Tag-Archive for » Death «

Tuesday, March 15th, 2016 | Author:

Over the next few months I’ll be working on a small e-book project about the things no one talks about when they talk about grief. Obviously, I write about grief a lot, and I wish when I was first experiencing grief that I could’ve found some pretty brutally honest, but maybe slightly funny book about the different aspects about the grief journey. I didn’t find such a book. So I decided to have a go at trying to write it. It’ll be pretty short, because I, at least, when I’m in grief, don’t have a lot of energy to consume or process outside information.

That being said, this is the intro chapter to the book project…


You May Vomit

What I remember most about the car ride to the hospital where my sister, Julie, would die is that I wanted to puke. Want is the wrong word, I guess. I needed to puke.

We’d just left the Carl’s Jr. in Grass Valley, California, and we had to make our way to a hospital a couple of hours away. My mom had gotten the call that changed our lives on her cell phone. My brother-in-law’s name, Chris, came across the screen of the cell phone that still had an antennae she had to pull up before answering.

I saw her face as I watched her through the glass doors that she had exited to take the call in a quieter place. Something about her face told me and my body that grief was on its way. That’s the moment — the moment my stomach dropped and started tying in knots, telling me it didn’t want anything in it anymore.

I poured out my drink and held my empty cup in my hands as we drove, sure that I would need it at any moment.

When we arrived at the hospital a couple hours later, my mom asked me how I was doing. “I feel like I need to throw up,” I said blankly.

“That’s ok if you do. That’s a normal reaction,” I remember her saying.

It wasn’t normal to me, though.


I was 14, and I’d experienced one death prior. A girl a year older than I, who had cerebral palsy, had died a few years before. I’d always had a soft spot for her and been kind to her. She couldn’t say any words, and her mouth was permanently open with drool streaming out, but man. I could make her laugh. Cackle, actually. Her name was Julie, also. I’d known her my whole life. She died on a summer day, and I was swimming at my best friend’s house when my sister showed up, walked down the path to the pool at the end of the yard and told us the news.

I was sad, really sad, but not nauseous.

Julie (my sister) played piano at the other Julie’s funeral. It was the first time I’d heard the church song “Better is one day.” The chorus says, “better is one day in your courts, better is one day in your house, better is one day in your courts than thousands elsewhere.”

I watched my sister play and sing this beautiful song about a promise of hope and newness, and I thought of this younger Julie, who had never been able to walk or run or play, who had never been able to speak, or argue, or do anything except laugh or cry, and I saw her in those courts, in that house, being free and running and talking and I was glad for her.

But a few years later, as I walked into the hospital where my siblings and I were all born, and where Julie would soon die, I wanted to throw up. The thoughts of the courts and house of God being better than a thousand days here had no consolation. I wanted to puke all over that hopeful song.

I didn’t though. I went to the bathroom several times thinking I would. At one point I shoved a finger down my throat because the nausea was so painful. Still nothing.

I didn’t realize that this was not just an isolated incident, but rather how my body handles the blows of grief until nine years later when I found myself in my apartment, alone, collapsed and dry-heaving in the hallway in another instance of knowing my life would never be the same.

Literal dry heaves. The only time I’d experienced that before was when I had an ugly, ugly bout with the norovirus (the very violent and contagious cruise ship stomach flu) and I’d thought I really might die, because I was so weak and so violently ill. I’ll spare you more details.

After I got to a point where I could get up from the floor and get to the bathroom, I remember thinking, “I guess this is what I do when life breaks. I want to throw up and I can’t.” I showered and laid in bed, my body reeling in a way that doesn’t make sense from an emotional blow.

I was nauseous for the next 3 weeks that time.

And every instance of forceful grief since, I find myself jealous of those of you who do actually vomit with grief. Which is a very odd and petty thing to be jealous about. But that’s what this project is — admitting the odd, petty, and other things that no one talks about when they talk about grief.

So just know, you may vomit. Or, you may not. And that’s OK.

Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, March 01st, 2016 | Author:

When I was a probably four or five years old, I really wanted a horse. I’d been praying for one for a long time. Our next door neighbors had a pasture with horses in it. Our next door neighbors on the other side often had horses in their pasture. And while we didn’t have a pasture of our own, we had a sizable yard, and I thought a horse would really complete my already pretty good life.

My parents had told me that we couldn’t afford a horse, unfortunately. But I also was always taught about miracles and bible stories and I figured praying for a horse was the best way to possibly get one.

Then one day, my dad and I were home together for the afternoon while my mom was out with my other siblings. It was my nap time, and my dad decided to take a nap during that time as well. I woke up mid-nap because I was thirsty so I decided to go get a drink of water.

When I went into the kitchen, I looked out our big bay window in the dining room and in our backyard, under our big climbing tree, I saw a horse. I was so excited I immediately ran into my dad’s room and woke him up.

“Dad! Dad!” I shook him awake. “There’s a horse in our back yard! I’ve been praying for a horse and now my horse is here!”

He asked me if I was sure. So I ran back to the kitchen, and double checked. There he was, brown and mighty in all his splendor. My long awaited horse. I ran back.

“Yes! There’s a horse! It’s not a cow, I double checked,” I told my dad.

I was ecstatic. Prayer worked. Miracles happened. Life was good. And I had a horse.

My dad got up, still not believing the word of his ever-wishful toddler, until he too looked out the window and saw that there was a horse reaching up and eating leaves from our mulberry tree, just as I’d said.

“There’s a horse in our back yard!” he said, smirking at me. He told me to get my shoes on and we’d go out and investigate.

It was the first time that the harsh realities of life broke in and broke down my childhood whimsical belief that anything was possible — God didn’t just manifest this horse in our backyard to answer my prayers, my dad tried to explain to me. The horse, he said, belonged to someone else, and we had to try to find out who was missing their horse. It wasn’t ours.

“But what if we can’t find any owner and it really is an answer to my prayers??” I pleaded. He explained that if that was the case, unfortunately, we still couldn’t keep it. Apparently the cost of buying the horse was not the main cost we couldn’t afford — it was having a horse that we also couldn’t afford. (Information I would have addressed in my prayers prior if I had been privy to it.)

My dad spray painted a very red-neck looking sign on a sheet of plywood: “Horse Found.” We propped it up against our mail box pole so that anyone passing by could see it. Soon, a neighbor from down the street came and claimed his horse. His fence was broken and she’d wandered away.

My answer to prayer was led home to the her rightful place four houses down. And I learned that sometimes, even when you get exactly what you’ve prayed for, it isn’t actually an answer to prayer.

Ten years later, when my sister was in the hospital, in a coma, I was terrified to pray for her to live, because I was afraid that if I did pray for that, and she still died, my faith in God would be irreparably shaken.

Instead, I prayed like a politician: “May your will be done,” is all that I could bring myself to pray. And then Julie died. She turned 21 three days before, and then she died.

That prayer caused more turmoil in my faith and my theology than I think praying for her to live would have, because for years after I was left wondering if God had answered my prayer — if it was actually his will for her to die.

It’s been 12 years since then, and my prayers look very different now. They’re not often requests, and they’re not often political pleas. They’re just conversations. They’re just me talking to someone who’s been there with me through it all. I don’t bullshit God anymore and try to dance around things that I want or things that I want to pretend he doesn’t know. I just talk to him. Because at this point, I’m not sure that he answers prayers in the ways that I used to think he might. I haven’t prayed for a horse since I found one in my backyard and learned that it still wasn’t mine. I also haven’t hidden what I want in vague, maybe manipulative pleas, pegging my desires on God’s will. If I want someone to live, I say it, like I would to a friend.

In some ways, I think my faith in God has gotten smaller, but not less magnificent. Smaller like when a crowd gets smaller. It’s become more personal, and less majestic. He’s less the genie granter and more the father that I share my confusion and frustration with because I thought the horse could be mine. I thought my sister could live. I thought that life was good. He’s the one that I cry with because of these disappointments and tragedies. And for me, that’s enough. I don’t need a God who grants wishes. I just need a God who lets me know I’m not alone, and that he hears me.

Whether he answers or not, I think he hears me. And that’s enough.

Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, March 03rd, 2015 | Author:

Eleven years. It’s been 11 years since she died. My older sister. Julie.

Two years ago on my birthday, I wrote a column about celebrating even when it’s hard, and I talked about when my sister died, and the birthdays that followed. In the piece, there was this line: “When my older sister passed away, the timing was really terrible.”

We were at dinner — my older brother, my parents, and me — when I read them my column for that month. When I read that line, they all laughed. I laughed a little when I wrote it. Because it’s true, it was horrible timing when she died. As if death ever comes at a good time, but hers was particularly bad timing.

She died 3 days after her 21st birthday. Two months before graduating college. Three months before her one year wedding anniversary (they’d just purchased a cruise for the occasion). And in the first month following her death we had to celebrate my dad’s birthday, her husband’s birthday, my brother’s birthday, and Easter.

But I was glad that my family laughed at the line. Because that’s what I have begun to see as a sign of healing — being able to call things what they are. Being able to say that the timing was horrible and laugh at how irreverent it sounds and how true it is.

It took us several years as a family to know what to do with our “Julie week” of her birthday and anniversary of death. It was hard to talk about her for a long time. We each processed at different paces, and while some of us wanted to remember, it was too hard for the others. And visa versa other times.

Eventually, though, we ended up creating a sort of tradition when we were all living near one another (I’m the one that lives elsewhere some years, like this year). We get together and go out to dinner at the Olive Garden (her favorite — but give her a break, she was a 21-year-old broke college student/piano teacher. The Olive Garden was a splurge to her) and we tell stories to remember her. Not the stories that were told at the funeral. Those were too nice. Too kosher. For a long time, that’s all we or anyone would do — tell the funeral-appropriate stories. The ones where she seems so much more lovely, and so much less like the girl we grew up with and loved indefinitely not even despite, but with her flaws.

It took several years to find the freedom to remember her more accurately. To laugh at her precociousness, her sometimes judgmental nature, her infuriating stubbornness. To admit that amidst her mounds of talent, she was deeply insecure. To remember her harsh exterior that came out quite a bit, not just the softness that existed underneath, too. To remember the way her long red hairs got EVERYWHERE.  It was literally over a year before I stopped finding her hairs woven into the fabric of my clothes from the laundry.

Again, I think it’s a sign of healing, of acceptance, to be able to laugh. I have this theory that I will teach my children if they are ever bullied — laughing at something takes it’s power away.

And I think for our family, when we were able to finally laugh again at the memories of our sister, it was a sign that we were taking power away from grief. We had to let it run its course. That’s not optional. But finally, we found our way to a place where we could remember what was true.

And with that allowance, it is a double edged sword, because remembering the real Julie, means acknowledging the realness that we loved that we don’t have anymore. It means acknowledging the loss, not of some idealized saint, but of our very real sister who we very real-ly loved.

I think we learned this from my mom. We grew up hearing what I would name the “rascal boys stories” — stories of her and her two brothers while they were growing up. But in the stories, there were two brothers, and in life when we were hearing the stories, there was only one brother. We were missing an uncle. He died before I was born. I only know him from the stories.

But the Uncle Randy I know was deeply troubled and deeply loved. He was a lovable little boy. But he had a lot of problems socially and relationally. He got into trouble. He lived a rough life. But in the stories, I could hear him laughing. I could hear him crying. I could see him be tricked by his brother. And blamed for something his sister did. And I could see him yelling. I could see him getting arrested. I could see him dancing at his wedding. I could see him hitchhiking across the country to his new home in New York. And I could sense how much my mom and her family loved this very real, imperfect man.

I’ve never met him, but because of the stories, I know him a little bit. A non-idealized, real version of him. And because of that, he’s never felt like a story character — he’s felt like family. Real-life, living and breathing, blood and guts family.

That’s my hope as we move onward in this life and we carry the loss with us. That we will continue to choose to tell the stories of real-life Julie. That we will remember her as she was, and laugh at what needs to be laughed at and feel for the things that need to be felt. That we will love her in death the way we loved her in life. Real-ly. Because she was real, and our love for her still is. It is good to remember.





Please keep our family in your thoughts and prayers this week as her birthday is this Wednesday and the anniversary of her death is Saturday. 

 Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon     www.storiesbyJo.com

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Tuesday, August 12th, 2014 | Author:

When I saw that Robin Williams had died, I cried. A few silent tears ran down my cheeks at first. And then they just kept coming. Out of nowhere it seemed, I had grief for a person I had never met. This has happened to me when they are related to someone that I care about and know. Or when they have died and some tragic way — victims of social injustice or war, things like this.

But here I was crying for a man I never knew who had always made me laugh.

I’ve gotten in the habit over the past year of listening to comedians on Pandora online. Robin was one of my favorites to listen to. Through Pandora and Spotify I’ve listened to everything of his that is available on the free online mediums. He is hilarious and rash and crude and stop-you-in-your-tracks because what he says is not just funny, it’s true.

His films like Goodwill hunting have touched me greatly. Dead Poets Society is why my favorite English teacher became a teacher. People always laugh at him when he admits that, but he continues to admit it because it’s true, and really it’s a powerful movie for those that it speaks to.

I remember watching Patch Adams when I was young, and being fascinated with the idea that laughter could also be so real and so vital. I think that’s part of what Robin Williams was doing with his life – he was using laughter to get the real stuff with people.

I am at a pretty jaded point in life right now. I have hope, which is a new phenomenon again for me, but this past season has been a very dark and very skeptical one. I have battled depression. I have known the hard work of choosing to get out of bed and face the world for another day. I am distrusting of men. I am distrusting of friends. I am distrusting of the church. I am distrusting of church people. I am distrusting of pastors. I am distrusting in general.

But the church that I go to here in Granite Bay, Bayside Church, is a little bit different. They’re using the Miyagi method of doing one thing while really teaching me another. (Wax on wax off really is the karate chop.) And when I go to church and Pastor Curt Harlow says the funniest stories that I’ve heard in church, I laugh really hard. And before I know it, my guard is down and he’s talking about God and about what God has to do with me. And I’m willing to listen because he made me laugh first before he tells me the true stuff, the hard stuff, the stuff that sometimes hurts to hear, but that I need to hear.

I believe this is why Robin Williams was so influential to me, and many others. He made us laugh at inconsequential, very funny things. He even made us laugh in the midst of really hard things. But in his roles, his characters never left it there. The characters Robin played were those who made you laugh, and then got to what was real, got to what was at the heart of things. I’m pretty sure Flubber was the only one of his movies that I didn’t cry in. And this was true even before I really was a crier. He just had a way to, somehow through a TV screen, touch my heart in some of the most vulnerable, raw places. To reach me in my pain even as the character of a fictional plotline. He brought stories to life in a real way that made them affect me as a real person in the real world with real problems. He was an artist that was able to take fiction and make it important to those who were living true stories.

When I was young I had a book save my life. After my sister had passed away and had been trying to become her, in a way. The book Ordinary People was what caused a breaking point in me that was a pivotal moment in my story where I knew that I either had to end it all or had to start living as myself. This is a story I’d like to tell in detail at some point, but today’s not that day. But it was a pivotal point in my life, and it was a fictional book the convinced me that somebody out there understood me. And up until that point I had been convinced that nobody could possible understand. And the fact that there’s a stranger, an author who I had never met, who penned character lines and a fictional story, could understand what I was going through — that changed everything.

Robin Williams has played many rolls which have played similarly significant moments of “I understand” in my life. And not everybody can play those kind of roles. In fact, he’s the only one that I know of that does it as well as he does.

As I was reading the book Ordinary People, Robin Williams was specifically who I had in mind as being the character who made such a significant impact in my story. He was who I pictured being Berger the therapist who spoke truth into the main character’s life and, subsequently, spoke it into mine. I don’t know why thought of Robin Williams in that role, he didn’t play in the movie Ordinary People, but at the time that’s just who I imagined. Someone with kind eyes, who makes you laugh, sees through your bullshit, and then tells you the hard truth. Someone who understands.

I don’t know what Robin was like as a person. But as a comedian he was hilarious, and as a story-teller, he was influential in real lives, and he will be missed. His relate-ability in both the laughter and the seriousness were what continually made him a presence that I believe made people feel like somebody may really understand them.

While his fictional characters have touched me I believe the man behind them was the one speaking truth in a way that made it matter in real life. I believe the man behind them understood the pain of the world. And he was the rare type of man who could both lighten that pain but also validate it.

Rest in Peace, Robin.

Wednesday, August 06th, 2014 | Author:

*This is a fictional short story I wrote as a part of my list of 25 goals to accomplish before I turned 25.

This Isn’t Funny

A Short work of Fiction

by Joanna O’Hanlon

“Hi!” she said, smiling while leaning in to give him a peck on the lips when he opened the door. He looked confused. He wasn’t expecting her. He was glad she was there, she just always told him when she was coming over. But she hadn’t this time.

He had been curious and slightly annoyed when the doorbell rang.

He was home alone — well, at his parents’ home, which used to be his home, but now it felt unnatural for him to be spending all his time there. To be staying, no, living, in his childhood room. At least it didn’t have bunk beds anymore for he and his older brother. But, still. They kept those goddamn bunk beds forever. Even after his brother had left for the army, and he knew he’d never come back. But still they kept them. Wouldn’t let him nix the top one and pretend to be the only actual inhabitant of that room. No, Bill’s stuff had to have a place to stay in case he needed to move home again. Or visit. Now that Bill had been married for 10 years and lived on the other side of the country, they’d finally agreed to get rid of them, and get a queen bed for the room. It’s about freaking time, he had thought when they finally made the change. That was about two months before he got the diagnosis and moved back in with them. Two months before everyone started to know, to say, that he was dying.

So he was home alone, in the middle of the day, watching CSI reruns on daytime TV when the doorbell rang. He’d thought maybe it’d be one of those young, bright-eyed, naive Mormon boys in their white shirts and name tags. He was annoyed at the thought because they were the only people who wouldn’t just shut up when he dropped the “thanks, I would, but I’m dying” bomb on them.  That was just fuel for them.  If only they didn’t come to his parents neighborhood so much. But they did.

He’d started to play a game with them: “How fast will your drop your convictions” is what he called it in his head.

He’d invite them in and then offer them a coke. They’d say they couldn’t drink caffeine. So he’d bring them a beer.

Soon he would ask them if they wanted to call their parents. He wouldn’t tell. He promised.  Or maybe they’d like to Skype with their girlfriend. He had FaceTime on his phone. It was so simple… wouldn’t she be so happy? Their girlfriends must miss them so much. Maybe too much. “Maybe distance doesn’t make the heart grow fonder… ” he would say, trailing off at the end, sounding sad and concerned for them.

And lastly, if they asked to use the restroom, he’d be sure to call out, “the playboys are under the sink!” as they walked into the bath room. He’d never been a big playboy fan himself, but he’d bought a copy specifically to put under the sink. Just in case he actually got them to abandon their convictions.

That’s the thing when you’re dying, he thought. It brings out the devil in you a little.

He didn’t mind religion. And he actually didn’t have anything against these guys that would come to the house other than the fact that he was bored out of his mind, sitting at his parents’ house, with nothing to do, waiting to die. And it annoyed him that they cared about more than death. It’s insensitive to talk to a dying man about his soul – he thought.

But when he’d opened the door, already with a coke in his hand, ready to start his game, but not really feeling up to it, she’d been standing there. In a yellow sundress with an old fashioned picnic basket in her hand. She kissed him briskly and then slid past him through the doorway into the living room in the way she always did. She was fit and thin, but not skinny. But the way she moved – light as a feather – and the way she smiled and always knew what she was doing, where she was going — it made her seem like she was much more slender and dainty than she really was. It was endearing. She never seemed fragile, no. She reminded him of the wind. Powerful, but graceful and light.

He was moving slowly, turning to follow her into the living room when she’d already popped herself down onto the area rug and was sitting, cross legged, shoes off, looking up at him with a look of self-contentment in her wide smile.

His confused look gave way and he laughed. She was beautiful. Like a piece of art. Too goofy and too excited for the girlfriend of a 25 year old cancer patient. That’s what made her perfect. Everything else in his life had gone dark. Even the Mormons, when concerned about his soul, got a graver facial expression when they knew he was sick. But she kept smiling. Kept laughing. And with that yellow dress — man, she just looked like sunshine.

“What are you doing?” he couldn’t help but smile at her as he asked it.

“Well, we’re having a picnic!” she said, confident, pleased with herself for the idea. “But I wasn’t sure how well you were feeling today, so we’re just going to have it here, on this rug.” She softened a bit as she said the last part, her tone asking the undesired question — “Are you feeling up to it?”

“Picnics shouldn’t be on rugs,” he said, his smile slipping. These moments were not uncommon — the ones where she was a beam of light, reminding him that he was 25 and alive, and when, instead, he could only think of the fact that he was 25 and dying.

He plopped down on the couch behind her, to the side of where she was sitting on the floor. He sighed, leaned his head back on the back of the couch, and reached his hand down toward her, open.

She twisted her torso around toward his legs, and reach her hand up to his open one, lacing her fingers through his.

“We don’t have to, buddy, if you don’t want to,” she said softly. She was tracing the outline of his fingers and hand with her index finger — something she always did subconsciously when she was comfortable or comforting him. Same as the way she called him “Buddy.” He always noticed both of these things, but never had said anything.  They were those things that made him feel normal and young and in love. He knew her. Her little quirks. Her ways. The ones he wasn’t even sure she was aware of.

He still didn’t say anything, just left his hand open to be traced, flexing his fingers up one at a time as she followed their edges.

“I just know that you’ve been bored, and I love being with you even when we’re doing nothing. But I’ve been trying to think of how we could do something that we used to do.  Nothing big, just the simple stuff. Like just going out to eat or stuff like that. So this was what I came up with… ”

She felt herself rambling. “I know, it’s kind of a stupid idea… with the picnic basket and everything…” she finally trailed off.

He was listening. Thinking. She knew this. He took a long time to respond sometimes these days. There was a lot on his mind, she knew. And unlike her habit of thinking things through out loud, he didn’t say what he thought until he knew what he thought.

She had learned this about him before they knew he was sick. Now it was even more exacerbated. But she was OK with it.

She sat for a few more minutes like that, sitting on the ground with her head leaning gently against his leg, tracing his fingers. She had his hand memorized. She closed her eyes, and tried to remember his different features while she waited in the silence. She’d been doing that a lot more recently. Trying to memorize every piece of him while she could.

“It’s just,” he said finally, still with his head back, staring blankly at the ceiling, “you can’t have a picnic on a goddamn living room rug. And I don’t think I can handle going up to apple hill or down to the river  or anywhere where a goddamn picnic should happen.”

“Careful there, Holden Caulfield. The whole phony world isn’t out to get you,” she smirked as she said it. He brought his head upright and flicked her hand playfully.

“You know what I mean!” he said, a little exasperated, a little playful. She gave him a sad smile.

“I know. I know, buddy. It’s ok. We can just call it what it is, and eat our sandwiches on the couch and watch TV like normal Americans. No picnic. No goddamn pretending.” She glanced at him to make sure he’d caught her little quip.

He’d been saying goddamn a lot. He got it from one of those CSI characters who he couldn’t stand at first, and now he was talking just like him. The word also lent itself to sad, angry, dying 20-somethings.

But that’s not who he wanted to be.

He grabbed her hand and pushed himself up, pulling her to a stand with him.

“Nope,” he said stubbornly. “You’re right. We’re gonna do this. It’s gonna be great.”

“Really??” She said, her excitement coming back again. Even if he wasn’t stubborn, and feeling slightly hurt by the Holden comparison, he wanted to do as many things as possible to make that smile of hers shine. It was like medicine that didn’t make you barf your guts up and have your hair fall out — which, by the way, is the best kind of medicine.

“Let’s go into the back yard though.”

“Yes! Brilliant idea!” She squealed a little. Her dress swirled with how quickly she turned around and bent down to grab the picnic basket.

He followed her outside, guiding her through the door with his hand on her lower back. This was one thing she loved — the guy’s body was dying, but his chivalry was alive and well. Not in the macho-man way. But in all the simple things. Her glass was always filled. Her door always opened. It was like he was still trying to impress her — and he did. He always would.

She spread out the blanket and brought out a few throw pillows from the couch and they set their picnic space up like the magazines and movies tell you it’s supposed to be. They’d never actually picnicked like this before, with the basket and all. But for a pretend back yard picnic, it was actually pretty great.

“Look!” she said. He looked where she was pointing, over by the tree. There was a squirrel almost all the way down the tree, clinging to the trunk, deciding his next move.

“How cute!  Look at him!” She was already up with a piece of sandwich in her hands going toward the squirrel before he could say anything. “See, we didn’t need to go somewhere else. This is so picnic-y! We’ve got a squirrel. It’s like we’re in Central Park.”

He’d seen this squirrel before. It had a nest up in that tree and whenever he’d left the sliding glass door to the back yard open and just had the screen door closed, it would come up to the door, look directly at him, and begin gnawing on the screen. No matter what he’d done or how loudly he’d yelled, this goddamn squirrel  would not stop. Not until he got up from the couch, walked all the way across the room and finally started to open the door. Then it would run away and run half way up the tree and just stare at him, taunting, waiting. One day it had actually tried to dart inside when he’d opened the screen door. He’d tried to kick it and had missed, but had scared it enough to do the trick. That had been the last straw though. He had vowed, one day that stupid fur ball was going down.

She was getting close and he was trying to say “No, babe. Don’t feed that little bastard…” when the squirrel darted down, grabbed the sandwich piece, and bit her finger.

“AHHH!” she screamed! That freaking squirrel bit me!!” She yelled, laughing and in pain. She couldn’t believe it. “He FREAKING bit me!”

He picked up a rock and threw it at the tree, but the squirrel was already up and gone to the trees in the neighbor’s yard.

“Well,” he looked at her with his sarcastic smirk, “you were the one who wanted to have a picnic…”

“Inside! On the living room rug!” She couldn’t stop laughing. “But this really hurts! I’m going to get rabies. And go crazy. And then people really won’t know how to handle you. ‘Oh no, there’s the dying cancer kid with the crazy rabies girlfriend. Look away! Look away!’  Is this what you want?”

Her ability to make everything about her always made him laugh. He had cancer. And she was looking for sympathy for pretend rabies. From a pretend picnic.

“Let me see this rabies bite,” he said after he’d stopped laughing at her.

“THERE!” she said like a toddler, shoving her finger in his face.

“Here I’ll kiss it and make it better,” he said playfully,

“No!” She pulled her hand away. “Then you’ll get rabies too. Stop trying to steal my thunder, ya jerk.” She stuck her nose up in the air as she marched back to her side of the blanket and took her seat again.

They ate the sandwiches, and drank champagne out of those plastic wedding champagne flutes that you have to pop together, and he entertained her fancy notions of “It will be fun! Feed me these grapes like I’m a Roman royal!” And she’d made a cake – his favorite, not hers — German Chocolate.

He couldn’t believe she remembered. He told her this was his favorite when they first, first met. Before they were friends, or “talking”, or dating or anything. You know, when you play those get to know each other games and you text back and forth random questions about each other. She’d asked what his favorite dessert was. That was one of her very first questions. And then they’d never talked about it again.

He hadn’t had it in years. Not because he couldn’t, just because he was too lazy to buy a box mix and make it, and most people in his life liked other things better. He wasn’t really a sweets guy, anyway. So his splurges had always been for chips and crap like that.

The last time he’d had German chocolate cake was on his 9th birthday. His brother was still at home, his parents still seemed happy, his grandparents were even there visiting. It had been his best birthday.

“What’s this for?” he asked, memories flooding him. Maybe she forgot and it was just coincidence.

“Well obviously we needed dessert,” she said as if this were the same as “obviously we’ll be breathing air today.”

“And this is your favorite, right?” she said simply, distracted while she was pulling the cutting knife out of the picnic basket.

“Yeah,” he said, staring at her. She was unaware of his eyes, of his awe. He always looked at her with a kind of awe. Everybody else noticed. She just kept doing her thing, though. Unaware or unabashed by it all.

“Yeah, it is.”

“So I baked one!” He thought she was so cute when she was proud of herself like this.

She was still looking down, fussing with the make-shift cover she’d made for the knife when he saw the squirrel. He couldn’t say anything before it had run, no leapt!, directly up the blanket and landed on the cake.

He swung at it with his fist, but it dodged him, jumping onto the picnic basket and his hand went straight into the cake. He was up on his feet faster than he’d moved in months. This was it, he was going to catch that squirrel and end this.

The squirrel hopped from the picnic basket onto his girlfriend’s chest, clinging to her dress, scratching her. She screamed.

“Get it off me!” she said trying to push it off with her hands. He grabbed for the squirrel, but the damn thing dodged his grip and skittered up his arm and literally to the top of his head. It was holding onto his hair, he was spinning in circles, frantic, not sure what to do, when he grabbed for it and finally caught it. The squirrel bit him square on the hand between his thumb and index finger, right in the webbing.

The squirrel locked his jaw, biting down on him and he started flinging his hand up and down trying to shake it off. He was in this angry frantic shake when he heard a laugh.

She was laughing. Softer at first, and then it was her full belly, fill-the-whole-backyard loud laugh. She was laughing at him!  The squirrel was biting down on him in a death grip and he was ready to kill this varmint and she was laughing!

“Stop laughing!” He yelled, still shaking his hand up and down as hard as he could, obviously panicked and in pain. “This isn’t funny!!”

“I’m sorry!” She breathed in between her bursts, “I can’t stop!”

“This isn’t funny!” he yelled again, louder. He ran close to the tree and just as he tried to smash the little bastard’s body against the trunk to get him to let go, the squirrel let go of his hand, and jumped onto the tree scampering up, and his fist hit the trunk of the tree at full swing.

“Ahhhhhh!” he screamed. “ARGHHHHHH!!!! AHhhh ha! ha.” He screamed, and as his breath sputtered, it turned from a scream of rage and pain to a chuckle. He felt his anger deflating and he continued to hear her loud laughs from behind him.

When he turned around, in a instant he took it all in. He saw her and her yellow dress with little rips and with chocolate cakes smudges from the stupid animal. And he saw the cake, ruined, his bleeding, hurting fist still bearing a large portion of it, and the picnic set-up scattered by the panic dance with the squirrel. And there she was still laughing. He bent over, hands on his knees, catching his breath, when he saw her start to flail her hand up and down mimicking him while her loud laughs washed over him like waves.

Then he smirked.

“This isn’t funny!” He imitated himself in a sing-song voice, still bent over, looking up at her bright, open-smile face. And then he got caught in her happiness. “It’s not funny!” he said again, laughing, and starting to fling his hand again and spin in circles. re-creating his squirrel hatred dance.

She had flopped herself over, laying down on the picnic blanket, shaking with laughter. She couldn’t catch her breath. He kept going like this until his energy gave out, which was soon, and then he went and laid down on the chocolate covered blanket behind her.

“It’s not funny!” he laughed again, softly, close to her, as he playfully bit her shoulder.

“Hey, don’t bite me!” she yelled.

“Sorry, can’t help it. I’ve got rabies now, too.”

“Thunder stealer.”

Their laughs died down and they laid there in the messed up picnic for a moment before he said anything.

“How’d you remember this was my favorite dessert?” he asked.

“I remember everything about you. I’ve been memorizing you since the day we met.” It was a weird thing to say, but it was out before she knew what she was admitting to.

“But,” he paused, hesitating, “but we met way before I was sick.” He couldn’t put into words the question he implied.

“I know,” she said without missing a beat. “But we’re all dying sometime. I just knew you were someone I want to remember.”

His throat tightened. Something like gratitude and wonder and love stung at his tear ducts. He brushed past it quickly.

“Well, now that you have rabies, your time may be short. I guess it’s good you got a head start,” he said.

“Exactly! ” she smiled again. “Also, as I’m now dying, I better start to get some special treatment or something. That’s how that works right? Do they have a make a wish foundation for 20-somethings with rabies? Maybe I should have a statue carved of me so you remember how beautiful I am. Will you love me still when I start foaming at the mouth? We should have another picnic before then…”

He kissed her to shut her up. That’s what he let her believe, at least.

Nobody dared to laugh at death and prepare for it like she did, he thought. He didn’t understand it, but she, this living ball of sunshine, was teaching him how to die.

* * *

His cancer was fast moving. That was the last of the good days. Within two months, he died.

And when he did, she wept and screamed, and camped out all day in his parents back yard with a 22 until she killed that goddamn squirrel. And on the day of his funeral, she wore her yellow dress with the little rips in it from the squirrel’s claws. And through tears, she laughed, sadly, at him again as she told the story to her table of friends at the funeral reception. “‘It’s not funny!’ he yelled at me. But there’s nothing NOT funny about a sad dying guy fighting off a squirrel covered in chocolate cake.”

“You shouldn’t laugh at a time like this,” an older woman said, scornfully, passing by their reception table. “Disrespectful…” she muttered.

“Did she not hear the part about the goddamn squirrel pouncing on the chocolate cake like we were in a freakin’ cartoon?” she asked her friends, feigning a smile, but feeling that tightening in her throat and chest.

Her friends chuckled a little, and the conversation went on to other, less humorous memories about him.

She wept in her car in the parking lot when she left. And ugly mascara tears dripped onto her yellow dress near the little rips where chocolate stains once were.

It would be harder to laugh now, she thought. Not because of grief or death or crap like that. Ok, maybe some of that. But mostly because nobody let her, encouraged her to laugh at things like he had.

She’d memorized that way he looked at her when she laughed like that — like he thought she was sunshine in Seattle, she thought. He’d looked at her that way since the first day she met him. She’d pretended not to notice it. But he made her feel like she was sunshine in a world where everyone was wearing sunscreen. Everyone but him.

She was just now realizing, he’d been helping her discover how brightly she could live.

“Goddammit, buddy. I miss you,” she said out loud to her empty car.

She took a deep sigh, then mimicked again, “‘It’s not funny!!'” her burst of laughter louder this time, tears and mascara still on her cheeks. “‘It’s not funny!'”

She kept saying it and playing the scene over and over in her mind as she drove away, both laughing and crying at the same time.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014 | Author:

About a year and a half ago, my world shattered. Today is not the day for those details. Just know that I don’t use the word “shattered” lightly. I lost people, places, calling. I used the word “decimated” a lot.

I walked around in a fog of grief: The heaviness that weights you, making every single task a deliberating, exhausting undertaking. I wasn’t even sure of how I was spending my days. Time got away from me a lot as I sat in my thoughts and memories and questions.

At the beginning, right when everything shattered, a friend sent me a quote from George Matheson that has kept me going like a light at the end of a very very long, very very dark tunnel: “Waiting with hope is very difficult, but true patience is expressed when we must even wait for hope. I will have reached the point of greatest strength once I have learned to wait for hope.”

This has been a season of waiting for hope. When the word “decimated” describes your life, it’s hard to have hope. I didn’t. I was hopeful for hope. And that’s a hard distinction to make, and a hard thing to admit.

This is part of a poem I wrote on January 29, 2013 in the midst of my heavy, empty season.

…Yearning for a new life, a new land, for some hope.

I can see it on the horizon, but the horizon is far away.
I hope I’ll someday get there, but it won’t be today.

I want the joy of healing, i just haven’t found it yet.
Today I’m still alone,  my companions heartache and regret.

Soon I’ll trade them in, trade them new, for hope of better things,
But today I’m lost. I cry. I grieve.

Here are some lines from a bit later in the journey:

I want to have hope
right now I have none
(I want to be done).
But I am hopeful for hope
— I believe it will come.

I have not known hope in 19 months. That is, until a few weeks ago.

The logic in my head said that things would progress in life. That I could rebuild. That in time, with effort, it wouldn’t always be like this. But my heart could not feel it, could not believe it.

But after 19 months of my heart being earnestly on the lookout for hope, I found it.

I’m like Kevin in Home Alone, having the revelation and yelling at the furnace “I’m not afraid anymore!”


My soul feels like a broken jar that leaks, but enough has run into my broken heart for long enough that what is being poured in is overcompensating for what the cracks are leaking out. It’s taken a while to fill up because of those cracks. But I’m full again, and filling still.

And I believe part the reason is that in the last few months I’ve begun to take the hard, painful, intimidating step of telling my story — to people I have known for my whole life, to people who I’m just meeting. I’m telling my painful story, again and again, and in the telling, I feel myself getting fuller. I feel the cracks in my heart and my life decreasing in their gaping size.

I believe this is the stage of grief that they call “acceptance.” I had accepted it for myself a while back. But this step of accepting my loss, accepting my story out loud, is different. It is scary and powerful and freeing.  And, it turns out, in the breathing out of the painful story, hope is breathed in.

Last week, I found myself thinking, unfiltered, “I love my life” as I went to bed. And it was true. It’s not even a great life. But I love it and the people in it. And it’s because I’m in love with life again. I’m full of hope again. I’m excited again.

large_127012194photo credit: fanz via photopin cc

Like walking down a dark tunnel toward the light at the end, I could see hope ahead of me this whole journey. My eyes were on it. My focus was toward it. But that night last week was that moment when you finally realize, you not just see the light, you are in the light. Under it. Surrounded by it. You may still be in the tunnel, but you are engulfed in the light of day ahead.

I laugh easily now. Often too loud. The loss doesn’t seem as heavy on most days. The broken pieces don’t feel so “decimated” anymore. The effort it takes to breathe is unnoticeable, as it’s meant to be. I know how I spend my days, and I spend them doing things I love, things that bring me back to life.

I am engulfed in hope.

And I’m giddy like a little kid on Christmas about the whole thing.

And to you who have walked with me through the tunnel, who have assured me that the light of day at the end is real when it felt like it was just an illusion — thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Let’s celebrate. You were right!

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014 | Author:

Recently I was with a group of people and we were talking about what was going on in our lives and the topic turned to one of the girls there who is leaving her job soon. “I know it may be bad,” she relayed, “but I’m really giving it my all now. I want them to miss me when I’m gone. I want them to be sad to see me go, and not think ‘Oh, she was leaving, that’s why she was slacking those last few months.'”

Other people in the room chimed in saying they felt the same way. It was quickly clear the desire to be hard to replace seems to be almost innate. Except in me.

For a long time now, I’ve been trying to make myself replaceable. And it’s just been the last few months that I’ve really realized how this mindset has sunk in to most every area of my life.

I create “truck binders” for projects I work on so that if I were run over by a truck, someone could use the binder to carry forward. I delegate tasks and responsibilities to teams and train others how to do my job in my absence. I plan ahead and I make notes about what I do and how I do it. And I’ve realized, I keep people at bay in my life, and I try to get them close to other people who could fill my role when I leave.

When I left for college, I didn’t want to be replaceable, because I wanted to stay in my hometown. But because I left, I wanted to see my people taken care of. I was happy for her when my best friend began to be good friends with another girl who is her best friend to this day. I was glad that someone could fill the hole I left in the day to day life of my friend. I’ve been tentative to sign art pieces that I make for people as gifts, because I want them to be able to enjoy the art piece regardless of what happens to me. I don’t want them to have to remember me with each glance at it if they don’t want to. (I know this is poor logic, and not healthy, but it’s the truth.)

In my self-realization that I do this, this is what I’ve found.


I mentioned in my “write your own eulogy” post that I always thought I would die young.  As early as I can remember I just assumed this to be true. I told this to my friend recently and she said, “see… that’s why I’m scared to have kids. How do you know that your toddler is thinking about death? That scares the crap out of me.”

And really, she’s right. How would anyone have known? I never bothered to mention it. I just thought it was a given. I was extremely happy and adventurous and risk-taking. I was well socialized. I connected well with people of all ages. But I’ve always thought my time was limited.

The only thing I can think of that I believe made me assume my life would be short was this: My mom always used to tell us stories about her and her brothers as they were growing up. One of my uncles was older than her and one younger. But the thing was, in the story I had two uncles, but in life I only had one. Her younger brother had died before I was born.  I only knew him through the stories.

And somehow I think that my little mind drew a lot of similarities between myself and my Uncle Randy. We were both the youngest of 3 kids. We both had allergies. We both got manipulated by older siblings, but still loved them. Just typical stuff. But somehow I believed that my fate would be like his – I thought my life would be short. So I lived that way.

When I was in 6th grade I started to have medical problems. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong but I underwent test after test, with no results giving an answer. I had my blood drawn weekly for a while for these. I saw specialists. I missed lots of school. I was just waiting for what I knew would eventually be a fatal diagnosis. I could manage life 5 or 6 days out of 7, but I missed at least one day of school a week. But  on my good days I would play hard, laugh hard, study hard, and be who I wanted to be. I knew time was short.

And then, when my medical problems were still going on, but were becoming less demanding, and almost seemed like they were fading, my older sister died suddenly.

I felt like the universe had gotten confused. She was supposed to live. My brother too. They were supposed to live long, full lives. They were both so accomplished. So smart. Smarter and better than me, I always thought. It was supposed to be me. I had always known. It was supposed to be me who died young. I was supposed to live an entertaining full, short, life that she could tell stories about to her children. It wasn’t supposed to be her.

I was ready for the fatal diagnosis. I wasn’t ready for the fatal call of someone else’s death, though. Cancer, some weird disease, “You have 3 days to live,” I could’ve handled. But watching the life go out of my brilliant, vibrant, feisty, 21-year-old sister who had so much promise for the world and for the people around her — that ruined everything I thought I knew about how to live well and die well.

This death was not like the movies, with time to prepare and goodbyes properly said. It was her birthday 3 days before. We didn’t get to say goodbye. She didn’t get to graduate college one month later like she was ready to. She didn’t get to celebrate her one year wedding anniversary that summer on the cruise they had already bought. There were no tears of parting on her part. It just ended. Like a book that just stops a quarter of the way in, leaving you hanging, knowing there was supposed to be more.

My poetic notions of short life well lived were smashed. This was not like that. This was a life-halting, heart-breaking, “WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO F***ING DO NOW!?!?” chapter. It was not poetic. It was horrendous.

origin_2594318333photo credit: mugley via photopin cc

And what had once been a decision to live fully so that I’d soak up all opportunity and so that people could remember me in their stories they told, turned to a desire to minimize collateral damage. I know the pain and ache of someone dying. And I, still subconsciously believing I would die young, was determined to lessen that pain for others as much as possible.

I wanted to be replaceable. I wanted to be able to die and have everything go on without me as smoothly as possible.

I wanted to prepare people for my death — living like a cancer patient without the diagnosis. I wanted people to know how I loved them, cared for them, and that they didn’t really need me. That there were others who could fill my slot in the program of their life.

The first time I talked about “when I die…” to my friend Kate, we were roommates in college. I don’t even know what I said, but probably something flippant like “when I die, I want to have “Damn, it feels good to be a gangsta” on my tombstone. I didn’t know it then (this is just how I talk and think), but she got really angry with me for thinking about death, and talking about it so frankly.

A couple of years later, I had just attended yet another funeral for someone I respected, and I wrote an email to Kate. I told her if I died I wanted her to speak at my funeral, and there were certain things I wanted her to mention: One, namely, is one time that I had the best parallel parking job in the world, on the first try, in golden gate park in San Francisco, and we took a picture that she made me promise I wouldn’t use to brag. I asked her to show said bragging picture, because hey, I’d be dead.

It was in her gracious response that she’d let me in on her reaction to my candor about death. She understands now that it’s part of how I live, but I had never known before that it had angered her and made her sad when I brought it up the first time. Which is understandable. There I was, getting to be great friends with someone, and simultaneously trying to keep a distance, to prepare her for life without me, to make myself replaceable. I believe I may well live a long life now. But I’m still scared of hurting people. I’m scared of leaving a wake of pain should the unexpected happen.

But the thing is, I’m not replaceable. I work hard to make sure I am replaceable in my jobs and roles in life. Because those things you can be replaced in. But I cannot be replaced as a person. Nobody can. I’ve believed that about others, but I thought I could be the exception if I tried hard enough.

I’ve had other people who have stepped in and acted as big sisters for me. But nobody will ever be Julie. And the fact is, if her death had happened like the movies, and we’d had our time for goodbyes, it wouldn’t have made it hurt less. It wouldn’t have lessened the loss. She would still be gone, and still be irreplaceable.

Positions are replaceable. People are not.

So I am working on trying to let myself see this and embrace it in the ways I relate to the people in my life. Because I’ve realized in my efforts to minimize pain for people at my potential leaving, I’m actually stunting the joy of relationships for myself and for them.

I want to step into the fullness of who I am and embrace the value of that woman. And as much as I don’t want people to bear the hurt of loss that I so well know, it’s a lie to go on believing that I can prevent that.  Loss and pain are certainties in life. I’d like to focus from now on at caring, loving, giving, and being the kind of friend that I would never want to see leave my own life.

And it’s OK if you miss me when I’m gone.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon


Tuesday, July 08th, 2014 | Author:

A few weeks ago I wrote my own eulogy. It’s a writing exercise I’d heard of many times, but one I had never done. But, I’ve thought about my own death since I was a young kid. As someone who always assumed I’d die young (a belief I’m just recently beginning to challenge internally), I’d thought about this type of thing many times before.

The difference is that I wrote this eulogy as a sort of “weekly review” of my life in the most grave sense. And then two days later I was in a doctor’s office having them tell me, “Well, with you being as young as you are, it’d be rare that this is cancer, but we need to be real that that’s a real possibility here. We can’t do anything now. Come back in 3 weeks.”

I’ve been thinking about this eulogy a lot over the past few weeks, and while I understand that I don’t control all of my fate, I went from being scared and overwhelmed, to being determined that this is not where my story ends. That I will not let it end right as I was on the brink of what I talk about  below.

I have since received the good news that I am (almost) in the clear cancer-scare-wise. But it has been a poignant few weeks and I’ve realized that I am not done fighting. I am not done adventuring. I am not done working on things and becoming the best version of me that I can be. I will not lay down and die. If I die right now, I will die fighting if that is an option. But as long as I am breathing, my story is not yet finished.

So, here’s my weird eulogy post. It’s a mix of attempted honest self-reflection and how I hope, maybe, people would remember me should the story stop here.



Joanna O’Hanlon died today. She spent her last day reading blog posts, having fun texting a cute boy, and trying to sort out information from other “productivity” blog posts that she could steal and make her own for a company blog. She was trying to get this done by 3pm, but her mind kept wandering. She went on a run, finished an art project, and went to a cheap movie. It was an ordinary day.

She didn’t know today would be the last day. She would’ve bought and eaten dessert at lunch had she known. She did try V8 finally for the first time before she passed though. She’d continually passed that option in life until today. She actually really liked it, even though it was like drinking cold tomato soup.

The story ending as it is, is a tragedy. She was on the brink of new life. On the brink of hope. On the brink of finding meaning in life again. But she hadn’t quite teetered over the edge. She had weathered the horrible, vomit-inducing, life-wrecking, heart-bulldozing times. She’d wandered in the desert. And when she was almost into the new, beautiful, life-giving season, it just stopped. That’s what makes this so sad. Knowing that joy and hope and adventure were right around the corner.

She had no real romantic involvement ever in her life. She struggled with receiving love. Her independent spirit was her fateful flaw. “You never needed anybody,” her best friend had said to her one time. But in the last year, she’d learned what it was to need people, and to need them without being able to ask for them. And they showed up. Again and again they showed up. She was working on making that translation into her romantic potential. But before she died, she knew she was loved. Not by a man — but by many men and women who gave her their love when she was really broken. When she felt the most unlovable. When she really needed love.

She was reckless in her honesty. She defied the regular rules of propriety about what you could say out loud. She was honest about how she felt, about how life felt, about how death felt. She couldn’t stomach the trite positive-spins that the church and the ignorant put on pain. She would speak out against that with colorful language deep from her gut anytime she heard it. She made many people uncomfortable. And she wasn’t sorry about that. The truth was important to her, because she saw what lack of honesty, what positive-spins and secrets did to people. She’d been hurt by that before. She was finding freedom in the truth, and she wanted to share it with the suffering, even at the cost of making the non-suffering uncomfortable.

She dug into her pain. She let it fill her. She let it burn away the excess in her. And she sought healing. She so badly wanted to be healed. But when God told her he wanted to use her while she was still broken, she cried, and said OK.

Jo loved God. He was her only constant in life. She looked like a wanderer to many. She was, I suppose. Her heart was not at home. It had known pain. It had loved this world. But the only real roots she had were in her God. He had held her, traveled with her. She loved God because he was good in a world that so often felt bad. She loved him because He was there for her when her pain and shame were too much for others. He was there when she wandered. He was there in the wails in the middle of the night. She loved God in the most selfish way possible — she loved Him because she needed him and trusted him. And because she knew He loved her.

Jo loved life. She loved to laugh at funny things. She laughed and squealed with joy when she did child-like things like go to the carnival or swim in the snowy river. Joy might’ve looked like it came naturally to Jo, but really, it was a choice. A choice to not let her sorrow hold her. She would seek joy out. It was a priority in her life. Fun was a priority in her life. She believed she was on an adventure. She chose to believe that.

She really liked high places. She was a climber. Always had been. She could still be seen sometimes on a run, coming across a play ground in the neighborhood, and swinging unabashedly on one of the swings — swinging higher and higher until it felt like her adult-weight would make the whole thing topple.

She loved people. Especially broken people. Especially people who had shown her love. She thought nothing of giving time, money, opportunity, or energy to make these people a priority in their times of need. She needed to work on making them a priority when they weren’t in need, too, though.

And she loved stories. Her curiosity was a bit much for most people, so she was learning how to curb it for the sake of others. But she always, always wanted to know more. She wanted to learn about people and places and things.

About what makes the pressure in a fire hydrant so great that the water literally SHOOTS out of it, while the water in nearby houses simply drizzles out regularly. And which Roman emperor built the coliseum, and which one finished it. And what’s the difference in technique/approach of a barber verses a hair stylist. And how to put in a pool. And how Lewis and Clark crossed the Columbia river. And how did they know they would even find an end to the continent? And what seasonings are in V8? And how did you get to be the person you are today?

Her curiosity for knowledge, and her love of stories defined her. There were six words that always caught her interest: “Let me tell you a story…”

She was working on writing her own story, too. It is incomplete. But so is life, I suppose.

She is survived by some of her immediate family, not all of them: her mother, her father, her brother. She is survived by extended family and her friends — too many good ones to mention them all. But they live all over the country, all over the world. She is survived by her town: Oroville – the land of the hopeless and broken and stuck. She really loved that town. We don’t know why, but she did.

We don’t know what we should do with her body. She used to say to just throw it in the sea because it was the cheapest option. But we’re not sure it’s the cheapest option. And we’re not sure if that’s what she wanted anymore. She had definite desires — but they changed… it was hard to keep track sometimes.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Thursday, March 06th, 2014 | Author:

Dear Julie,
Its been 10 years. How can that be? 10 years of life without you. 10 years of this ache in my heart and stinging sensation in my eyes and nose when people speak of loss. When they experience grief, my heart breaks for them, because I still know the feeling of my heart breaking over you. 10 years of thinking of you in those moments.

10 years of answering how many siblings do you havewith a different answer every time.

10 years to figure out who I am apart from you. Without your influence or your example.

10 years to figure out how different from you I am.

And 10 years to figure out how similar we are, after all.

10 years of seeing things about sister loveand feeling that hollow pang, knowing I dont have a sister anymore.

10 years of trying to establish a new normal.

And after 10 years, its clear that we have developed new rhythms, but that we still dont feel whole. Were still trying to figure out who we are as a family. And thats a really hard thing to admit. Because its admitting that this is not the way things were meant to be, even after all the healing, and coping and growing, and changing and redeveloping.

We have adapted, and while we have found joy again, we have entered back into life again, part of us still knows that there was another way this story couldve gone. And I am starting to see that that knowledge will never go away completely.

Walking into this, I never knew just how long death takes its toll. Never realized how deeply woven into our stories the threads of grief would be.

Here is the truth that no one says out loud.

I dont think about you every day anymore. 10 years ago I wouldve been appalled at myself for this being true, for admitting it. I thought about you every day for years. For the whole first year I didnt want to move on. But my soul began to die, to suffocate from unobserved grief after a year of it. Grieving and finding joy again felt like betraying you at first. I was 15, but I imagine it must feel similar even to adults who walk through that valley.

But at some point I did establish new rhythms of life. I gradually stopped having those moments where I expected to see you somewhere, expected you to be at dinner that night, thought of something to tell you only to remember that you were no longer there to tell.

At some point, I began to be able to tell people that I had a sister, but that you had died, and I began to be able to do it without my throat tightening, without tears falling too easily from my eyes. The statement stopped being a reminder, and started being a fact.

Eventually, people stopped calling me by your name accidentally. That was both a helpful thing yet a sad realization a few years in. It meant that you had been gone long enough that even acquaintances had made the mental shift to know your name should no longer be in their name bankfor the OHanlons.

People stopped comparing me to you altogether by the time I graduated high school. I had already begun to blaze my own trail. And of course by the time that I graduated college, I had surpassed the point in life that youd lived through, so the mention of your name didnt even come up.

I thought of you, though. I thought about the picture we took together at my 8th grade graduation. The only graduation of mine youd get to attend. I hope youd be proud of me, and happy for me for the happy things of my life, and sad with me for the heart-breaking ones. I trust that that would be the case. You were always really compassionate like that, deep down.

This is what makes me saddest. How much youve missed, and how much weve missed that wouldve come in your life. So much has changed for us in 10 years, Im sure life wouldve changed for you, too.

Ive met a few people in life who remind me a lot of you.  They are people that others sometimes have a hard time getting close to, but they feel so familiar to me, because its like seeing a glimpse of you.  It is comfortable to be near them, just as I was always comfortable around you.

Heres another painful confession. I dont remember what your voice sounded like anymore. I wish we had had digital cameras and video cameras back then, but I didnt yet. I got my first one the Christmas after you died. I haven’t heard your voice in a decade.

I havent heard you play piano in just as long.

I know from memory what you looked like still but the details of your face, or your person, theyre starting to get a little fuzzy. I have static images of you in mind, from the pictures, but I dont remember how you moved.

There are, of course, lots of pictures of you at mom and dads house, but I only have a couple of my own. I have a picture frame collage with 2 in it of you I have taken it with me everywhere Ive lived even in another country.

It is a very weird thing to look at pictures of you from the end, and to know that you are only 20 years old. You are 4 years younger than I am now. Which is so strange because you were always so much older and cooler. How could you be younger than me?

I remember what you smelled like still, vaguely, because I still have one of your shirts. Ive washed it a bunch of times (because Ive worn it), but sometimes, on the occasions that I did wear it, I would catch a whiff of you.  I stopped wearing it because I was afraid that eventually, after too many washes, the smell would leave. Thats the last piece of your clothing I have. I just cant get rid of it. I got rid of the rest though which was much harder than getting rid of clothes should ever be. I blame you, and grief, for me staying out of current style for so long.

Heres another confession. While I have gone to the cemetery a lot over the past 10 years, I have visited your grave only a dozen or less times. It is hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that your body is there. But I like to visit the cemetery in general, because I feel close to you there I know that was a place you used to go when you ditched school, or just to get away from things. It is because of that, not because of your grave, that I go.

I always think of you when someone makes a comment about red heads being feisty.

I always think of you when I see one of those pens that you always used. Youre right, they really are the best pens.

I always think of you when I watch Ever After, Sweet Home Alabama (I still have your burned copy), Gattaca,  and Finding Forrester (which I watched yesterday, and yesI cried when he talks about his brother). I watched Monsters University the other day finally (sequel to Monsters Inc.) and I remembered you really liked the original. The sequel is pretty cute, too.

I always think of you when I see something or hear something about the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I remember all of those afternoons of all three of us watching some combination of that, Sister Sister, The Nanny, and Arthur that added up to an hour of our TV time. I love that we all watched all of those together.

And of course, anywhere that they sell cheap, gas station, soft-serve ice creams makes me think of the times you got Jason and I to pay for yours if you drove us there and back.

Whenever a phone book is delivered to my door step I think of that summer, and the fact that the dress you bought me was not NEAR enough payment for the hours I put in, but I had no idea at the time. I thought you were being so gracious. I wish I could rag on you now about that.

After 10 years without you, the pain has lessened, the heaviness of the sadness has lifted, but the fact is that the loss remains. Weve lost you and life will never be the same.

And while we have to make peace with that, and we have, we do, and we willwe still miss you. We still love you. And it seems that time will not wash that away. Nor should it, I suppose.

P.S. This picture, this is how I remember you. No wonder I know how to make a splash. I got that from you, I think. (Julie, age 17, after a Mock Trial competition. Those are boxers.)


Category: Everyday Stories  | Tags: , , , , ,  | 8 Comments
Thursday, October 03rd, 2013 | Author:

North State Voices: A grandmother’s legacy of love and life
by Joanna O’Hanlon

She didn’t want my sister’s grave to be alone.

She was nearing death — she had been nearing it for over a decade — and yet as she was thinking about her final resting place, she was thinking not of herself, but of her late granddaughter.

Because that’s who she was: My grandmother, Evelyn, was a woman who loved people, and loved life. She was feisty and gentle, and somehow, in her, they were not separate like oil and water, but blended like a smooth peach sorbet — both sweet and tart in the same bite.

In the story of her life, her plot-turns read like tragedy, but she breathed vitality. She was born into the Depression, the youngest child in her family. She was young when her brothers went to war. She saw the death of her son, siblings, granddaughter and husband. And ever since I was young, I’d been told “Grandma’s dying.”

She’d had serious health problems: illnesses, surgeries, on and off of oxygen tanks for her emphysema. It’s as if death had been trying to take her, and she kept saying “No.”

With her stubbornness against death, she chose to love life.

I remember shopping with her for hours, until her strength would give out. She loved a good sale and cute clothes.

I remember watching TV with her — her brushing my long hair, working gently through my tangles.

I remember going through the misty gardens on the Oregon Coast with her. We pushed her through in her wheelchair, but she loved to take her time to literally smell the roses and take in the beauty.

I remember when I was a little girl, when everyone in my family would give me a hard time for having to stop for “potty breaks” often on the nine-hour ride to her house, she’d just say to me, “It’s OK, Sweetie. You drink a lot, you go a lot.”

I remember eating dessert at her house — this woman is where I inherited my sweet teeth (because all my teeth are sweet). We’d have raspberry ice cream, peach ice cream, cobblers, cakes and candies. She’d say “just serve me a little bit” by which she meant a portion three times larger than normal people would have. Sometimes when life is sour, food is better sweet.

But in the end, her body was exhausted. She was still fighting to live, but it was clear, with the pain she was in, her body just couldn’t do it anymore. She’d had several close calls over the previous months but when we gave her our blessing, she decided that it was time. She took her last breath not even 24 hours later. Even Death seemed to have to take her on her terms.

It’s been a few years since she passed away now, and we finally scattered her ashes this past month. After being reassured that my sister’s grave would not be alone, she decided that she’d like her ashes to be scattered together with my grandfather’s.

“But I don’t want you to dump mine and then dump his,” she frankly told my mom. Her solution: She instructed my mom to put both her and my Grandpa Buzz’s ashes into a brown grocery bag, shake them up, and then scatter them. She wanted to truly be with him forever. And she was unashamed of the means of getting there.

When our family was together on the boat, after we’d laughed at her somewhat bossy and unconventional instructions, we said our goodbyes, each dropping a flower onto the water of the gray San Francisco Bay. The rain had subsided to a drizzle, and each of us with our wet jackets and wet eyes went for a round of hugs.

My mom, after their hug, looked down at my cousin’s pregnant belly and said through tears and rain that somewhere in storage was a blanket that Grandma had instructed my mom to give to the first great-grandchild.

She died in 2008, and she’s still taking care of the people she loves.

That was my grandma. With a life of heartbreak, a family with life-aches, her legacy is resilience. Life weighed its heavy hand on her, so she held it and walked on.

Evelyn and Buzz Gentry

Evelyn and Buzz Gentry

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and story-teller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.  Other places are

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