Author Dr. Virginia A. Simpson’s memoir The Space Between: A Memoir of Mother Daughter Love At the End of Life
The Space Between: A Memoir of Mother Daughter Love At the End of Life is a touching, honest, raw, and moving memoir by Dr. Virginia A. Simpson. In it she shares not only the time in which she cared for her mother as she passed from life to death, but also how the past was brought to the present during this process. Fellow bereavement colleague and friend, Barbara Rubel, introduced Virginia to me via email. We discovered that we live less than 15 miles away from one another. Since that time, Virginia and I have had an opportunity to visit, share, and support one another’s recent books. The following is a snippet of one of our times together.
Virginia, did you always dream of writing?
I’ve written for as long as I can recall. When I was a little girl, I “published” a newsletter for all the kids on our block, and as an adult I kept a journal and would write stories for myself. I always wanted to write a book, but didn’t become serious about it until ten years ago.
When did you know that you wanted to share your relationship with your mother, the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship, and care giving of your mother?
I was participating in an online writing group led by a New York Times Best Selling author and each week had to produce pages. Once I began to write about my mother, I found that the story took hold of me and didn’t let go until I’d written the last page. Because of my work in the field of death, dying, and bereavement, I knew that I wanted The Space Between: A Memoir of Mother Daughter Love At the End of Life to go beyond simply being my story—I wanted it to help others.
You delve quite a bit into your past. Did this experience give you new insights? Did your writing change how you viewed yourself, your mother, and your experiences? What did you learn?
I learned more about my mother, my life, and myself through reliving past events as I wrote The Space Between than I had all the prior years when I kept a journal or through years of therapy. The writing allowed me to see my mother as a woman, to understand her struggles and how life hurt her. Through this understanding my heart opened and any long-standing resentments I’d held towards her disappeared. Through writing about my real experiences as her caregiver, I began to recognize how harsh and judgmental I was towards myself. Eventually, I was able to forgive myself for not being perfect.
What was the biggest challenge in writing The Space Between?
The biggest challenge was pushing through the pain as I re-experienced some days of my life. I cried and cried and cried because the events were as real in the writing as they had been in the living. Memoir is not simply a linear story. The events we write about need to have a “take away”—some insights or information useful to the reader. These insights came at a price because I had to continue to rewrite in order to find these deeper meanings. This meant repeatedly reliving some tough days and moments as I wrote draft after draft.
What was the biggest surprise, joy, or lesson that you learned?
Because we live our lives so quickly, we miss things. In the slowing down inherent in writing a memoir, I was able to step back and appreciate my mother’s strength, courage, and love. I recognized the depth of love we had for each other, a love that allowed us to work out anything that stood between us. My mother taught me how to die with grace and dignity, and I can only hope I’ve learned the lesson well.
How did your experience as a grief specialist help you construct your memoir?
Because of my work, I thought it was important for my memoir to be more than simply my story. I wanted to create something that would help others. Keeping this in mind, I spent more time talking about hospice, burnout, and the emotional challenges of being a caregiver than I probably would have if I were only writing to tell my story.
I imagine that The Space Between could be a useful tool for those who are care giving. Can you address this?
I added in a lot of information about hospice, caregiving, burnout, and the tough emotions that caregivers may experience. I mindfully chose to add in a lot of my inner turmoil and challenges, knowing full well some readers might think I was whining. I wanted to give voice to the things that people never admit to themselves or others so they will understand that their emotions and thoughts are a natural part of being overwhelmed by the difficulties inherent in being a caregiver. Caregiving is an immense challenge, and watching someone whom you love die is torture.
Do you have other writing projects on the horizon?
I’ve started a book, which on the surface is the story of my relationship with a dynamic older man when I was in my twenties, but underneath is an exploration of a young woman whose relationship with men is complicated by the early death of her father and the sexual and physical abuse by her brother.
Tell the audience a bit about yourself:
An ideal day for me would be at the beach with my husband on a mild winter day watching our Golden Retriever play with other dogs. My husband and I also like to visit the local wineries in our area and talk with strangers we meet while we’re sampling wine.
I’ve traveled all over the world and hope some day to get back to Bora Bora and South Africa, but right now my travel plans involve book launches and signings.
My needs are simple and because I take nothing for granted, every day is a gift I cherish.
The Space Between: A Memoir of Mother-Daughter Love at the End of Life (She Writes Press, April 2016) is available at the following:
Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-space-between-virginia-a-simpson/1122601912
On Twitter: @drginni12read more
This December, I have done something different. I have said, “No, thank you.” “Sounds lovely, let me see how I feel.” “I think I’ll pass.”
I have delighted in solitude, quiet, time alone. Reflection has been my companion. The perfect day involves writing, a walk in the crisp air with the bird’s song replacing my iPhone, a bit of conversation with a family member or friend. My camera has been my sidekick…my memory-keeper to such moments. It has been a delicious December.
That does not mean that I have not had stress, worry, grief, and bouts of “shoulds.” I’m just learning what feeds me, and not running from myself anymore.
December is a month of light, and birth, and renewal. And for me, and many others, it is also a month of darkness, death, and fear—fear that the grief of losses will swallow us up.
My father died on December 14, 2012, just two days before what would have been his 83rd birthday. He got to hold me in his arms when I was born. I got to hold him in my arms as he died. Ours was a relationship of love and pain; joy and sadness; security and distance. It was not the thing of Hallmark movies, but he was my father, and I loved him. I loved him when he walked through the door and scooped me up in his arms, and cried out, “How’s my sweetheart, baby girl?” I loved him when he hemmed me into his leather chair, the sweet smell of pipe tobacco swirling, and read me bedtime stories.
I loved him when he left for days, his clothes strewn about his Continental, not knowing when he would return. I loved him when he returned with promises that things would be better. I loved him when he was absent for many years; absent in time and space, and then absent emotionally. I loved him as he grew into an old man who was quiet, prone to depression, but who always told me, “I love you, Suz’.” He was my father…and I love him. Present tense.
I learned a lot when I wrote GriefINK. I learned from the thirty-plus people I interviewed for this book; that the love we have for our family members is often very messy. I learned that if I talk about the death, then I get to talk about life. I learned that my relationship with my father did not end on December 14th. He is still my father. I am still the daughter of Anthony Rores. He shows up in me, the good, the bad, all of it.
This year, as my family and I decorated the tree and set up the house with the manger scene and endless Nutcrackers, I savored every moment as though I, myself, were experiencing it for the first or last time. Death and loss has brought immediacy to living; that each moment is a gift from God. How I chose to perceive these moments, experiences, losses, and joys is up to me.
Today, I chose to see my father’s life as a gift. Dad, I miss you, and I love you. Happy Birth Day.
The life of a writer is often at odds with the amount of self-promotion, marketing, and “look what I wrote!” that accompanies the job. Let’s face it: we writers can write lovely words that are filled with humility, but unless we spread the word, no one will read it, and the sound of crickets in the night will be our feedback.
This complicated balance of writing something of weight and meaning, and “getting the word out” haunts me again as my second book, GriefINK, will be published in the next few weeks by RSBooks (Rod Serling Books). Perhaps more now than ever, I am struck with a sense of not wanting to promote myself, the writer, as much as I want to reach the bereaved with comforting words, break the stigma of tattoo, and offer GriefINK as a companioning tool in grief.
Before I plunge into the what, how, and why of GriefINK, I want to share the back-story of my transition from psychological fiction to non-fiction. After publishing Out of Breath in 2011, I had a bit of a dry spell of writing. At least three manuscripts got to be about 150 pages, each followed by my weeping over my laptop and proclaiming that it was all crap. It might not all be crap, but I felt little emotional connection.
I gave myself permission to take a break. In that time, I experienced a lot of transition in my own life, and like a tower of blocks that tips over, collapses to the floor, and then gets rebuilt, I took notice of life in a different way on the way back up. It was also during this time that my son got tattoos. His second tattoo, a prayer that has special meaning to me, scrolls across his back, and my attitude toward tattoos, their meaning, and the ink on one’s skin had me in awe.
I began to pay attention to others’ tattoos: their color, brilliance, and images. But more than anything, I began to ask what the story was behind the tattoo. A theme emerged: many people inked their skin in memory of a person, place, or experience. Their tattoos were a language of grief.
Late night thoughts swirled with research, and I scoured the Internet for articles on grief, bereavement, and tattoos. There was some, but not volumes, to be sure.
Next, I thought about all of those grief theories that were off-putting to me. You know the phrases like: “put it behind you”; “move forward”; “you’re holding on too much”. Many of these expressions are rooted in grief theories that encourage a break in the attachment, to move forward, and experience total acceptance of the loss. Try telling a mother whose 9-year-old son withered away from cancer to break her attachment, to move forward, and accept her loss! I’m all for continued mental health after tragedy, but isn’t there a different way to talk about the psychological health and change one goes through after a loss?
I dug into one of my favorite theories of grief: Continuing Bonds. To sum up several hundred pages, the continuing bonds theory of grief says that we continue our bond with our loved ones well after death; that this is healthy. We have an ongoing—albeit, changed— relationship with that person. Yes, our physical relationship has ceased, but a spiritual and psychological connection remains. This was a start…
Exactly one year ago, my photographer, Matt Molinari, and I interviewed over thirty people—many of them total strangers—and we were changed. I learned about grief, incorporating loss, the process of tattoo, and how ink invites others not only into one’s grief, but into the relationship and the person one is honoring. I was invited into sacred places and incredible relationships: a soldier named Jonathan honoring his troop and personal losses; Lois, a young mother memorializing her 9-year-old son; an elderly woman, Leona, who honors her sons on her shoulders.
“ We can never forget our sons. Therefore, it ’s important to always know that they’re still a part of our lives, even though physically their presence isn’t in the room. It’s okay to talk about them, tell stories, have some laughs, and remember what joy they brought to us for all of their 42 and 45 years. And this,” Leona says, patting her tattoos, “helps bring up the subject.”
Yes, I shed tears during the interviews, but my time with these people was not all sadness; it was beautiful, intimate, meaningful, electrifying, and holy.
I also spent a great deal of time talking with tattoo artists. Four, in particular, let me ask them about their own experiences in inking the bereaved, and their insights are also highlighted in GriefINK. Their compassion, empathy, artistic intuition, and insights touched me as well, and my perception of tattoo artists was expanded.
My point of writing GriefINK is not to have the bereaved race out and get tattooed; that’s a very individual decision. Nor is GriefINK a way of exploiting the losses of others. GriefINK brings people together through peering into the heart of us as a people; how we love deeply; how we grieve; how we heal; how someone continues to be a part of our life long after death. It opens up our souls to share deep connections, and teaches us that death and loss are not taboo. When we speak about our losses, we breathe life into one another.
GriefINK will be available soon on Amazon in both paper and electronic versions. The images and narratives will change the way you view tattoo, grief, and our ongoing connections.read more
Imagine a jazz club in central Los Angeles the ‘40s: glasses clink, smoke fills the air, the band plays tunes as cool as the winter air. An unconventional woman sits at a table, a cigarette dangles from her slender fingers. Her long legs cross, and her foot taps to the beat; an Arthur Murray trained dancer, music and rhythm are her constant companions. Her pale skin shimmers in the soft light, and her gaze settles on the one who plays the tune of her heart: Howard McGhee, an African-American trumpet player. He plays amidst a group of musicians, but Dorothy Schnell sees only Howard…
When Boots McGhee sat across from me in his home in Aptos, California, and detailed the stories of his parents, Dorothy Schnell, a Caucasian dancer, and Howard McGhee, an African American musician, I was transported in time. A child of older parents, I could imagine my father in that same club. How I wish that he was still alive, and I could thank him for introducing me to George Shearing, Louis Armstrong, and other jazz legends. I imagine that Howard McGhee was amidst his record collection, his smooth sounds filling our living room from my father’s turntable.
Boots’ life—a child of bi-racial parents, a youth caught up in the drug, civil rights, “free love” culture of the ‘60s, longboard surfer in Santa Cruz, his gentler years as a stand up paddle boarder, and co-founder of the Santa Cruz Surf Museum—is worthy of a novel. He offers perspective of prejudice, drug abuse, the surf scene, and peace of mind brought on by adversity, and triumph over it.
It’s hard to imagine, particularly in California, that a bi-racial couple would receive a second glance. In the 1940s, Dorothy and Howard drew more than looks after meeting in Los Angeles at a USO gig for veterans; they were the victims of violence, drug-plants, and racial hatred, eventually resulting in their leaving California.
In the late ‘40s, the two co-owned The Club Finale, a jazz club in central Los Angeles. Their time there was brief. After WWII, returning veterans from the south headed west, bringing with them their prejudice. A number of them took jobs on the L.A. police force.
“My folks were harassed and beat-up by an officer when they came out of a movie theater because my mom was white and my dad was black. Drugs were planted in their club. They were arrested, but a judge threw out the case, revealing it was a plant. They faced horrible discrimination. So, they left L.A.”
“They drove across country, and feared for their lives and safety during a time of hatred. When they’d stop to fuel or get food, one would hide in the back seat of the car, covered up, to prevent being noticed.”
By the time Dorothy and Howard arrived in New York City, they couldn’t believe that people passed them in the street without batting an eye; their skin color of no consequence.
In New York City, the audience for jazz was cutting edge. Performers such as Charlie Parker and Jimmy Heath became part of Howard’s circle. Howard helped pull together gigs, and performed and recorded with the leading top jazz musicians.
Like many musicians and actors, success brought chaos into the McGhees lives. By then, they had their first son Howard Jr., nicknamed Boots by his father because of his boot-shaped nose. Howard was rarely home, traveled in jazz festivals as far as Paris, and drugs were a central part of his life. By the time the couple split up, they had a second child, Druanne, and a third child, David, on the way. Dorothy and the children headed back west, and eventually settled in Berkeley, California. Worth pointing out is that both Boots and his brother David resemble their mother: fair-skinned and light hair. Conversely, their sister’s genes took after their father. This difference would foreshadow the opportunities and discrimination the children faced, as well as their experience as “white males” versus “black female”.
While current-day Berkeley is a liberal town that embraces diversity, racism bled into the 1950s and 1960s. It was during his elementary school days that Boots had his first encounter with racism.
“One of my classmates saw me walking with my sister. He said, ‘Why were you walking with a nigger?’ I said, ‘She’s not a nigger. She’s my sister.’ It was then that I saw that my sister was viewed totally different from us. Her upbringing and experiences throughout her whole life have been vastly different from my brother’s and mine due to the color of her skin.”
Boots found his identity in the skateboard and surf circles. A student at Berkeley High School, he’d cut school and hitchhike to surf at Bolinas, Kelly’s Cove, Pedro Point, and the beaches of Santa Cruz.
“I was part of a skateboard group called the Top Siders. In ’65 I was doing an exhibition at the Cow Palace, and blew out my knee. In ’66 when I became eligible for the Vietnam draft, it was my knee that kept me out of the war.”
Boots may have been saved from the fight in Vietnam, but he soon entered another battle, and one that was equally deadly: drug abuse. We hear about current surfers and their draw to methamphetamines as a way to keep up their energy. In the ‘60s, Boots found speed. By the late ‘60s, he was not only shooting crystal meth to push the limits in surfing, but was a dealer.
“I started seeing a lot of my friends who did drugs were dying, or quit surfing. I had my own defining moment when I was loaded. I was surfing Pleasure Point, and got in a fight with a friend. I had this out of body experience where I saw how angry I was, and how I was out of control. I left the fight, ran, and stopped using crystal meth from then on.”
Boots credits surfing and his forty-year marriage to Carm as his lifesavers. While construction has been his life-bread, Boots turned his attention to environmental concerns in our oceans. He was the first chair of the Santa Cruz chapter of SurfRider Foundation which tests ocean water for bacteria and pollutants, has its own laboratory, and has developed a curriculum for children to educate them on storm drain pollutants and ways to keep the ocean clean.
He co-founded the Lighthouse Surf Museum located inside the Mark Abbot Memorial Lighthouse Santa Cruz on West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, California. Now a docent, Boots helps to protect and preserve surf heritage and artifacts, as well as educate those who visit. One of the biggest joys for Boots was his mother serving as one of the first volunteers at the museum; she died just a year later.
In the past several years, Boots has seen a decline in respect from young surfers toward their seniors.
“A lot of fights have occurred in the water, fights over jumping on someone’s wave. I got out of that scene. So, about three years ago I got into SUP, stand-up paddle boarding. I go back and forth between New Brighton Beach and Pleasure Point, a five-mile route. It helps me with my balance, and keeps me healthy.”
Change, growth, and adaptation are the hallmark of Boots’ life. On the horizon is his desire to write about his upbringing, the challenges that he and his siblings faced, and the unique perspectives about life that he and his sister share based on their different skin colors. Boots also devotes a great deal of time to photographing ocean scenes, available to view and/or purchase at www.bootsite.net.
A gentle soul, Boots McGhee is an icon in the Santa Cruz community, a man with a history of tolerance and understanding that touches the heart, and who gives back to the ocean that he so loves.read more