowing all along that she was pushing Maggie’s buttons. “Isn’t this the most beautiful cake you’ve ever seen.”

“Elena! Blow out the candles.”

Elena would stretch the moment just a little longer. “Should I daddy?” I’d nod. She’d look over to Kim who would nod as well.

“O.K., fine,” she’d smile and take a big breath in, lean forward, and blow out all the candles.

“Finally,” Maggie would say.

And then one candle then another would spurt back to life.

“Oooh,” Elena would laugh, “trick candles.” And she’d blow them out again and again laughing. When it was clear that a couple of them were just going to stay lit, she would give up and ask Mamma for help. Kim’s mom would take the candles out and run water over them to put them out for good.

Her actual celebration this year wasn’t quite like that. Jodelle was in town and asked if she could stop over.

“Sure,” I’d said, “but it’s Elena’s birthday.”

We don’t really know what that means yet. But Jodelle came over and late in the afternoon we headed across the street to the Henry’s house. It was a cold and windy day. Just like it’s supposed to be in early March.

The year before they had set out seven candles for Elena’s birthday outside our house. This year there were eight. Eight candles set in gallon sized plastic milk containers with sand on the bottom.

Kim, Jodelle, Maggie and I walked down the street with Tom, Betsy, and Carolyn. Patti met us at the little garden at the end of the street that the neighbors planted for Jan and Elena. Tom placed the containers around the garden like he was decorating a birthday cake.

He lit a few of the candles.

The wind blew them out.

I joined him. The two of us lit candles for a while and the wind kept blowing them out.

“It’s Elena,” Kim said. “She’s blowing out her birthday candles.”

“Make a wish baby,” I said.

Jodelle, Kim, Maggie, and I met Kim’s parents for a birthday dinner. Pancakes at the iHop. Elena loved pancakes. We told stories and no one said the obvious. That it’s just incomprehensible to be celebrating an eighth birthday that the birthday girl didn’t live to see.

The wind picked up. It was turning colder. Kim’s parents headed to their house, Jodelle headed back to New York, and the three of us headed back home.

We stopped at the top of the street at the garden and relit the candles. Our own trick candles that we kept relighting til Elena tired of blowing them out.

Published in: on March 3, 2007 at 10:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

Eight years old

I was in the car on Presidents’ Day half listening to the radio. At the top of the hour the first story on the news was that George Washington would have been two hundred some years old today.

I don’t remember the exact number because I was already yelling at the radio.

“No he wouldn’t,” I said.

The radio ignored me and went on to the next story. I wasn’t through with my lecture and so I reached over and turned it down. If I came equipped with a volume knob the radio might have turned mine down as well.

“First of all,” I continued, “it’s not his birthday. We celebrate today because it’s a Monday between Lincoln and Washington’s birthday so he wouldn’t have been turning any age today.”

This first point was clear to me because Elena died on Washington’s birthday. She died on the date when her favorite president was born. The anniversary of her death doesn’t move around each year to suit a national holiday and neither does the actual anniversary of Washington’s birth.

This brought me to my second point.

“There’s no way that Washington would have been two hundred and anything today,” I glared through the radio at the newscaster. “People don’t live that long. Even if he hadn’t died when he did, he wasn’t going to make it to ONE hundred let alone TWO hundred. This might be the two hundred and some-th anniversary of the birth of Washington but he would never have been that old today.”

Sometimes when I’m ranting I make up words like “some-th”.

And so we come to today: the third of March, 2007.

Elena would have been eight years old today.

Elena should have been eight years old today — Elena will always be six. This is the second birthday that Elena didn’t celebrate. The second year that we didn’t give her a hug and ask “who’s the birthday girl?” The second year that Maggie didn’t peer over her shoulder while Elena opened up gifts and cards and coo “oooh, what did you get.”

For Elena’s birthday, please post a story of her. Share a memory. Paint a picture. Thank you.

Published in: on March 3, 2007 at 8:12 am  Comments (23)