Today’s post comes courtesy of the incomparable, Ellen Patton, raised in Van Nuys, California, she moved to Boston nearly twenty-one years ago, sight unseen. She enjoys baking, reading, sewing, quilting, antiquing, taking photos, decorating her condo (in a converted school), road tripping and blogging. Ellen works as an assistant to the President of MIT, and has word processing, photocard, and photography businesses on the side. She is a sister to three brothers, an aunt to eleven and friend to hundreds.robby-ellen-patton

It has been ten and a half years since my brother Robes (Robert Pitchforth Patton) died of a brain tumor. I still count the years and months and miss him terribly. When “Robby” was thirteen months old, I was born; rocking his little world. A baby sister redheaded baby sister. And, on September 28, 1998, eighteen months and three days after his brain cancer diagnosis, Robes’ death rocked my world. I won’t ever forget it.

Staying up two entire nights, true vigils, watching over him as he slipped into a coma and then died. It wasn’t like the movies. The noises were strange. His vital signs raced and his organs shut down. His skin changed. He picked at his clothes. He became weaker and weaker. He was confused and he hallucinated. His body and mind failed him after a short thirty nine years. I have never felt sadness like I felt when it was clear that he was dying. I remember the steady stream of tears and the sick feeling in my stomach. We huddled around his hospital bed in their home; me, his wife Kim, her mother Ann, and his college friend Rick Egan. The three kids were still sleeping. We were watching and waiting. Whispering to each other about what was happening. Counting his pulse and respirations. The shock and disbelief that he was dying right in front of us. His strange gasps for breath that none of us anticipated. It was surreal. Robes died that Monday morning at 7:00am. A lover of gourmet food and an excellent cook—being spoon fed green jell-O. Bedridden for weeks—a man with a passion for travel. And, a writer by trade—robbed of his keen mind. How does that happen to a healthy young man? Why does that happen to a healthy young man?

I think about Robes every day. Plenty of things remind me of him—Bruce Springsteen, the Miami Heat, Tito’s Tacos, French cheese and chocolate, VW bugs, Levis 501 jeans to name a few. His three kids–Ian, Jamel, and Adrienne–remind me of him. They were 11, 8 and 3 when their dad died. It makes me sad that he is not here to raise them. He was crazy about his kids and he would be very proud of them. Ian is serving a mission in Argentina, Jamel is preparing for college this Fall, and Adrienne who shares his birthday, is the Beehive president, plays the baritone horn and will start high school and marching band in August. They all resemble him (except that the boys are both over six feet tall!).

Soon after Robes’ diagnosis I discovered The Brain Tumor Society was in Boston. For twelve years I have been involved in the —volunteering, serving on the Ride Committee and riding 25 miles with friends and family raising money for research (we have collectively raised nearly $50,000 over the years). [Note: that is Adrienne and her cousin Emma on the website banner.] Jamel flew to Boston alone when he was ten and has done the ride every year since then. Adrienne started doing the Ride when she was nine. This year on May 31 we will be riding through the western suburbs of Boston in memory of Robes and all the others who have lots their fight and for those still fighting–that there will be a cure for brain tumors. There is talk amongst our team—PATTON’S ARMY—of riding 50 miles since Robes would have turned 50 on May 21. This weekend I plan to get on my bike and start training!

I don’t ever want to forget Robes’ great example, his many talents and his love of life. I know I will be with him again but in the meantime I’m sad that he’s not here to be a husband, father, brother and son.

What have you learned from experiences with death? What do you do to memorialize, honor, or remember a loved one who has died?

29 Comments

  1. Amanda

    April 17, 2009

    My grandmother died almost 6 years ago. Oddly, it didn’t seem to affect me much. I loved her, but I really had no doubt that I would see her again. I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. But I remember how devastated my mother was (it was her mother). I was a teenager at the time who was struggling with independence and my mother was the recipient of my rebellion. It struck me how much she still needed her mother. I think that has stuck with me throughout the years and I am beginning to see the real loss she must have felt. I miss my mom every day while we live so far away. When I lived in Provo I always would go visit my grandmother’s grave and drop off some flowers on holidays, and always made sure to tell my mother. It was the least I could do for her. I hope that I’m memorializing her by trying to be the best daughter I can.

    P.S. Dear Ellen,
    You were dear friends of my parents in California-David and Mary LeSueur. They still talk of you and how wonderful you are, usually around Christmas-time when we get cards. Maybe you have caught up with them lately…but if you haven’t, they love you. And I’ll send them here to read this. And email me if you don’t have contact information for them 🙂

  2. Kim Oldroyd

    April 17, 2009

    Ellen,
    Thank you. I am very sorry for your loss and admire your spirit. Let’s hear it for Patton’s Army!

  3. Leslie

    April 17, 2009

    ellen- I loved this post. I love your very active way of memorializing Robes. I love that he still lives on in your conversations and life.

    I embroidered a bunch of dishtowels are patterns by my great grandmother, it was my way of connecting with her and remembering her.

    I appreciate this concept of memorializing- I am a really big on extending it even beyond death to be experiences of loss. When I went through my years of recurrent pregnancy loss I lead pregnancy loss groups and wrote about miscarriage. I also used my art to be an on going way of remembering and creating beauty out of struggle and loss.

    Finding those personal ways of memorial- especially living our lives in a way that are a tribute can bring healing and peace and purpose.

  4. Jenny

    April 17, 2009

    A moving tribute, Ellen.
    Your niece and nephews will have you, in large part, to thank for knowing their dad through your memories of him. You too, are a gifted writer.

  5. Shauna

    April 17, 2009

    I knew your brother and his family here in South Florida. His example and influence was far reaching. He blessed many lives.
    What a blessing you are to Robes children.
    Best of luck to you as you ride and train.

  6. Patti

    April 17, 2009

    One of the most valuable things I’ve learned from walking a road very similar to yours . . . never judge the way one grieves. There is no one right way.

    I appreciated the sentiment in this, Ellen. Thank you.

    P.S. Many years ago you were a YW leader to my daughters in the Arlington Ward. Many, many thanks.

  7. jendoop

    April 17, 2009

    Thank you for sharing Robes’ story. It reminds me to enjoy each and every day.

    My grandmother died of ovarian cancer when I was 6 months old, I know very little about her. Her death must have rocked my father’s world because it seems to have been a pivot point in his life, not necessarily for the better. I see how her death effected the whole family, I see pain still rippling through lives like earthquake aftershocks. Why? The reason I see is silence. No one talks about her or about their pain.

    So my method of remembering those I love who have died is by saying their names- speaking the cold hard truth out loud so many times that it looses its sharpness. Sharing grief, passing it around for others to caress and soothe, makes it easier to bear. I wish my father and his siblings could understand that.

    I can only imagine the pain my grandmother’s spirit might feel, not only that her children have encountered so much pain in this life, but that her memory has not been more celebrated.

  8. Julie P

    April 17, 2009

    My brother was born four days before my first birthday, so our birthdays were always connected. When young, we shared parties, sometimes presents. He died almost 3 years ago. Our birthdays are next week, what would be his 32nd and my 33rd. It’s going to be hard, one of those weeks where the sad overcomes the happy more often than not.

  9. KJG

    April 17, 2009

    Ellen, you’re the best and sweetest sister.

  10. Red

    April 17, 2009

    I really loved the book “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion. Well written, compassionate thoughts on death, dying and loss.

  11. Shanon

    April 17, 2009

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I am reading this as I wait for news about my younger sister, who was diagnosed with breast cancer 5 years ago. Her cancer spread to her brain a few years ago, but they do not have what it takes to fight that very successfully. She is in the hospital, in a medically induced coma and they are not sure she will make it. She is 39.

    Thank you for reminding us to celebrate her life. She has always celebrated her life and would want us to do the same. I am so grateful to you for sharing a different perspective on what will surely be a very hard and sad time.

  12. Lindsay

    April 17, 2009

    Any loss is hard. We are still reeling from my mother’s death just over a year ago. It’s hard to believe that life went on without her, but it has. Only those who have experienced a loss truly understand how devastating it can be. You are never prepared for it, whether it comes as a surprise or after a long-drawn out illness.

    I named my daughter after my little sister who was stillborn 24 years ago. I still tear up thinking about her and my mom never recovered from the loss. Grief is hard.

  13. Mommom

    April 17, 2009

    I had a very close relationship with my mother-in-law so when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when she was 49 we all felt it. I’m the impact was hieghtened by the fact that our daughter was undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia at the time. She died before she turned 50.

    About a year later we moved into a home where I had an opportunity to really do something I felt was fitting. I’d always felt I couldn’t grow anything and that any plant I touched would wither away. At this point though I became determined to grow a flower garden in memory of her. She didn’t have a fancy garden, but she brightened the space she had. I wanted to do that as well. It took some study on my part, but I’ve been able to do it and I love adding to it.

  14. Michelle L.

    April 17, 2009

    Ellen– thank you and bless you for sharing Robes with us.

    One thing I’ve learned– they best and the brightest AREN’T preserved from death. They are often the first to go.

  15. m&m

    April 17, 2009

    A heartrending post. I’m sorry for your loss.

    I think one way to memorialize the dead is to try to live well, with faith, to honor their name. To learn from their love and lives. To keep their memory alive in positive ways.

    I think grief is such a powerful force, but I also think that if we could see our loved ones who have passed, they would encourage us to live on, to not let the grief consume us. I think the Savior at some point wants to carry that grief for us. I marvel at the reality that death isn’t the end. That is no small doctrine!

    That said, I think grief isn’t necessarily something that just ends. It can come in waves. Hearing “O My Father” in Conference brought me to tears, remembering singing at a funeral of a loved one years and years ago.

    I hold onto the phrase that the only way to take the grief out of death is to take the love out of life. We grieve because we love.

    I also

  16. Plain Jame

    April 17, 2009

    I just posted this morning about my experience last night with death.
    It definitely rocks your world. You learn that there isn’t much we are actually in control of in this life.
    That panics me, but it also requires faith. Deep rooted faith that comes only from a cultivated relationship with the Savior and the Father. Mine needs work; it feels so fragile right now.

  17. Sue

    April 17, 2009

    I can’t and don’t want to imagine ever losing a brother or sister from anything but old age, but if I were ever dealt such a loss, I hope I could honor my sibling as well as you have honored and continue to honor your brother.

    When I’m gone, I hope I am remembered in family conversation and that my name is spoken often, in happy ways.

  18. m&m

    April 17, 2009

    Plain Jame, that realization of our lack of control is hard stuff. I love how you captured the description of the kind of faith that is required.

  19. Julie R.

    April 17, 2009

    Three hours ago I received word that my grandma died this morning. I’m feeling everything from sorrow (mostly for my mom) to regret (haven’t seen grandma in several years, was going to visit her in July) to guilt (I could have been a better granddaughter).

    And I come here, and read this tender post, and the heartfelt and honest comments, and suddenly realize that I’m not at all alone in the emotions I’m feeling. No matter how awful I’m feeling right now, I’m not the first, nor will I be the last to feel this way. And that’s a lesson I’ve learned from death…at least today. Thank you, all of you, for sharing.

  20. Kathryn P.

    April 17, 2009

    I had two aunts and an uncle die within three months last year. I was able to attend two of the funerals, but I felt sad that I hadn’t spent more time with them while they were still living. So when my favorite aunt was seeking a companion to go with her on a Hawaiian cruise in February, I volunteered. My aunt had traveled all over the world with her husband (who was also the uncle who died in October), but they both had lots of serious health problems in the past couple years and they lived in another state. The cruise was exhilarating and exhausting. We left a couple days after my 50th birthday and traveling with my elderly aunt and all her health challenges made me feel like I was a young spring chick, which diminished the aging birthday angst. We also had fascinating discussions and crazy adventures. I’m grateful that the earlier deaths motivated me to create more precious memories with my fun and fragile aunt…

  21. Shanon

    April 17, 2009

    My sister passed away this afternoon at 1:30. She died peacefully in her sleep with her family by her side. I don’t really know how to feel, but I am so glad she is not in pain anymore. I am sad for our family’s loss.

  22. Justine

    April 18, 2009

    Ellen, that was really lovely. really.

    I feel very untouched by death. I’m not sure how to feel. The people I’ve known that have died have all been outside my inner circle of love and relationship. I guess I haven’t learned anything yet.

    And Shanon, I’m so sorry. So, so sorry.

  23. FoxyJ

    April 18, 2009

    Seven years ago I lost a friend and her husband in an accident. Then two weeks after that my BIL suddenly died in an accident (my husband’s sister was left with a one-year-old daughter). Then three years after that my aunt suddenly died, my grandma the next year, and an uncle the year after that. One year ago another uncle suddenly died in an accident. While I will say that these were family members that I was not exceptionally close to, they were still part of my family and still leave holes. Especially my brother-in-law; my husband and I had been married less than a year at the time and I was still trying to figure out how to fit into his family. We constantly think about him and miss him. Just now with Easter I’ve been thinking about how even having a testimony of the resurrection is sometimes not enough to deal with the pain right now. My sister-in-law has been a great example to me of turning to the Lord. Although I know she misses him greatly, but she also lives a full life and is so giving and kind with everyone. I don’t know if I could have that kind of strength.

  24. Faith Not Fear

    April 19, 2009

    I learned so many things from my grandmother’s death thirty years ago that I am so grateful to know:
    I learned that love surmounts illness as I watched my dying grandmother’s hand touch my toddler cousin’s — she hadn’t recognized anyone else that day.
    I learned that Heavenly Father knows of our sorrow, and our need to know if they are okay — I prayed with all the fervor of a ten year old heart to know, and He sent me a witness I have never forgotten!
    I learned that the veil grows thin as our time grows near, and that there is a great and wonderful family reunion on the other side at our passing!
    More recently I found one of the most comforting verses in the scriptures:
    “…the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed this mortal body…are taken home to that God who gave them life.” — Alma 40:11
    The Lord sent these comforts when my heart was aching, and I know He will send comfort for you!

  25. Jennie

    April 19, 2009

    My father died several years ago and he had a few pieces of music that were his favorites. I like to play those when we have family events. He can’t be there, obviously, but the music helps us feel his presence.

  26. Cheri

    April 19, 2009

    Ellen, thank you for your beautiful honesty.

    Shanon, prayers to you and your family in your very present grief.

  27. Marci

    April 20, 2009

    My brother, Mark, who was a year younger than me died 20 years ago in March. He was 17. I am the oldest of six and was a freshman at Ricks College at the time. Such a shock to all of us. He died on a Monday, funeral on Thursday and Easter Sunday right after that. I remember my mother wanted my two younger brothers to be pallbearers (ages 10 and 12) and as we were shopping for new suits, the salesman would ask us “Is this for Easter?” It was so difficult to say it was for our brother’s funeral. Easter means so much more to us as a family now – we look forward to someday reuniting with our brother. Still, after 20 years, it can bring tears to my eyes thinking about him and what he might have become. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t have at least one thought of him. After he died, we would sit around the Sunday dinner table and end up crying as we would reminisce. Then one day, we started to laugh and cry and then ultimately, we just laughed. I wish my kids could know their fun uncle, but they are only 4 and 2. Someday. I like to think that he was with them before they came to earth and some of their spontaneity and fun comes from him.

  28. wendy

    April 21, 2009

    Ellen … you told this story so beautifully.

    Have you ever watched the movie: “A Series of Unfortunate Events” … ? The narrator tries to put into words the feeling of discovering that your loved one is gone … it’s like climbing the stairs and thinking there’s one more step, but instead of finding your foot hitting the expected step your foot falls through to the floor beneath. That feeling. That thud. That’s the feeling your story evoked in me. It was so powerfully written. Thanks for that.

    That’s how I felt when my first husband’s best friend died at 30. He had been so much a part of our lives. We had moved to another city and lived a ways away but he frequently visited us. We didn’t often see his family because of the distance, so we didn’t find out about his death til we read his obituary on the front page of the paper. Shot in the head on accident by his best friend as they returned from hunting. I remmber that feeling of NO it can’t be true! This must be a different Gino. THUD.
    I can’t begin to imagine what it feels like to lose a sibling.
    I am grateful that I discovered Dr. John Demartini. He has the most amazing grief/loss/healing process. I would have never believed it but he moves you from mourning to total peace and ability to move forward in just a few hours. It’s amazing. You don’t FORGET your loved one … you just feel this absolute gratitude for them and this joy and this freedom from grieving. It’s amazing.
    If anyone wants to check him out or his “Breakthrough” class where people deal with issues that they don’t feel they can possibly ever move past go to http://www.drdemartini.com. and watch a clip or two. Or order his Breakthrough book. You can do the process right at home.

    A toast to Robes. And to Gino. I hope they have met in heaven because I think they’d like each other … and I hope they are continuing to do what they love. Huzzah Robes! Huzzah Gino! Happy days to you both til we all meet again.

  29. Liz C

    April 24, 2009

    We tell stories.

    My father-in-law died on his way home from a trip to visit us, when my son was only a few months old, and our oldest was barely three. The kids can tell you stories about their grandfather, though, because we talk about him, his likes, his dislikes, his adventures. It’s been ten years (I can hardly believe that!), and most of the time, it just feels like he’s not been up for a visit in awhile. Yet, the little girls in the family know that Grandpa doesn’t live with Grandma–he lives with God.

    When I was 23, my best friend of 20 years was killed in a car accident. My dad and husband arranged for me to travel home with our oldest (then only a 15 months old) for the funeral. When I arrived, I visited Trish’s family, and her parents asked if I would write the eulogy for her funeral. It was the hardest piece I’ve ever written, and I was grateful my dad had agreed to do the reading for me… but one thing I felt very strongly at that time (and obviously still do feel) is that we all had an obligation to tell her little son (three weeks younger than my daughter) all about his mother, so he would know her when they do meet again.

    Today, my mother is in the temple, being sealed to her parents, and sealing her parents to theirs. That’s a wonderful memorial.

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