A Rule Breaker’s Guide to Grieving: Tears, Food, Fatigue, Fiesta

Our Mexican-Irish wake… because we can.

Part Nine of the series “Seven Months for Seven Siblings”

The youngest of seven children whose parents are deceased, Colleen Haggerty chronicles about the coalescing of her adult siblings following the sudden brain cancer diagnosis of their single/childless 53 year old brother, the makeshift care-giving they built along the way and her experiences with the surprising person who awoke from that fateful brain surgery.

Guests sat on Mexican blankets eating street tacos that were freshly prepared on the front lawn and sipped sangria under a sunny Carlsbad beach day. Not your typical funeral.

But this should surprise no one who knew Kevin. Or our family of misfits, The Seven, who have been winging this entire journey of care-giving for our single, childless brother since his brain aneurysm and cancer diagnosis seven months ago.

Nothing about our family or this journey has been typical, so why start now.

Backed by an atypical soundtrack of Judy Garland meets Rocky Horror meets songs you’d hear while waiting in line for Tomorrowland rides at Disneyland, a celebration of life unfolded on March 15 that was casual, celebratory, humorous, loving, and deeply touching — just like our brother.

But an emptiness also permeated as Kevin’s absence weighed heavily, making me feel like the insecure understudy for the star performer no longer with the cast. For how do you simultaneously grieve and commemorate the life of the party, the star of the show?

We didn’t know. Just like we didn’t know how to be care givers. We figured it out as we went along, no playbook, just guided by love and honoring what felt right. The same for grieving.

The only predictable thing about grief is its unpredictability.

The morning Kevin died was a mashup of panic, tears, despair, helplessness and disbelief. I also felt free. Guilt be damned.

It was over — the stress, the sleepless nights, the long commutes, the confusing multi-person texts among the sisters, the awkward conversations about money, and the second guessing if we were doing the right thing at every turn.

Kevin was at peace now.

Meanwhile, calls were made to a local cremation place (what are those places called, anyway?) to “dispose” of the “body”, and countless official documents were signed. My hands shook and my mind garbled as I made mistake after mistake checking the wrong boxes and misspelling names on the small-print forms. Alphabets formed a word, and words connected together into sentences, and none of it made any sense — it might as well have been computer OS coding to me.

Checks were written, family and friends were notified, food was eaten, loved ones consoled, plans discussed, dates selected, tasks assigned. I resisted the urge to notify the grocer, teller and barista that my brother died this morning when they innocently asked how my day was going, my wanting to make this day as important to everyone as it was to me.

At day’s end, filled with excessive grief-eating amounts of cookies and chocolate, I collapse asleep as thoroughly exhausted as a wobbly-legged marathon runner crossing some sort of finish line.

We’d somehow done it. We’d created a comfortable, livable existence for our debilitating brother, filled with peace, joy and dignity, especially in his final days to shepherd him to his next place in the universe.

The fatigue — emotional, physical, spiritual — became my new companion. I felt empty yet heavy, no tears to shed and no more energy to feel guilty about it.

Luckily, Kevin was always clear about his wishes for cremation and not having a formal church funeral, saving us from more decision-making debate. He loved the idea of Dia de los Muertos — the Mexican holiday celebrating life and death seamlessly — as the theme for his memorial. Mexico was a second home for Kevin, his having traveled to nearly all the states over the decades.

So, we rallied behind memorializing our very Irish brother with a most Mexican affair.

And, just like we did that fateful day on the hospital patio with doctors and caseworkers figuring out Kevin’s living situation, the siblings now plotted his after-life commemoration, divvying up roles based on talents and comfort levels. Just roll with it, people.

Kelly, the craftiest of The Seven, truly outdid herself creating a majestic Dia de los Muertos altar. Kim, a former photo journalist, made several picture boards chronicling Kevin’s life in photographs. Chris, a pastor, worked on her invocation as emcee for the day’s brief formal speaking parts.

In addition to finding solace through creating the memorial’s music playlist, Kevin having been such a huge musical influence on me, I also asked to speak at the memorial on behalf of the siblings. We agreed to write a few of our most precious memories of Kevin that I would share.

Just a few of Kim’s photo posters displaying a lifespan of our brother in pictures

Visions came to life, relatives rolled into town, decor got hung and chairs were placed for all but one of The Seven — a sting piercing my numbness, a reminder of our new reality.

It was time to honor our brother. And we siblings did our best.

Kelly’s Dia de los Muertos altar was center stage, a majestic three-tiered, ten foot kaleidoscope of religious imagery and decorative skulls enveloped by vibrant colors, candles, candy, bright yellow-orange marigolds, fruit and photographs of Kevin in his beloved Mexico.

Kelly’s Dia de los Muertos altar for Kevin’s memorial — bonus points if you find the Pop Tart and the Peeps

Everything that our dearly departed brother would need to find his way back to his earth-bound loved ones for the celebration, as the tradition goes.

Side alters displayed mementos of Kevin brought by party guests, and his loved ones did not disappoint — from the very personal (a cherished elementary school group photo from a lifelong friend) to the outrageous (adult-themed birthday cards Kevin made and sent to friends).

I added a miniature Ouija board, an autographed headshot of Carol Burnett, and a chocolate Easter bunny with one ear bit off with noticeable teeth marks, just like he used to do to torment me as a kid after he had invaded my Easter basket. Not long into that sunny day, my bunny melted into a goopy puddle — Kevin one-upping my joke.

The altars became a living visual homage to the impact one man made on so many lives.

Chris gave a beautiful invocation introducing our brother in a new light to those who knew him best. The hospice chaplain performed a blessing sung to the tune of The Sound of Music’s “Edelweiss,” bringing all of us to tears in its innocence.

Hands shaking and throat closing, I dried up tears as it was now my turn to stand in front of the crowd and do my brother proud. I dove right in, a monologue that began with brief, simple memories from Kelly and Keri that quickly devolved into to the humorous, then to the sublime with a finale of my singing in a cockney accent from My Fair Lady’s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” a song Kevin sang to our brother, Kirk, when they shared a bed as little boys.

All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air. With one en-NOR-mous chair. Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly? Lots of chocolate for me to eat. Lots of coal makin’ lots of heat. Warm face, warm hands, warm feet! Oh, wooouuuldn’t it be loverly?

That was all we could plan. Knowing your limits while grieving is important, after all. The rest we left to everyone else to commemorate Kevin how they chose.

Stories were shared on the “open mic,” starting with Kevin’s best friend and former partner, Tom, telling us about their first date. A nephew shared how Kevin tricked them into trading their candy for what they thought was a better prize that turned out to be a bag of frozen peas. An 80-year old, lifelong family friend revealed she’d received as her 75th birthday present from my brother a bag of condoms, given that she was just starting to date again.

Several reflected how Kevin helped raise their kids… usually noting how he also taught them to cheat at cards or make prank calls.

A gal with a guitar led a sing-a-long to the Green Acres theme song that she used to sing with Kevin, where he surely relished singing Eva Gabor’s lines… “Dah-ling I love you, but give me Park Avenue.” She then sang a song she wrote for Kevin using a favorite of his many catchphrases, “It’s not without its charm.”

Kevin’s distinct personality had imprinted our lives such that we felt his presence and heard his laughter that day.

We’re still The Seven. It just looks a little different now.

Colleen’s Memories of Kevin, Shared at his memorial, Carlsbad CA, March 15, 2015

My dad died when I was 7, and Kevin became the oldest male in the household — and the unlikeliest of role models, as the male influence in my life… helping, whether he realized it or not, to raise me.

Had he realized this, perhaps he never would have included me in his wildly inappropriate games he would make up for us kids, like “Murder in the Dark”, where he’d turn of all the lights in the house making it pitch black, and have us wonder about blindly until he’d jump out with a loud RAWR and scare the bejeesus out of us, often making us cry…mind you, I was six or seven.

He also may not have taught me how to ding dong ditch and toilet paper the neighbors’ houses in elementary school, or share his Sex Pistols albums with me in junior high, or buy me and my friends alcohol in high school.

He was the brother who always made fun of me. But, he never told on me. For I was his scallywag sidekick, a role I coveted. I was the Margaret O’Brien to his Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis. We even used to re-enact the cakewalk number “Under the Bamboo Tree” from that musical.

I suspect many of you here today also know that feeling of being Kevin’s sidekick, whether its photo-bombing innocent bystanders’ family pictures at Disneyland, or helping to give out chicken bones to trick-or- treaters on Halloween.

Yes, he was an instigator, but with a heart of gold. And believe you me, those trick-or-treaters kept coming back to see what goodies that crazy man would toss in their Halloween bags the following year.

Kevin, however, was no philistine. He taught me about Greek philosophers, Aztec Gods, and, of course, Hollywood legends. For no teenager should go without understanding the comic genius of Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Philadelphia Story and Bringing up Baby, or Bette Davis’ brilliance in All About Eve.

But, what most comes to mind when I think of Kevin is his wild, boundless imagination and creativity.

Just one example… When we were flying over Mexico City’s massive park and about to land, he pointed out the airplane window to the forest’s thick tree canopies below and said, “Don’t they look just like broccoli tops?” And now, every time I fly over trees, I always see broccoli tops.

His influence on me was indelible and quite obvious. For all of us, he tickled our funny bone, offended our sensibilities, and stole our hearts.

Kevin’s favorite scene and lyrics from The Wizard of Oz were the perfect backside of the memorial invitation — note the words
Chris welcomes everyone and introduces Kevin in a whole new light
The hospice chaplain sings a blessing to the tune of “Edelwiess”
Reading memories from the siblings with some of our friends and family casually gathered behind me
Tom is the first to share
Kevin melts my altar offering, a wink that he’s always with me and that I shan’t escape his taunting
A prayer Chris penned for Kevin and read at his memorial
Kevin Haggerty, circa the mid-80s
Kevin always wanted this song from his favorite movie to be part of his memorial.

Read the previous eight blogs of the series at Medium.com/@HaggertyColleen

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