The Morning You Died



The morning you died

The glorious light in the east

Just before sunrise pulled me to the

Side of the road, so I could stop in the silence

Before the dawn, and take the new light

Into my heart, pausing to simply breathe in the new day.


Just breathe. Just take it in,

And be in the quiet beauty of the summer morning.

“Each day, each moment is precious,” you’d tell me, again

reminding me that life is to be lived, with everything we have.


The morning you died

I shared coffee with an old friend,

Our laughter filling the café with good times,

Our friendship old and alive, rich with promise

For this special day.


The morning you died, I watered my garden, so the

Flowers would bloom again, and the seeds I had planted

Would give us food when summer ran into fall,

When the leaves would turn to gold and fly away in the wind,

Promising to come again next spring.


Next year, spring will come again, yet you are gone.

I will hear your laughter, and your delicious humor,

And your love of being with everyone in the garden of our lives.

You, teaching us, once again, that life is to be enjoyed,

And every moment is part of the dance we call

Life, and you will remind us, once again,

That we don’t really die, that life is just

Part of the dance, part of the circle, and we are all



–Neal Lemery

Grieving For My Sister In Law

Last week, my sister in law died. I have found abundant tears, yet fewer words, to sort that news out, to find my way through the wilderness of grief and loss. I am lost in my loss.

Pancreatic cancer is an evil thing. It has moved swiftly into my life, at many times, taking good people, long before I would even begin to contemplate that their time had come to leave us. Pancreatic cancer is on my short list of things to loathe.

When I heard the sad news, weeks, yes months before I expected it, a Christmas letter from a good friend had just arrived. The letter started off with a quote:

“What is the sum total of a man’s life? I knew the answer, and it wasn’t complicated. At the bottom of the ninth, you count up the people you love, both friends and family, and you add their names to the fine places you’ve been and the good things you’ve done, and you have it.”
—-James Lee Burke, Light of the World.

Each day is a gift, and each moment is precious. We need to make the most of our lives, and to do what is right, and to bring joy into the world, for ourselves and for others. And, I am too often rudely reminded that life is short, and should be cherished, in every moment.

My sister in law’s life was rich in family and friends. She sought joy every day, joy in the simple things, the quiet moments. I suspect she treasured the sunrise, and the moments with my brother, doing simple things, ordinary. Yet, in their simplicity and plainness, there was sacred beauty and peace.

She enjoyed rich, strong coffee. She baked miraculous biscotti to go along with it, as well as a variety of homemade pastas and bread.

I have been blessed to have her in my life. We were buddies, friends. We laughed, we shared jokes and stories.

One summer’s day, we conspired against my brother to wash his pickup. We tricked him into driving it onto the lawn, and we scampered like mischevious children, armed with hoses and sponges, even getting into a water fight with my brother. He resisted, but ended up laughing, soaking wet. His pickup was clean.

She retired last summer, and they took a long trip to Italy, her parents’ homeland. I trust they found long warm afternoons to drink wine and sample great food. They bought a new house, and were settling in to a new, relaxing life when she fell ill. And, all too quickly, she left us.

My life is poorer now, with her gone. But, in many ways, she is still here, in my heart. She has enriched my life and brought joy to me. For all of that, I am grateful for the all too brief time we had together.

Again, I am reminded of the shortness of life, and the sweetness of life. All we really have is this moment, and we should enjoy it.

—Neal Lemery 12/9/2014

Gathering for Richard Powers

We joined together, this community in grief, each here with their own experiences, our own stories of his life, and how we each had changed and grown, because of him.

Laughter, stories, a few jokes, food, and remembrance, on this bright spring day, his birthday, even. Tears, of grief, and also joy in a good story, as we came together, and remembered all the good he brought to each of us, each in our own way, special, even sacred.

In his leaving, I have been the more diligent in my writing, my musing, my walks into the mists of this corner of the universe, into the deep parts of my soul which need to speak their voice, to be a teller of stories.

“Deeper,” I hear him say still, “go deeper, and bring it out.” Is it his voice, or the voices of angels and muses and the spirits of this place, and this time, or my own soul, who is it I hear?

That question may be important, but the answer is not. Yet, in his passing, that is what the muses are chanting, as I walk in the pre-dawn half light, on the edge of the worlds of my existence, looking for meaning, deep in my wounds of his death.

“Grief is a house
where the chairs
have forgotten how to hold us
the mirrors how to reflect us
the walls how to contain us.

“Grief is a house that disappears
each time someone knocks at the door
or rings the bell
a house that blows into the air
at the slightest gust
that buries itself deep in the ground
while everyone is sleeping.

“Grief is a house where no on can protect you
where the younger sister
will grow older than the older one
where the doors
no longer let you in
or out.”
― Jandy Nelson, The Sky is Everywhere

We gather, in memoriam, and then, when the best of the stories and the funniest of the jokes, and the most bittersweet of songs have been sung, we leave, to go our separate ways, to find that quiet corner and think again of who he was and who he is to us. Yet, in our parting, we are together, each in our own shard of experience of life with him, and his many gifts to each of us.

—Neal Lemery, 4/13/2014


Together, we tear open the packages of new strings, gingerly remove the old strings, and replace them with new ones, all shiny and bright. The new strings don’t come with directions, and folks who buy violin strings are probably presumed to know what they are doing. Trial and error become reliable teachers, and our first experience in restringing a violin soon brings results.

He tightens each string, checking the tuning, a smile creeping over his face as he realizes his violin now has a clearer, brand new tone. Yes, he can do this. He can restring his violin, a new task is learned, and a big accomplishment is made.

The violin has been a good teacher these last few months, offering challenges, and stretching his fingers and his fascination with making music with a bow, strings, and a centuries old design. My friend, “Jim”, is finding his voice with this violin, a place to put his emotions, and his fears. He’s getting out of prison in eight months, and there’s a lot of fear in him now, about how to live, and how to be a man on the “outside”, for the first time in his young life. Six years is a long time behind bars, especially when you are twenty three.

His grandfather’s gift of the violin has brought him some genuine excitement, and a place for his emotions, his love for creating something beautiful. He is finding a voice for his soul to spread its wings and soar.

We work quietly, offering each other suggestions, each contributing a finger to hold a string, or add a bit of tension, only a word here and there to solve a problem of a reluctant tip of a wire string, or finding the correct direction to turn a tuning peg, the right groove for that particular string.

He retunes and retightens, again and again, as the new strings stretch, now becoming part of the violin, part of the whole of what he tenderly holds in his arms and under his chin, his bow finding its place, creating new notes, clean and bright.

We were supposed to work on our weekly task, reading comprehension and vocabulary for his college entrance tests. He kept failing the tests on the computer, and was getting frustrated. He’d seen me helping other young men here with their studies, and had finally screwed up his courage enough to ask me for some help.

In the past two months, we’d been faithful to our task, making progress, but today was different. As soon as I walked into the multi-purpose room for the prison camp, and its eclectic chaos of books, videos, craft supplies, a few beat up guitars, and “Jim”’s violin, he talked excitedly about everything but our work. He was a tea kettle getting ready to boil.

Our stringing task complete, I’m thinking we could get our studying done. But, the water’s still hot and “Jim” is ready to unload on something else. We move on to a new topic, and soon he is showing me photos of his family, and telling me their stories, and the stories of his young life, stories he’s never shared with me.

There’s the grandfather who sent him the violin, smiling, picking his guitar.

“He’s real proud of me, for working so hard on the violin,” he says. “I got to talk to him on the phone the other day, first time in a year.”

As he flips through the album, he lets me deeper into his life, sharing some more sad stories, some of his pain, his worries about people he loves, and who he really might be, inside.

And, finally, the last page of the album, the real reason he’s emotional today. He lets me inside of his heart, and shares a deep, sad story, so intense and personal that the details, the intimacy, aren’t to be shared with anyone else. Yet, he trusts me to listen, to hear his story, and why he is so sad, and on edge today.

I want to find a corner and cry my eyes out, the pain in “Jim”’s voice filling me with sorrow. But, I have to keep listening, No one else is.

It’s a matter of fact tale, just part of his young life, just what he has had to experience. I lean in, and listen hard, my few questions telling him I’m really listening, really paying attention to him, and his Divine Comedy, taking me deeper and colder than Dante’s version of the deepest part of Hell.

We’ve gone so far today, from mentor and prisoner, to tutor and student, to amateur violin restringer and tuner, to spiritual surgeons, working on a broken heart. My job now becomes the listener, the friend, the other human being in the room who gives a damn about this young man and his pain.

He tells his story, letting me hear his pain, and his deep love for what he had in his arms, and then lost, and how he has gained from all of that, and become a loving, good man, at peace with God, and content in his life. Oh, there is still some bitterness and some righteous anger, but instead of poisoning his soul, he uses all that to feed his soul, and nurture his gentle, peaceful spirit, and give himself guidance and purpose in his life.

There are angels in this room now, surrounding us, and filling this space with love and a sense of serenity and comfort. I think “Jim” senses them, too, and his shoulders drop, and he is, at last, becoming at peace with his story he has just shared. In the telling, he has found some acceptance, and compassion, some support in his journey. He is not alone, now, in that story, that part of his life that nearly pulled his heart out of his chest.

I grab him and hold him close, and he holds me tight, and sobs, at last. Together, we grieve, the soothing words we both need now not spoken, but filling the room, and healing his heart, resounding loudly in our souls. What I try to give to him now comes not from me, as much as it comes from the angels in our midst, the air heavy with the unconditional love of the universe.

Our time is up, now, and I have to go. We’ve worked on our vocabulary, the words that really matter today, and we’ve restrung a violin, giving both “Jim” and his violin a new, brighter voice. We’ve put in some new heart strings, too, giving me a chance to love this young man a little harder, a little deeper today, giving him some space to play his songs, and be loved.

—Neal Lemery

Gone Missing

You have gone, but I keep looking
keep delving into the great mystery
the meaning of this journey called life.

I go back to where we met, where we talked,
where you did your magic with your son,
urging him forward, teaching him love,
being all of the father he needed,
all the father for us all,
prisoners, mentors, yet all of us
becoming loved, becoming family,
feeling your hugs reach into our hearts.

You, not here now, but then again,
yes, you are, still here, beside me
inside the walls we have built—
your presence, your passion,
your simple message:
showing up,
loving without strings attached—
nothing more really needed.
You, teaching me, again and again,
just love, just be the human being.

Week after week, all of us watching you open your heart
pouring love into that son’s soul,
taking his hand and walking with him
into his manhood,
to be all that he can be,
changing each of us as we watched.

You, in your wisdom,
you, eroding the rock around his soul,
revealing his own diamonds,
one drop of love
at a time.

It is not the passing on, the tears, I ponder,
but your burning flame lighting up my life
the bear hugs, the laugh,
the handshake that gripped my heart,
the words urging all of us to think
of the possibilities.

—Neal Lemery 12/19/2013
in memory of Ken Edens (1953-2013)

Struggling with Suicide and Grief and Everything Else

I don’t know what to say, or even think. A friend of mine has gone, at a time and place and manner of his own choosing. He left, not saying good bye, not asking for help with his pain, his choices. But, then again, maybe he did, and we did not listen, or did not respond to what he asked. At least, I did not hear him asking for a hand, or my ear, or even considering other choices. Or, maybe I did. And now, I do not know. I am, at the least, confused and lost, and stumbling around in my grief, my impotence.

Now, there is an emptiness, and a great unknowing. The “what ifs” keep multiplying, and I am left with wonder, with sadness, and guilt. “What if?” “What if?”

And, in the silence that follows my asking, there are no answers, only more questions.

Friends of mine, closer to him that I was, are left empty, unknowing, wandering in the wilderness of uncertainty, of deeper questions which have no answers today. My pain today is enough; I cannot imagine theirs.

I search for answers that are not there. I search for so much, for reasons, for explanations, for understandings, knowing that there is now only a cold wind blowing around my heart.

Raw craziness, that is what is running amuck in my life now. No answers, just more questions. Not much solace, yet knowing that my friend was, at least for a second, at peace with himself and what he was doing.
I was not on his road of life, and I did not know his journey. In his departing, there is even more uncertainty in my mind as to what I might have known, might have done, might have loved him deeper, had he shared his pain, his questions, his journey. But, he did not, and somehow I must accept that. Yet, in that, I find myself angry, and unknowing, and uncertain. I am confused, and enraged, yet what has been done was beyond what I could have done, and beyond what I am, and what I could have been to him.

Old pains, and other suicides, and those still unanswered questions come back now, again reminding me of old wounds, unresolved enigmas, old doubts and tears. I do not know. I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know. Old stuff, reopened, bleeding again, making new tears.

Part of me wants answers, but I know that answers won’t ever come. I move on, in life, yet I am left with wonderment, and enigma, and cold winds, ice in my heart that comes at unforeseen, strange times, dragging me back to old ghosts and old, unresolved times.

The poet writes of what I feel, and points me towards forgiveness. Yet, that word seems foreign to where I sit now, empty and alone, not knowing, not finding sanity in all of this. The poet’s wisdom circles about me, aflame, trying to warm my cold, lonely heart.

Perhaps, I should reach out, and accept that warmth, on this cold winter’s night.

By Marion Waterston, January 31, 2005
I guess I’ll never know
All I want to know
Or understand
What can’t be understood
But I believe it’s time to forgive
Time to forgive you for leaving me
So abruptly and so painfully
And time to forgive myself
For talks we didn’t have
Laughs we didn’t share
Songs we didn’t sing
Foolishly I thought that time was on our side
Can it be that time now wishes to atone for this betrayal
For tears no longer flow like endless rivers
Anger seems a wasted emotion
And dreams those dreaded night-time visitors
Can come as friends
Once again I smile at the innocence of children
The unabashed warmth of lovers
The enthusiastic affection of dogs
And although I do not see you my precious love
You are with me
So I guess I’ll never know
All I want to know
Or understand
What can’t be understood
But here in this quiet moment
It’s time and I’m ready
To forgive.

Paying It Forward, Mike

I came, to say good bye, and to say thanks
for your friendship, for your goodness, your decency
in how you lived, in how you treated others
in need of your advice, your passion,
those in need of justice—
a fair shake, you called it.

Words were spoken in the church about you,
in front of a thousand of your closest friends,
yet you had already left, taking your trumpet,
your laugh, and your good heart,
leaving us to wonder who we could now turn to
when we needed a friend, when we needed wisdom,
and a bit of justice.

I drove back home, along the river road you took,
that last morning, on your way to log with your family,
on the home place, where you were always with God,
the place that restored you, made you who you are.

I remembered your good advice, your courage in doing what was right
even though politics and money said different—
I remembered the logger back at the church,
stifling a tear, as he turned to leave, heading back to the woods,
remembering what you did for him, remembering
the man you were, remembering
you treated him decently, honorably.

We spoke then, on that river road, my tears—
I felt you close, and you knew then
what you meant to me, what our
friendship really was.

An hour later, I stop for ice cream at the drive through,
the man ahead of me, a working man, his truck
filled with his tools, at the end of a long, sweaty day;
He pays it forward, telling the clerk he’s buying my ice cream,
just because its a good thing to do.

You, then, take my ice cream money, and hand it to the clerk
paying it forward, to the family in the car behind me,
making a difference, letting me know
you are still around.
—Neal Lemery 10/2013

To Forget

The list of things to forget
brought me to remember what I’d lost
and not wanted to find ever again–
to pains and ashes and broken hearts
of long ago and yesterday,
all coming back.

To write it down becomes remembrance–
I try mourning again, like the obituary
falling out of the well fingered Bible,
old and tattered, its fluttering downward
bringing fresh tears.

In trying to forget, I remember again
the joys and smiles and songs well sung.
Those notes dull the pain of what
I came here to forget, but
need to remember

—Neal Lemery, 9/2/2013

This New Emptiness, Filled

Go, and create, you said
with your eyes, a few words spoken into my soul—
You have something to say, something to offer,
and the world needs to hear it.

Impatient, almost,
you always checking on my progress
to move, to contribute, to change this world,
your words pushing my procrastination.

“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

“When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
― Mary Oliver

You left us too soon, yet,
and yet, your words
to live fully, with passion,
echo throughout my being
in the silence
left in your passing
into the beautiful, the mysterious

—Neal Lemery, June 2013

In memory of and tribute to my friend, Judy Allen