Thursday, July 22, 2010

Nostalgia Thursday: The Small Kindness that Can Sometimes Save Us

Some Pittsburgh memories are funny, rise like small balloons in me, still make me laugh years later. Other Pittsburgh memories are dark, shadowed with loss. But my musing today is not about dwelling on the pain of loss, but on the incredible warmth and kindness that materialized around me here in the Pittsburgh during the worst time in my life.

I am the 4th oldest in a family of 12 children--a loud, talented, intelligent, verbal, musical, creative and loving bunch I had the joy to grow up with in New Jersey.  We were a satisfying, rowdy number, a DOZEN, and never did I imagine losing any of my siblings.When you grow up in a large family and are one of the older siblings, you help to "raise" some of the younger children. Brendan was one of my favorites. We spent a lot of time talking deeply about everything from our varied musical tastes, to love, to the cosmos.

Brendan, the seventh child in the family, a twin to brother Brian who was born 5 minutes before him. died tragically too young from cancer back on August 1, 1996. He was only 36 years old at the time. Brendan was married to the lovely artist, Ellen, and he was the proud father of three young sons-- who were only ages 8,6 and 1 the year that he died. (The youngest, Tom, was a baby and had just turned one a month before Brendan died.). Brendan was always an exceptional student, earning straight A's in high school, and he went on to major in physics at Notre Dame University. He had a hilariously quirky sense of humor. In high school, for example, he decided to start a fake club just to see if he could get them in the yearbook. It was the Vikings club, and sure enough, if you look up the yearbook for his graduation year, there are a goofy looking group of boys, all wearing Viking helmets and grinning on the club page. Brendan also was an artist who loved to weld and make metal sculptures as a hobby. He loved prog-rock, Todd Rundgren (Hello, It's Me!), Jethro Tull and Genesis among other musicians, and he had a way of really making everyone around him laugh. He had success as a cross-country runner in Colonia High School and during those teen years, built his own keyboard MOOG synthesizer from metal scraps and parts lying around.

I miss hugging his skinny self. I miss his sweet smile and stealth bomb humor. I miss the nerdiness of him (he could talk about computers until my eyes glazed over and I felt faint ;-) ) I miss his brilliant mind and his loving attention and playfulness with his boys. I miss his passion for music and his mature blend of strength and gentleness. He was a favorite brother, a remarkable father and a husband who dearly loved his wife.

We have the power to make such a difference to each other just by doing the smallest gestures sometimes. I think we forget how much power we hold to be a force of change. Sometimes, a simple offer of cup of hot chocolate or a hand on the arm can literally save a life or at the least, change the course of someone's day. I could write so many stories about how many of my dear friends and family's words and gestures and hugs and shoulders to cry on carried me through a bleak time, but tonight,  I want to focus on one moment of kindness that happened on the very day that Brendan died. This is hard for me to write about, even still.

A Memory of Kindness: The Walk in Beechwood Farms
(John Sokol: I love you and thank you for your incredible kindness on a terrible day.)

In May of 1996, when Brendan was first diagnosed with cancer that had already spread to his brain and lungs, I was working at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, creating and booking art classes and publishing the ArtLines magazine that advertised all the classes open to the public. My favorite part of the job was meeting and hiring the artists who taught there (my home, to this day, is filled with their artwork.) One of the many artists I hired and grew friendly with that summer was a brilliant oil painter named John Sokol. We chatted and joked around the office when he would come in to teach his classes.

One day, however, John showed up early at the office door. I was sitting at my desk, finishing up writing copy for ArtLines. For some reason that day, our conversation veered from the usual chatty banter into much deeper waters.  I learned that, within the prior five years, John had lost his wife to cancer (herself very young). It was obvious that he still struggled with her loss. I opened up to John and mentioned that my brother, Brendan, had cancer and that his prognosis was not good. John said an unusual thing to me that day,

"I hope he makes it through, pulls out a miracle, Sharon. But, if he doesn't, please call me on that day."

I pushed John's words out of my mind; I couldn't think about the idea of Brendan dying. I also thought it was odd that John--more of an acquaintance than a friend-- would suggest I call him should I lose my brother.It was sweet of him, but I couldn't imagine why I would call him in the event of such a terrible and personal loss.

The Thursday morning that Brendan died, I was being celebrated by my co-workers at a party at the Center for the Arts, which was held to wish me well and bid me bon voyage as I moved into a new position as administrator with the Western PA Writing Project. After the cake, after opening the lovely gifts from my colleagues and the artists, I sat down at my desk to tie up the final ArtLines. I looked down at my phone: the "calls waiting" light was blinking like the top of a cop car. I had a queasy feeling as I pressed the button to listen to my messages. All three were from my mother, her voice barely discernible with emotion: "Sharon, Brendan died this morning at 11 AM. Call me when you get this."

In a state of shock, I gathered up my office belongings and gifts. I mustered a dazed goodbye to my co-workers. Drove up Shady Avenue in a blur. Got home and stared at the walls of my living room, feeling very cold. I debated about calling my son, Brian, over at his friend's house, but decided to let him enjoy himself for the day. I could hardly think. Too many tears. My German Shepherd paced around me, eyeing me anxiously. A warm breeze riffled the curtains. I shivered again. Sank deeper into my couch. The clock tick-tick-ticked. Then: a loud,  insistent knocking at my front door. John Sokol stood on the other side of the door, pushing his glasses up his nose.

"The Arts Center called. I came over as soon as I heard."

I don't remember responding to him, didn't let him in the house. John gently pulled open the screen door.

"Come with me now." He held out his hand. " I know this doesn't make sense. Nothing will today. But, come with me now, OK?"

I felt confused, frozen. But, I followed him mechanically down the sidewalk. climbed into the passenger side of his truck. He took the roads out of Pittsburgh,over the Highland Park Bridge where the sun glinted off the surface of the river. He drove through the winding wooded roads of Fox Chapel. Shadows draped across the lanes punctuated by long ropes of light. It was an impossibly beautiful day--not too hot, not too humid. Above, blue skies where white cumulus clouds, were adrift like skiffs on the sea. I don't remember exchanging a single word with John on the ride over. He pulled into a gravel lot outside of Beechwood Farms, an Audubon Nature Center. On the front lawn leading into the trails, butterfly bushes burned with the orange wings of monarchs. Even in the warmth of August air, I kept shivering. John began to walk the trail lined with thistle, goldenrod, and tall grasses that swayed in the breeze. It wound its way down to a pond. I had walked the trails in here many times before with my good friends. Today--my heart heavy with grief-- would color all the rest of my walks from then on. 

John called over his shoulder to me: "I think it's important to be somewhere beautiful on a day like this. It will help you honor your brother." 

I began to weep but continued to follow along quietly. John walked ahead, leaving me to my private grief. Through the golden fields of switching grass and timothy, the ironweed was already standing in exclamations of purple stalks. Red-winged blackbirds perched and twittered on the cracked stumps of fallen trees. Rabbits hopped from the trail into the brush and out of sight. Near the pond, frogs jumped from rocks into the water with a plash.

We paused on the worn planks of the dock that pushed into the pond. Such quiet. Dragonflies helicoptered over lily pads and green streaked pondwater. I knelt down and looked into the water thinking only "Brendan." Up popped a turtle's green and yellow striped head, funny leathery neck. A startled laugh escaped me. "Brendan?" I whispered to the floating turtle. It bubbled its head underwater again. It would be just like Brendan to surprise me into laughter.

John and I continued walking. Every sound was hushed, as if I'd entered a cathedral. Swallowtail butterflies fluttered over the purple asters, bits of sun blown from the sky. Milkweed swayed in the breezes as if a lace dress had unraveled and covered the field. My feet were twin bricks: I forced one foot down, then the other. My body did not belong to me. We walked on into the woods. Hundreds of trees formed a deep canopy over our dirt path while creeks recited their songs over fallen logs. Uphill, steeper and steeper, grasping at thin limbs for balance, the sun strong on my face, my arms. The warmth penetrated my skin, moved into me, through me. Every once in a while, John called out the name of some living thing:

"Coneflowers. Vetch. Maidenhead Fern." Rhythmic, dizzying. The litany was a hymn, an elegy. 

"May Apple. Bluebonnet." I had the odd sensation things were being named for the first time. Where was I?

At the top of the hill, we walked to the end of the lookout in the man-made tower. Far above the treeline. I thought of the tree fort Brendan had just completed building for his boys just months before he died. Leafy treetops spread out before us, umbrellas beneath a blue, blue sky. Never before was a moment so crytallized. I was immersed in seeing. Everything was crisply defined and of vital importance--blade of bark. Pebble. Dragonfly. Algae. Sparrow. Everything hummed and crackled with energy and color. There was a beautiful, bittersweet song going on and I was a part of it, and Brendan was a part of it and John was a part of it and every insect, animal and plant was a part of it. I wept for my brother, for his loss of this moment, this day, this beautiful life. I could not believe he was gone. It made me humble and grateful for what we are given on this earth--so many riches!

Brothers Sean, Dan, Mom, Brendan, Ray, Terry
There have been moments since that day, where I almost wonder if John Sokol were an angel. He moved down south from Pittsburgh a few short months after that sad day, and I've never seen him since. (Though I have one of his wonderful artworks--a portrait of e.e. cummings, which hangs in my office.) But, I prefer to think of John as utterly, wonderfully human--a man who didn't know me very well, who gave me a great gift that day. He taught me to greet such a deep loss with loving and empathetic silence and a walk through sun-blessed fields. Breathing in the summer sweet air, feeling the embrace of heat from the sun, watching all the winged things following their instinctual paths. He allowed me to create a sacred space where I can, to this day, 14 years later, "revisit" my brother and talk with him as I walk the trails. And as the anniversary of Brendan's death approaches in the next week, I plan on walking those trails one more time before I leave Pittsburgh to feel the force of life, to remember my brother with his blue eyes and dark curly hair, his head thrown back in the middle of a laugh.


  1. Sharon:
    Rarely have I ever read anything approaching such beauty, such depth of feeling, so majestically wonderful. I am truly moved by what you've written. I too remember 1996 and your association with PCA. Always with the ready smile, the kind word. Thank you for sharing this most intimate moment of your life.


  2. Sharon, you are amazing, every time I read something you write I feel like I am in the locations you describe, I feel I am there living what you lived, seeing what you saw and many times it brings me to tears but mostly I am in awe at how gifted you are to be able to do this thru words. Thank you for sharing such an amazing story. May you have a great day full of wonderful memories and more stories to tell.

    Red Bank , NJ

  3. Sharon - this is beauty beyond words. But also incredibly helpful guidance... for the grieving and for those trying to help. Would you consider submitting to Guideposts or another publication of that sort? Think about it. John's knowledge of what is needed would radiate out in ripples....

    Thank you for sharing,

  4. Thank you, Susan, for such a kind response.