Sixteen Days

By Gina Easley

By Allie Smith

Standing at the podium, I felt numb with shock. I thought my grief would have subsided a little by now, because three weeks had passed. Three weeks. I had that lost feeling you get when you dream, where you know it can’t be real, but you’re still going through the motions in an altered world. There I was again, in front of a crowd of mourners whose eyes were all focused on me. My palms were wet and my heart raced. I shook, as if pure caffeine were running through my veins, and then in the next moment, I shivered from a cold that only I could feel.

Here, in Pennsylvania, the audience was more familiar to me than it had been at the funeral in Michigan. It was filled with my brother’s closest friends, members of our family, and my children, who sat in the front row. I hadn’t brought them to the Michigan funeral. At the time, they were still in school, and I was in no condition to be a parent. I was doing this all again for them. It was the least I could do; I’d kept them away from their uncle for almost two years.

Edmund had adored my children. Although he didn’t have any of his own, he truly loved kids. He spoiled mine with attention and presents, until he couldn’t anymore. Even after circumstances changed for him, I don’t think that the kids ever really noticed that the gifts and the attention slowed. To them, he was still their loud and gregarious uncle. He remained a steady presence and influence in their lives, until his demons got in the way. Until he didn’t look the same. Until his speech became incoherent. Until their mother made her decision.

In the months prior to his passing, I’d had a feeling that perhaps time was running out. There had been previous hospital stays, and during the last one, doctors suggested nursing care. I had no idea that things had gotten so dire. I called a friend who’s a nurse and she was brutally honest, and I panicked. I was familiar with Edmund’s disease, because it was the same one that had afflicted my parents. It’s the one you get from having a good time. From being the life of the party. From being the person everyone wants to hang out with. That is, until the disease flips the script and no one’s having a good time. And family and friends no longer want to hang out with you. I knew what the outcome would be, although I’d imagined years not weeks. I called my brother and planned a trip. As soon as school got out, the kids and I were headed to Michigan.

During the last few years of my brother’s life, I grew accustomed to late night phone calls. I didn’t enjoy waking to the ringing phone in the middle of the night, but at least I heard his voice and knew where he was. When the calls started, I would wake with fright, instinctively reluctant to pick up the phone, remembering the old adage about bad things happening in the middle of the night. The relief that I felt upon hearing his voice and the he’s okay feeling would soon turn to sadness when I realized that I couldn’t understand anything he was saying.

When the last call came, I wasn’t asleep. It was late, but I’d been restless, tossing and turning, my mind racing over all I had to do in the weeks leading up to the end of school. I jumped out of bed on the first ring, but I also rolled my eyes as I reached for the phone. I assumed he was hoping to get a “Happy Mother’s Day” in, just under the wire. But then I saw Kelly’s number. Kelly, my sweet sister-in-law who never called in the middle of the night. A lump formed in my throat as I answered. Adrenaline started pumping through me because it wasn’t Kelly’s voice that I heard, although her tears echoed in the background and pricked the surface of my skin as an unfamiliar voice said, “This is Lisa, Kelly’s neighbor…”

Almost two years before, I’d made the decision to keep my kids away from my brother on the heels of one of our many heart-to-heart discussions. During Edmund’s last visit we sat at the breakfast bar in my kitchen. He had become a different person and it scared me. He’d lost weight and moved slowly. He looked like a young man, but his gait was labored and wobbly. His speech was hesitant, as if pronouncing each word was difficult. His once bellowing voice was reduced to a hoarse whisper and he was uncharacteristically gentle.

I made my case and used all the clichés you do when you feel helpless. “I’m very worried about you.” “You have to stop.” “I don’t understand.” “You know what can happen.”

He was a master of deflection; he didn’t want to talk about the elephant in the room. Instead, he wanted to talk about my kids. He told me how much he loved them and that if anything happened to me or my husband, he wanted them. Then he took a slow sip of his poison, claiming it was innocuous because it was beer. I was nauseated as I felt the inevitability of history repeating itself. He was going to lose the battle, just as our parents had. With a shaky voice, I tried to explain the fear I had of having to tell my kids one day that he was dead. He promised me, “No, no, you won’t.” But he didn’t look at me and I did not believe him.

The year and a half that followed was a roller coaster, one that I navigated on the fly. There were rough moments, many of which led to months of radio silence between us. The kids would talk about him, but less frequently. Bear broke his foot and appeared on television with his class. Hunter graduated from elementary school and learned to play the trumpet. Audrey was accepted into the Company Ballet Program and received her First Communion. Camden learned to talk and joined a soccer team. Our life went on, minus Uncle Eggie. It was quieter, for sure, but also drama-free.

But when things deteriorated with Edmund’s condition, I had second thoughts. I changed my mind.

My kids missed the reunion with their uncle by sixteen days. Sixteen days.

I didn’t bring them to the funeral. I just couldn’t. I’d never felt grief like this before. Never. I cried constantly and was so dehydrated that no amount of water could satisfy my thirst. I lost ten pounds in four days. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop shaking. I was heartbroken. And angry. And guilt-ridden. I wanted to be alone, and yet people were everywhere. I had to help plan my baby brother’s funeral. There was no way that I would have been able to comfort my children, and I didn’t want them to see me in that condition. I knew that seeing my brother at the funeral would haunt me forever, and I couldn’t risk letting that happen to them.

When I learned that my brother’s friends in Pennsylvania were having a memorial service, I decided to take the children. I wanted them to have an opportunity for closure, although I didn’t know what that would mean.

Edmund was a Marine and a Gulf War veteran. His funeral and memorial service were attended by an honor guard. Watching the Marines fold a flag and ceremoniously give it to his widow wasn’t any easier the second time. As the mournful melody filled the room, my son Hunter sat straighter, filled with pride. Audrey crumbled in tears. Cammy, wide-eyed, stared at the soldiers, not fully comprehending the significance, but watched the ceremony with the awe that only a five-year-old can possess. Barrett, my child with autism, was on a computer in an adjoining room and occasionally made his presence known with giggles.

When I spoke during the service, I felt a stab of pain each time I made eye contact with my children. Hunter had the anguished expression that he gets when tries not cry, but Audrey made no such effort. She was weeping in my Aunt Ginny’s arms. Cammy looked around at me, his siblings and his aunts with profound confusion. As I spoke, I was desperate to connect my kids with Edmund. I reminisced about how each of them reminded me of him in their own ways. Barrett exudes his innate cockiness. Hunter is emotional and wears his heart on his sleeve. Audrey possesses his dance moves and the need to be the center of attention. Cammy has his charm and his way with the ladies.

I was so worried about the kids. I wanted them to feel the loss, but not the pain. As I watched their carefree innocence at the reception, I knew they were going to be okay.

I’m not okay. Grief aside, I still have much to resolve. If I could do it all over again, knowing how and when it would end, I would do it so differently. I would answer every phone call, I would visit every chance we had. I would say, “I love you” over and over again. I would accept that it is what it is—sometimes people can’t get better and it’s not their fault. I would make the most of the time we had left with him.

I’m so afraid that my kids won’t remember their uncle. I carry the burden of wondering if this will prove to be even more difficult because of the two years they lost with him. I thought I’d made the right decision for my children, to keep Edmund out of their lives. But was it? Or was it my ego and forty-one years of sibling history that drove my decision?

I have beaten myself up for this, talked it to death, forgiven myself, and then repeated the cycle all over again. I have been down the road of unsaid apologies and good-byes that were too late before.

I can claim that events, unfortunately, played out in the manner that I predicted. I knew that he was going to die from the disease, and I was right. Yet I so wish I hadn’t been right. I honestly, naively, thought it would have taken longer for him to succumb, but his body was done. At forty-one years old. In the immediate aftermath of my brother’s passing I doubted my choices. With the passage of time, I’m not so sure. What would have been the cost to my children if I had? What if he’d collapsed in front of them, or been incoherent? Would they have been scared? Or what if they’d laughed at him, not understanding that he wasn’t trying to be funny? As it is now, they smile when they talk about Edmund, which they do quite a bit. Would that have been the case had they seen him at his worst?

I followed my gut and did what I thought was best for my kids. Maybe I did the right thing, but it still hurts and that’s a pain I’ll have to live with, but at least they won’t.


ALLIE SMITH lives in suburban Atlanta and is a wife and mother of four children, with twins and special needs in the mix. She writes about parenting, autism and the journey of motherhood at She also writes book reviews for Chick Lit Plus. During the summers, Allie takes epic road trips with her children, exploring the wonders of our country. These adventures are documented in a travel column for My Forsyth magazine.

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We All Dance Together

by !Lauriin/ Flickr

By Rebecca Myers

The Persian Tea House in Atlanta is the opposite of a dead, hollow concert hall—it’s alive with flowers, Persian rugs, and the aroma of tantalizing herbs and spices. Against the crimson walls, the lavish feast looks like a still-life masterpiece. This concert will be like no other I have experienced.

Tonight’s concert features Sattar, one of the pioneers of Persian pop music. He was an icon, the Frank Sinatra of Iran, before the revolution in the late seventies. His music still reigns nearly four decades after the revolution banned him from singing and put him in exile. Now living in America, he performs to an expatriate community who yearns for their country.

To my right are ten “beds”—raised wooden platforms separated by rails. Each bed is richly appointed with a crimson Persian rug and large tapestry pillows; each can host about a dozen people who sit cross-legged and dine picnic style.

My best friend reserved the prime bed with the best view of the room overlooking the dance floor, musicians, and other guests dining at round tables. Her Farsi name, Afsaneh (OFF sah nay), means “fairy tale” in English. For a decade, she has introduced me to the delights of Persian culture and hospitality.

Persian concerts can start one hour late. It’s much more important for the Iranian community to spend time connecting. I witness an overture of hugging and kissing.

Iranian women prepare for such events with great attention to detail. Dark eyeliner sets off their eyes. Crystals sparkle on their dresses cut in the latest American fashion. Gold jewelry adorns their hands, necks, and ears. Stiletto heels boost the figures of the younger women. They are elegant birds gracing the arms of their men, handsome in their suits. Afsaneh is no exception. She welcomes her guests by kissing us on both cheeks.

We sit on the thick rug, drape our bodies against the pillows, and nibble on Kashk-e bademjoon (eggplant and onions), borani (yogurt and spinach), shirazi (cucumber, tomato, and lime salad), and Naan-o-Paneer-o-Sabzi (Iranian thin bread, feta cheese, and herbs). When we’re ready, we can step down from the bed and join the dancers.

All of Afsaneh’s guests are couples, except for me. And alone is not the only way I feel different from the others. I’m overweight. I dressed sensibly in a pantsuit so I can sit cross-legged, although not with any kind of grace or comfort. My knees stick up in a V instead of a flat, yoga style. I’m awkward and out of my element eating while sitting on a rug in front of others. I can’t seem to find a comfortable position as I balance the food on my lap. I feel underdressed next to the exquisite fashion surrounding me.

I’m a duck that has just waddled into a bevy of swans.

To escape my awkwardness, I stand up, perch on the railing of our bed, and close my eyes, absorbing the music into my body, tuned to the key of Middle-Eastern music. The dark, minor chords infused with joyous rhythm resonate with my own dance of life, which has taught me that joy has its roots in sorrow.

My mind shuts off its negative chatter as the music elevates my spirits. I forget myself as I sway and arabesque my hands.

I figure I will probably hand dance the whole night. But Afsaneh breaks my reverie; she calls and invites me to dance with her and her date. I step off the bed and join them.

Encouraged by Afsaneh and feeling anonymous in the crowd, I let the full flow of the music speak through my hips, torso, and arms. My hips create figure eights of infinity; my arms are undulating snakes.

I keep dancing even when Afsaneh and her date leave. A tap on my shoulder interrupts me. I turn. A young Iranian couple wants my attention.

The man asks me with a quizzical look, “You…Iranian?”

I smile and shake my head, no.

They both shake their heads and she blurts out, “Noooooo! You American?”

“Yes, I’m American.” I raise my eyebrows in question.

They look at each other and he says, “You wonder why we ask?” He pauses. “It’s because you dance like an Iranian—a beautiful Iranian dancer!”

I’m stunned and it clearly shows on my face.

“You don’t believe us!” They laugh. He holds up a camera and points at it. “We take a picture of you, we think you dance so beautiful!”

I blush. In a split second I go from anonymity to the spotlight. A duck to a swan. The swift shift is jarring. If they were Americans, I’d chalk it up to alcohol, but no drinks are served at this event. Are they sincere or making fun of me? As if in answer, people sitting near the dance floor meet my eyes, nod, and smile. A waiter passes by; he winks, one arm laden with dishes, his free hand motioning thumbs-up.

I breathe in their good intentions, their smiles. A rush of profound gratitude fills me. Speechless, I put my hand on my heart to acknowledge their kindness.

After a few more dances by myself, I feel another tap. I turn and see a handsome Iranian man with salt-and-pepper hair and a younger woman. “You are a wonderful dancer,” the woman says.

The man nods eagerly. “You dance with me!” he exclaims.

I look at the young woman.

She smiles. “This is my Uncle Ali. I’m his niece.” She waves us on. “Go dance!”

Ali and I swirl around each other. When the music changes, he pushes through the crowd to make sure I get a close view of the star singer. Sattar’s gray, cropped beard and darker mustache frames his songs, while his handsome face and dark eyes emote the song’s joy and passion.

Time for a break, I think. I’m about done in.

But a tall, big-boned woman with flowing bronze curls parts the crowd as she strides up to me with a powerful presence. Ali steps back, watching. “You dance with me,” she demands with a smile.

We dance around each other as Iranian women do, and as Afsaneh and I have often done. We mirror each other’s movements and send our arms back and forth under our eyes toward each other while our eyes lock. The surrounding dancers encourage us by clapping to the beat.

At the end of our dance, she turns and looks at Ali. “Sooo—are you with her?”

I fully expect him to say no. Any American guy who has just danced with you a few times would say no. “With” could have complicated meanings, and we certainly didn’t arrive together.

Instead, Ali leaps up and proclaims, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” with much enthusiasm.

“You’re a very lucky man,” she declares to Ali.

I suddenly feel hot and shake my head in wonder, caught somewhere between crazy reality and magic. My hand on my heart silently thanks Ali for his exuberant yes. I observe this scene like a reader of my own story, as if I’m floating outside my body. This moment shimmers in suspension.

She then turns to me and intimates with a sweep of her hand, “You know, I know all these people here for many years. The Atlanta Iranian community is close, but they come from different religions. I myself am Christian. There are Jews here as well as Muslims. But you…” She pauses and cocks her head. “…I think you are Sufi!”

I am honored. I love the illuminating poetry of the Sufi mystics, Rumi and Hafiz. Six to seven centuries later, their poems are still beloved around the world today for their spiritual beauty and wisdom, their weaving of natural wonders with profound insights.

We part for dinner and rejoin our own groups.

The Persian feast is sumptuous. Iranians show their generosity and love through food, and this event is no exception. Pyramids of apples, oranges, dates, figs, and pomegranates. Festoons of grapes. Dishes of eggplant, onion, and garlic. Fresh greens and mint. Skewered lamb, beef, and chicken with tomatoes and green peppers. And fragrant rice sprinkled with dill or saturated with rose water. A feast to feed your soul!

After dinner, the lights dim. The darkness reflects the mood shift from gaiety to seriousness. People hush, anticipating. I sit on the edge of our bed as everyone returns to their seats. Sattar changes from singing upbeat pop music to a traditional song full of ancient, guttural tones.

I close my eyes and feel the pain of a people separated from their beloved homeland and families; their longing to be reunited; their love for their mountains, deserts, ancient civilization; their cities and culture. They have their freedom, but not their home. I find myself weeping at their heartbreak.

Sattar ends his song. The silence speaks the audience’s profound respect and emotion. I need a tissue for my eyes and nose. I’m a mess. I open my eyes; sitting next to me is a petite, chic woman with ebony hair. She reminds me of Audrey Hepburn. She stares at me with gorgeous green eyes swimming in tears.

She huskily asks me, “You…you…understand Farsi?”

“No,” I apologize, “just a few words of greeting.”

I gingerly venture forth. “But I think the song was very sad—about missing your homeland, about all you’ve sacrificed…yes?”

Her eyes widen with surprise. Her voice trembles, part anguish, part anger, when she says, “I raised two children in America, but they don’t understand!”

We hug each other for a long time. In this moment, we’re no longer two women from two different cultures, but simply mothers connecting through the universal love of children and home.

I walk toward the door, and everyone waves goodbye to me. “MerciKhodaa haafez!” We’re no longer strangers. As I step out under the stars and breathe in the gift of this night, I remember Rumi’s words: “There is a community of spirit. Join it, and feel the delight … Close both eyes and see with the other eye.”


REBECCA MYERS writes about transformation through travel, nature, work, culture, and relationships. She currently translates complex science into language our grandmothers can understand for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. She also teaches creative writing to her colleagues and is writing a memoir and a children’s book series about the spirituality of nature.