Name: Julie Fitzpatrick
Tell me about the person who died:
Elizabeth was my first friend. Literally. My folks were driving me home from the hospital after I was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and stopped off at the Rigneys’ house on Three Corners Circle Road so that we all could meet. Elizabeth was just over a year old at the time.
I can't remember not knowing her. We carved pumpkins each Halloween, went to church together, went to the beach together, were always at each other's houses, went to Friendly’s together. Elizabeth was in many ways my opposite. She was on time; I was late. She was neat; I was messy. She was clear and direct, while I was often indecisive and uncertain. Elizabeth knew who she was from day one, it seemed, and I only knew what I wanted for lunch. That was a major crossover point for us: lunch. Food. We'd gab for hours over ketchup and fries, or ketchup and microwaved melted grilled cheese. We’d pour a mountain of the red sauce into the center of our shared plate and then dip away.
Elizabeth said "what" all the time since she was deaf and I was not. I filled her in on what was happening around us in the hearing world, and she kept up by lip-reading with remarkable accuracy. She spoke in a loud funny accent and often beeped because her hearing aid needed adjusting. “Elizabeth, you’re beeping,” I’d say, and she’d nod and raise her arm to twist the knobs at the top of her hearing aids and then she’d suddenly go quiet, the whistling kettle sound silenced. I remember someone asking me if I minded filling her in all the time, and I didn’t at all. Elizabeth grounded me. In many ways being with her gave me a sense of purpose. I was her conduit to the hearing world and she made me feel like I had a place in the world in general. Elizabeth was a straight shooter, very frank. This was refreshing for me because my family was incessantly polite and politically correct. I knew where I stood with her. In many ways I was the deaf one.
Elizabeth had a host of physical problems that really caught up with her in high school: she had a kidney transplant freshman year and then struggled with heart problems in the next few years; eventually her lungs stopped functioning. She died the day after my birthday in 1999.
What was your experience of grief like after your loss? How did it change over time?
I have to say I was pretty numb for a long time. I was in college when Elizabeth died and I always thought she'd just be there. She had been such a fixture in my life. It was like she had a sensor on her car for when I returned to our hometown. Moments after opening the front door, I'd hear her car in the driveway. It's Elizabeth - she knows I'm home, I'd think. And lo and behold, there she’d be. After she died, it took me a long time to stop checking the driveway for her car. I’m home, I wanted to tell her. Come over. Drive on up. I’m here.
I don't have that many girlfriends with whom I am still close; I have many friends, but no one as close to me as Elizabeth was. I was so comfortable with her, so seen and understood. Elizabeth was great at giving me basic instructions throughout our childhoods: do this, Julie; do that; clean your comb, put on lotion daily, read, keep things tidy, write letters and save your pen pals’ notes in stacks tied with ribbon. It was simple wisdom that Elizabeth knew innately, but it helped me.
My folks were pretty much done with teaching kids how to do things. I was my mother’s sixth child, though a brother had died before I was born, and I think they just trusted I would figure things out. In many ways, Elizabeth helped me to do that. Her mother often told me that Elizabeth looked to me for an entry into the hearing world, and she’d tell me what a good friend I was to her, but I don’t think that’s the full story: any help I gave her, she returned to me tenfold. I didn’t get the chance to tell her that–I mean I think she knew but I wish I could just sit with her over some melted cheese and thank her.
If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape, what would it look like and feel like?
A windswept field with cattails blowing in the marsh and a few wildflowers popping up here and there. Elizabeth loved Anne of Green Gables and Prince Edward Island and I love Irish countrysides so in my mind, my grief picture is a blend of those two scenes: harsh and beautiful, with a sense of emptiness and loss.
Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died, and why?
There was a shelf above her bed that ran the length of her wall, and on it, Elizabeth had a collection of music boxes neatly lined up one after the other. There was a trolley and a ballerina and a circular one–different compact boxes with lids and cranks. She’d turn the crank and watch them spin. Of course she couldn’t hear them but perhaps she sensed the vibrations. I’m not sure what it was about them but their delicate designs fascinated her. She dusted them and treasured her collection.
Did anything surprise you about your experience with grief?
Just that it continues. I guess love is like that. What also surprises me is that it still surprises me that Elizabeth is no longer alive. How can that be? Someone as bright and funny and opinionated and detail-oriented as Elizabeth? She’s not still here? She’s not in the kitchen in the house her parents no longer inhabit, putting marshmallows in her hot chocolate and writing notes on the margins of her books in pencil so that she’ll remember everything?
At the time of Elizabeth’s death, I was relieved for her that she was no longer yellow with jaundice and could breathe comfortably in heaven–her body had gone through so much and it was tough for her to constantly visit doctors. But I was numb to the reality of her absence. I shoved those thoughts to the back of my mind and carried on with my busy collegiate things.
Now, the Friendly’s where we used to ketchup-dip has morphed into a bland cafe and I can’t believe we haven’t tested their fries and rated them against their predecessor’s. I’d like to sit across from her there, or anywhere, and talk to her about how my marriage has broken up and how I have a little boy who loves to do the alphabet in sign language and that I am rethinking being an actor and what does she do when she gets down? Can she remind me? She was a good friend to me as a child and I wonder what we would be like as adults. I would have brought her to the recent Broadway production of “Spring Awakening” with deaf and hearing actors lighting up the stage. I would bring her to a church I’ve found with a deaf community and an interpreter where we could listen to the priest together. I want to hear about how she is as a woman–what kind of work she is no doubt excelling at, and if her heart still beats for Jeff Marcino.
How did the people in your life support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
I think my parents said the right things, but they were pretty wrapped up in their own grieving–my brother was hospitalized for mental illness during the same time and my sister had gotten sick with breast cancer. It’s like we were separate orbiting agony balls that couldn’t align with one another. We couldn’t see past our own atmospheres.
How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice?
I was kind of shocked by how her family members seemed to shut down about her passing. Perhaps they were too sad to fathom talking about her or staying in touch, but her older brothers seemed particularly reserved when she died. I ended up writing a performance piece about my friendship with Elizabeth several years after her death, and after her family saw the show, one of her brother’s wives told me, “He never talks about Elizabeth. This was good for him. Thank you.”
Was there anything about your cultural or religious background that affected the grieving process for you?
Not really. I pray now and I prayed then. I suppose now I think the line between here and not-here is thinner though, so I have a sense of her presence even to this day and for that I am grateful.
Were there any personal or public rituals or structures that helped you in your grief?
I call her mom every year on the 10th of December, her birthday. Somehow I often miss the 22nd, her death day. I tell myself I will call Sue then too, but I often don’t. The day Elizabeth was born feels so special and the day she died, so confusing, sad and ugly. I call Sue and we talk and catch up and this year she said, “Oh, you called. All of my kids called.”
How did your loss and your grief change you?
I have gone on to study sign language and have been involved with two productions that include signing and deafness as themes with deaf and hearing characters and actors. I feel so at home when I hear Elizabeth in the deaf voices around me or when I experience their candor. I am learning that is a common trait amongst deaf people: honesty and directness. And devotion and loyalty and good humor and incredible expressivity. Or maybe I am just projecting her on all of them. Probably.
In many ways I think I’ve shortchanged myself in the grief department. I am still pretty sad about Elizabeth and haven’t given myself a whole lot of room to feel that sadness. I am good at compartmentalizing and forcing myself to show up for life even when I probably ought to take a pause.
Elizabeth really cared about me and took care of me in many ways. I think that sweetness of her in my life is still changing me–she continues to move me and sometimes that takes the form of sadness and sometimes that looks like delight. Elizabeth never spent time dwelling on her waist size or her hair style. She was staunchly who she was and I found that calming and kind to be around. We championed each other. So if my grief changed me, it made me sad, and also very glad for having known her.
Julie Fitzpatrick is a mother, actress, writer, and car salesperson-in-training based out of New York City. She grew up in Guilford, CT near a family car dealership where she has recently been working and enjoying herself learning about cars and the business world. She is grateful for this opportunity to share a slice of her friendship with Elizabeth Rigney in Mindy Stricke's Grief Landscapes Series and she would welcome hearing from readers at email@example.com.
This post is part of Grief Landscapes, an evolving art project documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief. Participants share an experience with bereavement, and I photograph an object that evokes the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the story.