It’s been one month and three days since she went away. My sister, my friend. My second mother. Brash and beautiful and loving. One month ago, on June 6, I was writing this, her eulogy. Today I realized, as I was going for a short run before the heat set in, that even if I’m fine day-to-day, even if I get work done, I’m still filled with sadness and a sense of loss that’s somehow tinged with anger.
And yet I also think I write too much about grief. I was just looking at Huffwire—a separate Medium blog I set aside to publish slightly more finished things I couldn’t figure out how to pitch to people who’d pay me for them—and saw it. All the grieving. I’m not sure how to get past it, at the moment. I joke a lot on my Twitter feeds, I’ve written a book that is sold under “Parody” on Amazon and am writing another in a similar voice. I don’t even think of myself as a gloomy guy.
Grief has figured in my writing life for so long. I guess in part it’s my way of processing things—writing it out—and that’s good, perhaps, because others can maybe see they’re not alone in feeling some of the things that go with mourning. It’s also bad because it can lead to accusations of self-dramatization. The worst of those accusations come from inside my own head, of course.
But here I am, writing about it again. And not sure what I’m saying. Perhaps just writing things out to see them on a screen, hoping once they’re out they’ll burn off under the lights of other eyes, like fog at dawn.
Maybe all I’m saying is this, something that’s occurred to me more than once over the last month: Grief is a shape-shifter. It’s always the same creature under the skin, but its lifespan and colors change over time. One time it’s a storm, flattening you, the next it’s a tsunami and you are the lone swimmer caught unawares and puzzled as to why the tide is coming in so fast. Then it’s back and disguised as the longest, darkest night, the only sound an angry wind outside, worrying the eaves.
So I guess you just hold on, try to stay awake and watchful, and rely on the fact that the sun will come again. That’s all we can do. That’s what I’m doing. My sister would want me to. She loved the sun.
My elder sister Sherry Huff passed away on June 3, 2016. She was 58 years old. She’d begun to feel sick on May 17. It seemed like the flu at first but eventually it spiraled into septic shock.
Below is the eulogy I gave at her memorial on June 7, 2016, at Williamson Memorial Funeral Home in Franklin, Tennessee.
Let’s acknowledge it: for a force of nature like Sherry, it is very hard to accept the reality that she’s no longer with us. I don’t want to be in that reality. None of us do. Yet here we are.
Words are my job now, I write every day, sometimes thousands of words. But I’ll tell you, it’s hard to find the words for this. So I’ll try to speak to the Sherry I knew, and hope that in the mess of what I say you find something familiar.
Our grandpa Ben Huff had a phrase for men whom he admired or respected: “much of a man.” A man in full. Grandpa reserved the phrase for very few and he always said it with reverence.
My sister Sherry was much of a woman. I know she went through some very hard times. I saw her in the middle of some of those. A couple we went through together. But to me–and perhaps this was a youngest brother’s perspective set in stone from the cradle on–she was always much of a woman. Even when I knew she had hit rough patches and was struggling, I never doubted for a moment she’d make it through. This was my sister Sherry Huff, after all. Sweet, sensitive, creative, yes, but some steel in her spine, too. Being here today is a shock because I can’t believe she didn’t make it back.
When our brother David died in August, 2000, Sherry showed me how to try and get through a time like this. She was hurting just as bad as everyone else, perhaps even more, for they were ‘Irish twins’–siblings so close in age they could be mistaken for having been born at the same time. I saw her tears, yes. She didn’t try to hide them. Yet she set her jaw and carried us through it–carried me through, alongside her. Thinking back now, I believe I instinctively trusted that she would.
She’d always done that. When I could barely walk, she would take my hand and lead me through the woods. She’d lead me through the neighbors’ field where she, David, and Rhonda had already played years before I arrived. She’d sit me down in clover and weave crowns from it and put them on my unwilling head and take pictures of me then, sitting beside our old dog Bub. Sherry with a camera, even then. I can remember kind of dreading her and Rhonda pulling me away from whatever I thought I was doing to go outside, yet hoping they would.
I remember pestering her as we got older, wishing she still wanted to do those things more, but life went on. And that was okay, because Sherry was still always there.
After all, she’d been there when I was 7, leaning over me in the night as food poisoning tore me up inside, her face tight with worry. Sherry was there when I was 17. She bought me my first glass of wine and got me to tell her about the girls I loved. She was there when I was 33, leaning over me in her living room as I napped in a chair, as we prepared for David’s funeral. She was just there, beautiful and urgent in the way she loved her family. She was vibrant. To a little boy, she was magical. I believe I wasn’t the only one who ever felt that way in her presence.
But after we grow up we can forget that siblings are like the pieces in one of the crazy quilts my Granny Huff used to make: tightly threaded jagged parts that together form something warm and comforting.
Sherry would remind me, though, and she had a hilarious way of doing it. She’d text me crazy clown pictures. It started with Bozo the Clown, then Pennywise, then whatever else she could find to mess with me. Sherry and I shared a lot of traits. We were a lot alike, and she knew that better than I did. We made the same kinds of dark jokes and liked the same kinds of movies. We understood our family in a similar way. With family, she was my touchstone. If I didn’t understand someone’s actions, behavior, even wondered why they posted something on Facebook, I would text Sherry and we’d go back and forth, laughing at the craziness, in the end. Sherry always understood.
It’s easy at a time like this to be too sad for words. It’s easy to be angry, in 100 different ways. She was too young. She was too vital. She was too Sherry. But if Sherry and I shared another thing that’s become very important to me over time, we shared humor.
Sherry had a Twitter account and she knew I enjoyed that site. We even ended up sharing friends on Twitter, people from all over who had jobs like mine and found my sarcastic sister funny too.
I’ll admit, it’s probably going to be hard to look at her Twitter for a long time. She posted a lot of things that to me were the best about her. Photos of old barns and sunsets and of course of Odie. I’ll never see any of those without thinking of her. She would tweet at me, too. One of the last things she ever directed at me was a tweet she posted in January with an image of a shower head and the words, “Our ultimate goal is to make as many people as sad as possible when we die.” She added her own comment: “This is a true story.”
It was dark and very funny.
I want this to be organized and have a point and be good writing–or speaking, I guess–but you know, it’s a mess because this is hard. However, I can’t help but think Sherry would want me to close with something that’s almost as funny as it is sad. She’d want someone to smile and shake their heads.
After she’d gone into the ICU and it was clear even to me up Massachusetts that the situation was very bad, I realized I was a mess and needed to clean up. And maybe I needed to be alone, away from my wife and kids for a minute.
I got in the shower and within a few minutes I was crying. I hated being so far away, I wished I could be near her one more time. In the middle of this tornado of thoughts, a loud, forceful voice barreled through everything: “CRYING IN THE SHOWER, BABY BRO? REALLY? THAT’S SO CORNY!! COME ON!!” Followed by that big old laugh. Sherry, the Sherry I knew and loved beyond words, piping up in my head and smacking me out of it. I don’t mean it was actually her–it was a voice from how I knew her, and how I suspect many others did as well. And I tell you, I went from tears to laughing in a heartbeat. And I knew that Sherry would be glad I could do both.
Let’s remember the best of my beautiful, fiercely loving sister. Let’s remember how sweet and kind she was. Remember her magical eye for sunsets, for old barns, for the sky. And I have to believe she’d want every one of us to remember laughing with her. As with any other force of nature, like storms, you got it all with Sherry. That’s why it’s so hard to believe I’m having to say these things today.
She’s really not gone as long as any of us have a memory. Like me, you’re going to have moments, is my bet, when Sherry will pipe up inside your head, breaking you up, making you laugh, smacking you into your senses. Hold onto them as long as you can.
Sherry is a huge part of me. She helped make me who I am, in many ways. My second mama, a piece of my heart. Her voice is inside me, forever. It’s not enough, I want her here. But I will hold onto it for as long as I live.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my recent trip to Nashville. I didn’t do much, really. It was mainly to see my folks, as we’ve missed each other a lot, and I spent most of my time with them, which was great. But thanks to my best friend Anthony I did get a look around and did get out a tiny bit, enough to remember some things I love about my hometown and things I don’t.
I love Nashville humor. Bear with me here. I think people who come from or just live some place long enough learn that place’s character. Nashvillians tend toward a sly, sweet-toned but sometimes cutting kind of humor that’s probably lost on the average visitor. But I catch it and I love it. My dad has that kind of humor. So does my mom, sister and my friend Anthony. I don’t know how best to describe it past “knowing” and “subtle,” but it’s a vibe I only get in Nashville. Example: Nashvillians are masters of making fun of you to your face and leaving you still thinking they’re just the sweetest, ever. Maybe we learn to do it as a way to flip off tourists without making them feel like anyone’s been rude to them.
I kind of hate the very thing the world knows Nashville for now. Do I even need to point it out? I don’t hate country music itself. In fact I like old country more every year. But the modern country music *thing*. Whatever it is that’s turned lower Broad and 2nd Avenue into teeming hives of tourists in fanny packs and cowboy hats night and day. This is probably the cri de coeur of many old school Nashville natives. We still fondly remember when 2nd Ave. was OUR THING, and even a little bohemian. Pretty sure there’s nothing remotely bohemian down there anymore.
My perverse love of a certain kind of tackiness is thoroughly Nashvillian. I realized this while I was there. I was charmed by every pair of boots with jeans and every carefully styled but “casual” country hairdo.
I love the fact you can live in New England and not need to make more than a 10 mile drive for any reason in part because going back to Nashville after a bit I immediately wondered how any of us ever did ALL THAT DAMNED DRIVING. The whole south is like that to some degree, but in Nashville and Atlanta it’s kind of extreme. You just drive, and drive, and drive. If you have a good buddy or beloved relative to chat with as you do, it’s fine. If you do it alone it feels a little crazy. How did we do all that driving all those years? It’s nuts.
I love our accents, and I love simple politeness. I love hearing “yes ma’am” and “no sir” used as part of casual conversation and realizing no one saying it is being sarcastic at all. I still love RC Cola and Moon Pies and had to really school myself to not go through a few Goo-Goo Clusters while waiting for a flight at the Nashville Airport.
I don’t like the weather. When I dream about Nashville, the skies are always gray. When I remember some things, the same. The fact is Nashville probably has more sunny days than where I live now per year but my memories of the weather weren’t undone at all by my trip there. I looked out my parents’ back windows at the hills beyond, being stripped for new suburban homes, and the pearl-colored skies, and I thought, ‘yep, that’s what it’s like here.’
I found myself blue that Antioch—where I grew up, which already was the kind of Nashville address that might get you funny looks from other Nashvillians 30 years ago—has become so run down. It was weird to see so many familiar buildings either derelict or bearing completely unfamiliar names.
Sitting in the Airport Whitt’s BBQ eating a pork bbq plate and listening to a couple sing classic country duets at the Airport Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge next door, I started crying.
Not bad crying. Not a desire to stay. But more an expression of love not just for the place where I was born, but for the people who go there. Who live there. For their dreams, and their music. I realized just how Nashville I was, as a person. And that I was fine with that. Proud, in fact. And I realized that even if I’m never there for more than a week again, even if home may be what many from Tennessee would consider the freezing hell of New England, I’ll always be a Nashville boy, and love the place for the time I spent there. And there will always be friends and family, folks I love, living there still. I cried because I felt a little more complete than I did when I landed four days before.
I cried because it was Nashville, there were high lonesome sounds in my ears, and damned good barbecue on the end of my fork. Sounds about right. No matter where I live, the rest of my life, sounds like home.
He always wanted me to be tougher than I am. Physically tough. Not the fat, bookish boy I was, but lean and as strong as my shoulders–inherited from him–implied I could be.
More than that, I knew he wanted me to be mentally tough. Not so quick to emotion, not so easy with tears. He wanted at least one of his sons to learn to be cool in an emergency, level-headed, in charge. He wanted this so once I wasn’t under his roof anymore, he wouldn’t feel the need to worry about me. I know he always has, even though after I turned 18, he rarely said a word.
I’ve tried. I’m in okay shape for a 47-year-old man born and raised in the south, eating southern cooking most of my life. I lost 100 pounds between age 43 and now and kept it off and most days feel better physically than not. I’m still prone to severe bouts of depression, but at some point in adulthood I discovered there were times I was great in an emergency. I could maintain my cool and save the freakout for later–a pretty handy skill to have. At some point I also discovered I could survive the bouts of the blues. It took getting help and patiently riding out internal storms, but the clouds have usually lifted, eventually.
And I’ve been thinking about this a lot because both my family and I–I think–fear my capacity for falling apart. Or just being useless. I did the best I could to be strong for my parents when my brother committed suicide, and I may have done better than I thought I did, but I still felt like my sister Sherry shouldered the greater burden. My personal life was chaotic at the time, so I came home to Nashville for my brother’s funeral already heavily burdened with all sorts of bullshit. My internal load was creaking, and my brother’s death almost cracked the undercarriage.
Then about a year later Dad had a stroke, and I did what I could then, too. But it didn’t feel like enough.
Now I’m at a place in my head where I feel like I could help my parents. Be strong for them, and for my sisters. I can’t explain it without going into a lot of bullshit that would be more personal than this already is–I tend to blog about news stuff or history because “personal” blogging makes me uncomfortable–but if I lived close to my family, I think I could help take some of the burden away while Dad copes with his cancer.
Since 2012, I’ve lived over 1000 miles away. A big change from before, when I rarely lived more than a 3-4 hour drive from any close relative.
And I love living here. I have a Tennessee twang and get sentimental about my hometown, Nashville, but something in my temperament was always meant to live in New England. I suspect that part of me is a lot like my father, who had an implied attachment to this region for as long as I could remember. He hated living all his life in the south.
But it’s very far from my folks, from my sisters. And learning that Dad’s cancer wasn’t gone, that he would need radiation, well, it made the distance stretch. I am distracted lately because my brain is trying to ford the distance and find ways to bridge it. To do something. Anything.
My father was never an actual cowboy. The photo above was made at the Grand Canyon in 1968, on a trip out west to see his uncles. He was always a working man and a part-time military man in the National Guard. He was also cool if things felt crazy. His level voice from the front yard as a tornado approached, then waiting to watch it come, until the last moment. Taking groceries to my brother who was in the throes of a psychotic, manic episode as if that was natural. Striding through the hospital cafeteria the morning after my first child was born 2 months premature, solid and energetic as ever, good old Dad–I’d never been more happy to see him and though I was 27, I kept holding his hand like I was 6 again.
My father has always wanted me to be tougher than I am. Now, more than ever, I’m going to try.
On August 20, 2000, my brother committed suicide. David Richard Huff was just over a month away from his 42nd birthday.
I have written about David almost every year since, usually around the anniversary of his death. Some years I make a minimal acknowledgement that it happened, a tweet, perhaps, including the number or web address for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Some years I write something in-depth.
This year, because suicide is so much in the news after the heartbreaking death of the gloriously gifted comedian and actor Robin Williams, a performer I’d loved ever since I first heard the word “Shazbot” in the late 70s, I feel like I can’t escape the subject. So here I am, again. I am tired of reading the things even the most well-meaning people have to say about mental illness and suicide. This is probably all I have to say about it, at the moment. This isn’t an admonishment, or an explanation. It’s just a story, and a ragged one.
You could read this as if it was a poem. But for this, poetry feels weak. You could read it as fiction. But it’s not.
A couple of years before David died, my father said, “You should talk to your brother. You’re more alike than you realize.”
I probably sneered. We resembled, sure. Both 6’0″, both fair-haired, him blond and me a redhead. We had similar jawlines and noses. But David was trimmer, better-looking. He had an ease with women that was unnatural compared to my overly intense awkwardness. He could be incredibly funny and fun to be with, but he was also tough as nails, the kind of rough and ready fighting man other rough men tell admiring tales about, like one I recall of him taking on more than 2 or 3 other guys in a brawl outside a redneck bar. I was a writer and went to college to be an opera singer, for God’s sake. Aside from having the same parents, what did I truly have in common with my hard-living, rough-handed, truck-driving big brother?
Memories of the days surrounding David’s death are patchy. Some moments are crystalline, far too clear for comfort even 14 years later. Others are blank, or veiled in grief’s gray and lingering haze.
There was the call to where I lived at the time, in rural middle Georgia. My sister Sherry, her voice ragged, calling early in the morning to tell what she knew.
A little later, I talked to my parents. They’d moved to a town in central Mexico where many Americans go to retire, because it’s temperate and beautiful and the locals are always friendly to the expats.
Mom was choked, but she could talk.
Dad just wailed. Across all those miles, his was the voice of a great wounded animal, terrible, trumpeting spasms of grief.
He had always been a wild man but the first report of David’s madness was so florid and strange it took me years to really believe it happened. I was in college at the time, engaged to a surreal blonde girl whom I would later realize was far too smart and disturbed for me.
He had come home to Smyrna, Tennessee after a long-haul trucking run to Pennsylvania, convinced he was possessed with the spirit of a little boy from France. He’d spiraled further out of control once he reached the trailer he shared with his wife and young son on Almaville Road. At some point he threw things through the living room window. There was apparently a police standoff before they took him away.
At some point David made his wife and son dance to shake the demons out.
I never lost track of reality. Sure, in my junior year of college I came down with food poisoning then convinced myself my girlfriend had tried to poison me. Sure, I stopped fulfilling all my obligations at one point because I convinced myself if I stayed home the world wouldn’t end. But I never hallucinated. I still knew I was Steve. I was nothing like my brother, with his ramblings, his ideas about demons.
David parked his truck at a rest stop in east Tennessee. He took off his clothes and ran around giving away his money. Again, the police came. They had a standoff while he held a Swiss Army Knife to his throat.
David thought the knife was a blessing. It bore the Cross of Jesus.
I’d broken up with the surreal blonde girl. My new girlfriend and I would marry in the next couple of years. I was taking my first antidepressant, prescribed by a doctor who had cerebral palsy. He looked like Allen Ginsberg if the beat poet had been hatched from an alien chrysalis. He hugged me at the end of our last session and told me I’d climbed a mountain.
I was slated to sing the solo with our university choir in a grand and escalating spiritual that sketched the birth of the Christ child then traced his path to Easter. I entered the music hall dry and tired from the antidepressant, but the moment I began the solo, some animating spirit took hold. The audience stood and applauded for several minutes. I took several bows. Our director loved the response so much he encored the piece in the spring concert.
In the end I only drank too much that night, but I clearly recall going back to my apartment feeling that was a good high note. I could go out on that. I could kill myself.
The last time I saw my brother alive, I was afraid. He’d had more meltdowns and my parents said he’d long been compounding things with drugs. I’m still ashamed to say I awaited his arrival at the apartment I shared with my (first) wife with fear and hesitation. Our first baby had been born premature several months before and as David pulled up in his ramshackle car all I could think about was her.
Then he was in the door, and he was the old Dave, the brother I knew. His shoes were threadbare, and his false teeth ill-fitted, but he was funny and kind and unrelenting with big brotherly advice, even though I kind of knew much of what he tried to tell me already. As we sat on my apartment balcony talking at sundown, he spotted a pretty woman close to his age entering an apartment on the bottom floor. He said hello and smiled and her eyes crinkled and she smiled back.
I asked him if there was anything he needed. He asked for a clock radio and a coke. That was all. He was that specific.
And I realized, I told my mom later, that I would have given him almost anything he asked for then, if I’d had it. I had no explanation for feeling that way, save that he was my brother.
I left work that day to commit suicide. I’d realized I couldn’t take my life, my shattered marriage, just breathing anymore, and there was only one rational solution. I selected a bridge downtown. Along the way I passed the mental hospital near Nashville’s Centennial Park. I thought of my children and something my chrysalis Ginsberg doctor once said about what you should do if you want to hurt yourself.
Admit me or I’ll kill myself, I told the trim little man with the silly mustache who met me at the lobby desk.
He took me into a small room and questioned me about my state of mind.
His hands shook as he took my things for safekeeping, as the initial observation ward was more like jail than a hospital ward: keys, my wallet, a bottle of Prozac that had stopped working weeks ago, a notebook, a ridiculous packet of Vivarin.
I was admitted to the psych ward wearing jean shorts, a tee-shirt, sandals, and an empty fanny pack.
Driving north from middle Georgia toward Nashville on the day David died, I saw off the side of the interstate a great natural sculpture built from kudzu vines and a telephone pole. It was a towering green reaper shimmering in a hot yellow haze. Great green summer Death, pointing north.
I pulled off the interstate and cried for what seemed a very long time.
I want this to be about real blood and the idea of blood, the thing that sings in our veins when we’re with family. How the song sometimes slips for a moment into a great column of harmony, flooding the listener with relief. Family as a hymn.
I want this to be a neatly-rendered essay suitable for framing or publishing elsewhere.
Instead, I can only recount cleaning David’s watch.
After his funeral, we divided up his meager things. Among them was a watch in a biohazard bag. It was a silver wind-up analog Timex with a flexible band. It was splattered with blood and other matter.
Once I was back in Georgia I put the biohazard bag in a roll-top caddy we kept at one end of the kitchen counter.
I don’t remember how long it sat there, but it wasn’t long. I know I often stared at it, imagining David buying it in a truck stop. Winding it. Slipping it off before bed.
One night I couldn’t sleep and I decided to clean the watch. Under the glare of that cookie cutter apartment kitchen’s track lights I put on dishwashing gloves and slipped David’s watch from the biohazard bag. I washed it under very hot water.
I remembered playing Go Fish with David, how the game would always devolve into “52-Card Pickup.”
I remembered getting him a “10-4 Good Buddy!” joke license plate for Christmas one year, a nod to his job, to his drawling and sarcastic persona on the CB radio, and overhearing him tell my mom he didn’t have the heart to tell me he’d never use it because “Good Buddy” was trucker slang for a gay man.
I remembered being 7 and riding with him on his motorcycle down the straightaway on Hamilton Church Road toward the sharp hairpin turn in the road where it once snaked into what was now a lake, how I screamed in joy and fear as he banked along the curve.
I washed David’s watch for several minutes, carefully inspecting each segment of the band as I went.
When I was satisfied it was clean, I set it to the proper time and put it on.
Memory’s ostinato doesn’t constantly repeat the last time I saw my brother alive, even though I hold onto the low, waning light, the woman in the parking lot, his rattle-trap car and his shoes. It doesn’t cycle obsessively through those good childhood memories, or the times he was a typical big brother, teasing me, hassling, mocking.
When I turn over my brother and I in my mind, the memory that burns brightest is working beside him one summer when I was 15 and he was 24. We worked for our father’s company and the big job was installing runway lights at a small airfield south of Nashville. David enjoyed telling me what to do, but I felt like he was protecting me from the many strange and rough men on the crew, with their beards and Bowie knives and .357 Magnums tucked under driver’s seats.
One day a summer storm blew in from nowhere as David and I were finishing a ditch the crew had dug to find the old conduit carrying cables to the runway. There was pounding rain, jagged blasts of lightning. The other men on the crew figured they weren’t paid enough to work in the rain and dispersed, thinking (wrongly, I’m certain) my dad would understand.
My brother decided the ditch was too important to wait for the rain. You don’t have to, he told me, grabbing a shovel, but I’m going to keep it up.
In the steadily strengthening storm he hopped into the ditch and began digging wildly. In a moment I grabbed another shovel and joined him. We were alone on the job, at the bottom of a steadily flooding ditch, slinging wet red mud onto the scarred tarmac above. We only quit when the muck reached our knees.
That’s how it happened, that’s where it ended and we went on home, both soaked to our bones.
I keep re-imagining that day.
In my mind I keep breaking time’s chains to return to that ditch and the rising, rusty water. The broken slideshow reel in my head becomes a film of us flailing at the mud as the ditch floods. We are indistinguishable mud men, wielding flashing shovels against the storm’s onslaught.
We match each other, shovelful for shovelful, until the water takes us, and we drown.