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Mourning and Dancing: A Memoir of Grief and Recovery Paperback – April 1, 1999
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About the Author
Sally Downham Miller, Ph.D., has been a speaker, consultant and support-group leader in the area of grief and loss for fifteen years. She helped establish support groups in four states and is currently on the board of directors of Aftercare, a not-for-profit grief-recovery organization that runs support groups for adults, teens and children. She leads workshops and seminars nationwide and is known for her charismatic speaking, giving her a substantial "back of room" market. She lives in Waldwick, New Jersey with her husband, Dr. Will Miller, star of Nickelodeon and NBC, with whom she often works and travels.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
For all it's worth, life holds innumerable disappointments, setbacks and sorrows. The joy of living is humanity's greatest claimthe desire to excel the biggest challenge. And yet, regardless of humanity's stubborn resistance to reversal and hardship and its boast of achievement, the time arrives when words, wisdom and great deeds are totally insufficient. Such an occasion came to pass one week ago, Wednesday August 23rd, when Elwood Panther football coach Bob Downham succumbed in his battle against Hodgkin's Disease.
Gene Conrad, sportswriter
Kokomo Tribune, Kokomo, Indiana
The First Day
Riding north out of Indianapolis, the now-tall fields of corn passed in a blur. My thoughts fastened for a minute on making raspberry jelly, and my eyes scanned the fences for the ripening fruit. But we were on the interstate, moving too fast to see. And besides, it was probably too late for raspberries. What was the date anyway? August something. Oh yes, the twenty-third. I wrote it somewhere earlier in the morning on a form.
We passed a roadside billboard showing a man on crutches with his aproned wife and two children standing on their front porch. The caption read: "Coming home is wonderful with Blue Cross/Blue Shield." We had Blue Cross/Blue Shield, too, but my husband wasn't coming home. I wondered how much of the bill Blue Cross/Blue Shield would cover, and I knew that I would never forget the irony of seeing that billboard. The next sign I saw on the highway gave directions for Methodist Hospital, where our son was born, and I allowed my thoughts to move from death to life. . . .
Nineteen Months Earlier
The labor was hard; the baby weighed ten pounds, and when he announced his arrival into the world, I passed out. I came to in the recovery room and Bob was with me, looking haggard and worried. A nurse was checking a catheter tube and my body was crying out to be left alone. I tried to move away, but Bob touched my shoulder and told me to try to relax. "Everything's going to be okay," he said as he took my hand, yet kept an eye on what the nurse was doing.
"The baby . . . ," I queried into his concerned face, "is the baby okay?"
"Yes. Fine. Don't worry. Everything's going to be fine," he said in short, clipped words.
The nurse gave me a shot, and I winced from the pain and the fact that I still had not been told what I wanted so desperately to hear. I felt myself slipping into unconsciousness again, so I squeezed Bob's hand, as if to hold on to him until I found out about the baby.
"But . . . what is it?" I could barely stay with him.
"A boy," he said, with no joy, no smile, and I slid into a darkened realm, away from the brightness around me. "A little boy!" I thought, "we have a little boy. Tamara has a little brother. . . . we have a son." But in the ensuing hours of troubled slumber, my mind kept replaying Bob's empty words of reassurance, the concern in his eyes, the way he kept telling me not to worry. What was there to worry about? Unless . . . he wasn't telling me what was going on. Unless, something went wrong. Then I thought the unthinkable, "Maybe the baby died. That's itwe lost the baby and they didn't want to tell me."
When I awakened again, my overnight case had been placed on the gurney by my feet and an orderly was ready to wheel me from recovery to my room. I felt frantic that no one was there to level with me, to tell me the truth about the baby. The orderly said my husband was making phone calls, so I decided to take matters into my own hands.
"Excuse me, but could we go by the nursery to see my baby again?" I asked, trying to sound like an excited, new mother. He didn't seem willing, so I said, "Oh, please . . . it's got to be on our way. Just for a minute?" He shrugged a reluctant consent, and my heart began to pound. We stopped at the nursery window but the curtains were closed. He knocked and a nurse appeared. "The Downham baby," he said, obviously bored with his job or this diversion. She looked at me and I forced a smile, praying she couldn't see my panic. She left and returned a moment later saying, "What's the last name?"
"Downham," I tried to say but my voice cracked. Then she said that there was no Downham baby there. My heart stopped. She asked when he was born, and I didn't know. I didn't know anything, except that I had just gone through a whole lot of hard work and there was no baby at the end of it. Finally the nurse said, "You'll have to try the next nursery," and hope spread over me like wildfire. We went to two more nurseries until we found him, and when those curtains opened no one had to tell me which one was mine. I knew him. At a strapping ten pounds, he was not one of the high-risk infants needing a watchful eye. He had kicked out of his papoose-style wrappings and was moving his arms and legs, as though he had waited too long for such freedom. The nurse brought him close to the glass rewrapping his blankets. She was fussing at him about how big and active he was, but her words were lost as I looked into those precious dark eyes. He even seemed to be looking back as if to say, "Hey, where have you been? And where's my breakfast?" I asked to hold him, but in 1965 "rooming-in" was only in trial stages; she told me I would have to wait until the next feeding.
When we were released to go home, Bob picked us up in our dark-green Volkswagen Bug. I held tightly to my sleeping bundle with one arm and with the other hand held onto the rubber handle on the dashboard. Bob drove about fifteen to twenty miles per hour, carrying on a conversation with other motorists, warning them to keep away. He had long since reassured me that the concern he had in the recovery room after Tommy's birth had nothing to do with the baby, but when they could not get my blood pressure reading he was fearful of losing me.
In the car, I removed the blanket he had brought to put over both of us, as though it were the middle of January instead of October. When we stopped at the light at Meridian Street, he rolled down the window to give us some air and hollered out the window, "Look out Indy, I've got my son in here." We both laughed and cried and I didn't think I had ever felt so much joy. We had a beautiful three-year-old daughter at home, and now this. What more could we ever want?
No one could have made me believe that in less than two years I would ride home from another Indianapolis hospital with no hint of joy to be found. This time my sister's husband, Jack, was driving and Bob's mother, Marie, was beside him. From the backseat I heard Jack ask me if I was okay. I said yes, while wondering if I would ever be okay again in any dimension of my life.
We passed a green sign on the interstate with a smaller sign below it bearing the words Butler University and an arrow. That was where Bob went to college, where he played football and where we spent most of our married life. "Football" and "Bob Downham" had seemed almost synonymous since the first time I saw him play, and my mind wandered safely back to a warm Friday evening in August, almost exactly seven years earlier.Seven Years Earlier
As we stood in line to pay for our tickets at Southwestern High School, I couldn't help thinking that his whole school looked like it was plopped in the middle of a cornfield or a pasture. Bob's brother, John, and his wife had picked me up at Loeb's Department Store, where I had a summer job, and drove me out to this newly built, country high school. It was the week before school started for our senior year. I had been dating Bob only for a few weeks, yet it seemed terribly important to him that I attend his first game of the season.
"Want to find a seat?" John asked me, as I stood looking out at the players, wondering if cows had recently grazed in that field.
"Uh . . . no, I think I'll just stand here by the fence and watch a little while. I'll join you and Jean in a few minutes."
It all looked so different from my high school in the city, but I loved sports and the fervor here seemed the same. The teams sure looked the same. It was hard to tell one player from the next, and I watched them warm up, wondering what number was Bob's. The smell of popcorn reminded me that I hadn't eaten dinner, and as I turned to find the refreshment stand a player ran over to the fence and said, "Hi." I turned back, and there he was, with his tanned face and brown, almost-black eyes staring out at me from under his helmet.
"Hi!" I replied. "We made it, even a little early, I guess."
"I'm glad you're here."
"Yes, me, too."
"Well I gotta go," he said, looking back over his shoulder, "but I'll tell you what. . . . the first time we have the ball and I get it, I'll run it back for a touchdown. Okay? Just for you."
"Well, sure. . . . I mean, okay. . . . That sounds great."
And he was off. It was the last time he ever spoke to me so close to the starting time of a ball game. I asked him once if he ever thought of me while he was playing ball, and he said, "hell, no." I guessed this was serious business. After that first football game, I said good-bye to his family and waited by his car thinking about all I had just seen. His team won the toss, chose to receive, and on the first play Bob took the ball the length of the field and into the end zone, just as he promised. His team won the game and Bob was responsible for most of the points they scored. I had walked away from the fence before the game with some reservations about this guy. I had known him for such a short time, and his bravado about "first touchdown . . . just for you" seemed too overconfident for me. But my reservations quickly melted as the game progressed. He knew what he was doing out there, and all the fans knew it. Everyone cheered him on, and even this new spectator thought he was the best she had ever seen. As he walked out of the locker-room doors, fans and schoolmates were waiting to say, "Good game, Bobby." And, suddenly, I was proud. Proud of him, and proud to be with him. I could tell by the way some of the girls pointed at me and whispered that they were wondering who I was, this city girl dating their hero. When he came over to me, I was weakened by his physique. He was five feet, eleven inches tall and all muscle. His dark hair and dark eyes were enhanced by a gorgeous smile and perfect white teeth that would melt any sixteen-year-old heart. As he opened the door of his red '58 Chevy for me, I noticed how clean he smelled, like clothes hung out to dry on a summer day.
"Did you like the game?" he asked, as he slid in behind the wheel. I nodded my head vigorously, unable to find my voice, hoping he would kiss me.
"Good," he said, "it was a darn good game, and, man, am I hungry! How about a cheeseburger, or two, or three?"
"Sounds great," I was finally able to speak, and we laughed as we drove out of the parking lot, through the dark countryside, toward the lights of town.
Dating Bob Downham during my senior year at Jefferson High School was no easy task. Not only was he in another school system, but he also played four sports, was a class officer and participated in numerous other school activities. On Saturdays, he worked for his brother John, building houses for the family construction business. I traveled around the state attending high school speech meets. But somehow young love took over, and we found every spare minute we could to be together. There is a picture of us in his high school yearbook, taken at a sock hop after a basketball game, and I was still wearing an athletic letter sweater I had worn at my own school's game earlier that evening.
By September, we were going steady; by October, he was talking marriage. I thought he was crazy, but I was crazy about him, so we dreamed dreams and let romance keep reality at bay. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" became our song, and we planned for a future togethereven deciding to name our first son Thomas. For Christmas he gave me two place settings of a silverware pattern I had admired months before in a store window. I almost died. This guy was serious, and I already had learned that whatever he did, he did with his whole heart, and he always played to win. For graduation he gave me a cedar hope chest and some more silverware. He was always organized, planned ahead and knew what he wanted. It didn't take long to figure out that what he wanted was meand to coach.
I found some solace, on the day he died, because he did get most of the things he had wanted up to that point in his life. We were married. We had two children that he loved so much I would catch him with tears in his eyes after checking their blankets at night. He graduated from college and had been named head football coach at Elwood High School. But what solace I found quickly vanished as I looked over at his mother, who was still staring vacantly out the car window, her handkerchief dabbing her eyes and nose. I hoped she hadn't seen the sign for Butler University, but if she did she said nothing. She had been so proud of all he accomplished there, and she had done more than her share to help us get through school. Now it was all for naught; the degree and learning seemed worthless. I wondered if she was thinking about all the checks she sent us, all the food she brought, all the pride, all the encouragement.
I remembered Marie becoming "Mom Downham" to me the summer before Tamara was born. We moved out of our apartment building because children were not allowed and decided to buy a trailer. A few of our friends from school lived in a trailer court near campus and we were excited to become a part of that community. Bob's parents offered to have us live with them at the farm during the summer. With this arrangement, Bob could work for his brother, and we could save money to buy our new home. So, we moved out of our apartment in Indianapolis, stored our things and moved to the Downham farm in June. I looked forward to relaxing in the country, preparing for motherhood and shopping for baby clothes. Boy, was I in for a surprise.
I knew next to nothing about domestic life, but Bob had not seemed disturbed by that. In the first months of our marriage, I percolated away a pot of coffee, fried a stewing chicken that you couldn't bite, and washed a red sweatshirt with his underwear, so his T-shirts and shorts were pink. Unflapped, he taught me what he knew and together we learned the rudiments of living like adults. Yet, nothing could have prepared me for what went on at the Downham farm that summer. We rose early in the mornings and fixed what seemed like a five-course meal for the men before they went off to work at 7:00 a.m. After that I would crawl back into bed, but Marie Downham always moved right into the next chore after we finished the breakfast dishes. When I would get up again around 10:00 a.m., she would be halfway through the washing on Monday, or the ironing on Tuesday, or the marketing on Wednesday, and so on. Then outside there were eggs to gather and weeds to pull from the garden, and inside there was cleaning, always cleaning to be done. She also had summer projects underway, like painting a room or wallpapering. Finally, I decided to stay up in the mornings, more out of amazement than guilt. She, of course, never said a word about my going back to bed. I couldn't believe what this woman could do! She never stopped, never complained and never seemed tired.
After lunch we would sit down in the cool shade of the porch or the living room, but not only to rest. This was time for "handwork"darning, mending or embroidery. I usually fell asleep with my mending half-done and my needle poised, only to awaken and find her off busily attending to another chore or preparing the evening meal. I marveled at what this gentle woman knew, and soon I realized I wanted to learn all I could from her. And without fanfare, she taught. While she tutored, we talked. As we did dishes or washed clothes (in her wringer washer) or hung clothes on the line (she thought dryers used too much electricity) or gardened, she told me about her life. Her family had little money, but they always had enough soup in the pot if company came by. They valued education, music, hard work and helping their neighbors. She was hired out when she was a young girl to take care of the sick or elderly or to clean houses. She helped pay for her schooling and books, when times were hard, by tending the stove at the school and cleaning the rooms at the end of the day. I asked her once about a scar on her leg, and she recounted a horse-and-buggy accident her family had on their way to church one Sunday, and went on to tell what had happened when their house caught fire. She always had worked hard and learned how to save and had a deep appreciation for the simple life that country people have making a living off of the land.
One afternoon when my mother came to visit, we had just chopped off a chicken's head and hung the bird by the feet on the clothesline, and I was about to learn how to pluck and "dress" a chicken. Mother stood in the driveway, her mouth agape, holding onto the car door. The life she had prepared me for had not included killing chickens. I laughed and hugged her and told her she would not believe what other wonderful things I had learned.
With Marie Downham's help, I became a terrific cook and a hard worker. I experienced the satisfaction that comes from eating vegetables you plant and harvest yourself. I learned to hull peas, dig potatoes, turn apples into applesauce, can tomatoes, freeze green beans and make tomato juice. When the corn was ready for harvest, we went out to the fields before the sun was barely rising, picked the corn, husked it, parboiled it, cut it off the cob and put it into little plastic bags and boxes to freeze it. That day the whole family came over and everyone, even the children, worked. I felt like I was in a corn factory. I never wanted to see another kernel of corn again. That summer I made raspberry jelly for the first time.
What Marie Downham gave me can never be measured. No university program could teach me what I learned in those twelve weeks. We shared our lives in a way that women do that is deep and comforting and confirming. And the bond we formed deepened with time. I became one of her own.
"Thank God she was with me last night," I thought as I glanced up at her still sitting quietly in the front seat of the car. Was she thinking of happier times too? Was she remembering perhaps when her son was born? And I realized in an instant that our sorrow was different, yet we were tied so closely together in our pain. I remembered her asking me in the final hours of the night, when all hope was gone, and Bob's suffering was almost more than she could bear, "Is it wrong to pray for someone you love so much to die?" "No," I whispered, as we held each other, "I think it's all we have left to pray for."
As we neared the end of our trip, I began to ponder the tasks before me. I wondered what, if anything, a four-and-a-half-year-old intuitively understands about death. I had explained to Tamara about leaves on the trees "dying," but they always come back in the spring. And even though the trees look dead, they wake up and are beautiful and green again. Hadn't someone died sometime so that I had already explained about going to heaven to live with God? I couldn't remember but I was fairly sure that there hadn't been. So what story could I use? My mind labored a while. Then I remembered a turtlea little, painted dime-store turtle. Poor thing, it didn't live too long, and we did bury it. Thank goodness I hadn't flushed it down the toilet or disposed of it while she was asleep. The memory cleared, and I recalled wrapping the turtle in some newspaper, and together we took the garden trowel and walked over to the edge of a nearby field and dug a little grave. I couldn't remember what explanation I gave, but I hoped it had seemed respectful to her. Poor little angelwith her bouncing ponytails and those glistening, ever-inquiring eyes. Her life will be so abruptly changed. I laid my head back on the seat, and hoped she would remember that turtle.
(c)1998. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Mourning and Dancing by Sally Downham Miller, Ph.D. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.
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As much as I liked the book, I am still wondering how the turnaround really came about, that is, when/how her running changed to true grieving.
A quibble is the title of the book. I really thought that the "dancing" in the title would be more than metaphorical. This might seem a silly expectation, but my regular line dancing has played a major major role in my surviving the suicide of my daughter.
However, that is a tiny issue compared with the general excellence of this book. Thank you for writing it.