Two months ago, I decided to watch the movie, Collateral Beauty.
It had a stellar cast including Will Smith, Kiera Knightley, Helen Mira, and many others. I’d avoided it for a while since it got terrible reviews—by both critics and movie goers– so I chalked it off my list as something I could skip.
But one night, it was late and everyone was sleeping, and it was free on HBO so I watched it.
The movie struck me like an uppercut to the chin. The plot revolves around a father who lost his young daughter, and his life exploded into grief and chaos. Two years later, he’s not getting any better so his friends devise a plan to have him confront three universal symbols he’s been writing letters to: Time, Love, and Death.
That’s all I’ll give you but I’d highly recommend it. Yes, it could be considered cheesy but I found its message something I desperately needed.
I just hadn’t known it yet.
A few weeks later, my mother in law died. Over the summer, she checked into the hospital for a broken rib. She never got out.
Then my Dad was diagnosed with aggressive lung and bone cancer. He’d been in pain for about a month, and was first told it was muscular and to use Ben Gay. Then they said it was a kidney stone. Finally, a decent MRI was taken and they found it was all too late.
He died 2 weeks after my mother in law. I took care of him with my family and watched death take him a little more each day, right before my eyes. I experienced such a combination of tragic horror, shock, and grief it was hard to put into words for a while.
Then I remembered the movie, and a particular scene, and a sharp clarity jolted me like a lightning bolt.
The mother is in the hospital trying to deal with the shock of her daughter’s illness. A stranger sitting beside her asks, “Are you losing someone?” The mother says yes. And the stranger replies, “As you go through this, don’t forget to notice the collateral beauty around you.”
This insight has made all the difference.
In between the cracks of great loss, comes great beauty. A new vision that one simply cannot see or appreciate when things are too good. We scratch the surface of such happiness, perhaps grateful for it, but rarely diving deep into the soul to drink the nectar and savor the stunning beauty around us.
My world had shattered, but in the midst, was a vivid, ripping appreciation and awareness I hadn’t felt in a long time. The memories of my ups and down journey with my father throughout the years, finally leading to a relationship that meant everything to me because it was my choice. The way the sun bounced off the fall leaves and blinded me in a rainbow of golden colors as I drove to his funeral. The feel of my tears as they slid down my cheeks at the same time my lips curved up in a grateful smile as I remembered how he always made me laugh at the most serious of times. The solemn procession of my loved ones carrying his casket as the strains of Ave Maria echoed and bounced off the stained windows of the church. The pure white, silky smooth petals of the roses as we threw them into the hearse in our final goodbyes.
Everything looked different; felt different; and was experienced different.
I watched my Facebook feed blow up with support and love from everyone, and treasured every comment, appreciating each story people shared with me about their own losses. Food piled in; text messages piled up; flowers brightened my rooms.
I finally sat at my computer after two weeks—the longest I’ve been away from my work in over a decade. I looked at the blank page before me, knowing there was a book due, and a new release to promo, and a million other things I’d missed and felt…peaceful.
The old me would’ve had a panic attack or a stress breakdown. I’m really a workaholic.
The new me accepted that death doesn’t come in tidy packages in between your schedule. You are never truly prepared for what is around the corner and it was my time to be reminded. To savor this time and do what I needed to heal.
We all take our turns, my peeps.
Now, as you all know, everything in my life relates back to writing, even when the page is blank and the words simply won’t come. Because eventually, the words do come back. Maybe in a trickle at first, but if you sit and wait and try, eventually the trickle becomes a stream. Maybe it takes more time than you wanted, maybe you’ll find solace in your words earlier than others. Maybe you’ll write complete shit for a long time until the surface algae is cleaned out and the words run pure again.
You must walk your writing path alone.
Today is #WHYIWRITE day.
I encourage all writers—aspiring, published, or hobbyists—to write naked. Unleash all the demons onto the page, especially the mess of loss and grief and sadness. Instill your characters with these fragile human emotions and your story will be better. You will be better. Don’t stop to listen to the critics of your mind or on the outside because this is your unique journey – and YOU are the only one who can tell it.
Respect your journey. Honor it. Celebrate it. Grieve it.
Give it your all.
In closing, I am sharing the eulogy I wrote and read at my father’s funeral. Words are my comfort, and writing this from my heart helped express my desire for others to know a glimpse about the man who had a big effect on my life.
Thank you to everyone for their support.
May the words be with you.
My father wasn’t the classic TV type of Dad like Mike Brady from the Brady Bunch.
He was more like…Clint Eastwood. Or John Wayne. More of the lone wolf sort who liked to run his own show on his own terms.
He had a colorful past. Born in Brooklyn, one of five brothers, his stories about his childhood reminded me more of a Dickens novel rather than any type of television sitcom.
Dad may not have been the best in the world, but he taught me some of the most important things in life that have made my brother and I better people.
He taught me how important it is to laugh. He had the wickedest sense of humor—a dry wit that consistently surprised and entertained people. When my poor husband was first introduced to the family, he learned early that if we accepted you, we pranked you. He could lighten a tragic event with one of his one liners, and remind all of us how good laughing out loud felt. Even toward the end of his life, he still managed to joke, and I think that’s another reason he was so well-liked by everyone. Laughter is way underrated nowadays.
He taught me to challenge myself. When I was young, I kept reading the same books over and over again, rechecking them out from the library. He nagged me for a long time, telling me I had a responsibility to read across all genres and broaden my interest. He was the first person to introduce me to my very first romance novel – a juicy Danielle Steele. Mom got mad, but afterward, I got hooked, along with some of the greats like Sydney Sheldon, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and all the endless classics. He did the same with music, and even today, an array of 70’s songs blare proudly from my Ipod with no apology—especially the Bee Gees.
He pushed me to learn new things. Not only did I love my father—I really liked him. He taught me and my brother how to play Chess, Poker, pinochle, and shoot pool. He showed me how to bet a long shot at the track, and to pick a horse in a race. Triple Crown season was a holiday to us, with stacks of OTB tickets by our side, as we yelled at the television set. He had a brilliant mind that consistently amazed and entertained me. He was the master at Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit and Jeopardy. I have a feeling right now, he’s gathering a big group of people in heaven for a poker game and urging them to ante up.
He was also an expert on directions. Being a cab driver for many years, he’d never let anyone drive without peppering them with long explanations of why to take what road and what the multiple outcomes could be if we didn’t, stomping on an imaginary brake when he believed me or Mom was going too fast.
But most of all, my father taught me about the power of forgiveness.
Family relationships can be difficult at many times. Bad choices and selfishness and human weakness cause great rifts, and bring us to a crossroads where we must make a choice. Family is forever—blood is blood—and by offering forgiveness when it was needed, my brother and I got our Dad back. We were able to experience the later part of his life with sheer joy, welcoming five grandchildren, endless dogs, in-laws, and chaos galore. He taught me not to hold grudges, and that sometimes, people can actually change, if given just one more chance.
I am truly blessed to have been with him in his final weeks, with my family. I will treasure every single memory, and never take a moment for granted. And when I hit a long shot, I’ll know it was you who giving me some extra luck from heaven.
Thank you, Dad. We love you.
Rest in Peace.