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A Separation of Souls

I have not yet told Eilis that my mom has died.

Shortly after 10:00 PM last December 23rd, my sister called to tell me that the hospital had just called to tell them my mom died.  I hung up the phone, crying out loud, and called my family to me.  Eilis, instead of joining Jim and Granuaile next to me, raced away from the room yelling, “I don’t want to hear it!”

And I think in that outburst, she found a place in her mind where if she didn’t hear it, it didn’t have to be real.

Eilis and my mom were fast friends.  We moved back to New Jersey when Eilis was four months old, and from the time she was just a few months older, she loved spending nights at Dram’s.  At 18 months old, she would pack her own bag, anxious to have even just a few hours in my mom’s company.  They would play for hours, exhausting each other with laughter and songs, and my quiet, reserved Eilis came into her own with my mom.  She seemed more animated, more outgoing, more loving.  Eilis wasn’t a huggy kind of kid.  She would sooner hug a tree than a grown up, but with my mom, she was so different.  Eilis was her true self with my mom, and the two of them were like soulmates, destined to find each other on this earth and complete each other.DSC01864


The day my sister Bean died, my mother took Eilis home with her.  Instead of going home to fall into the desperate pit of her own grief, she wanted Eilis to be with her, and my tiny two year old was anxious to go.  She didn’t leave my mom’s side, know ing even at this tender age that she had a job to do, making sure her kindred spirit survived the first few devastating days after Bean’s death.

One weekend, during one of their infamous sleepovers, my mom got sick.  holakxmas2An ambulance had to be called, and Eilis was there as they lifted my mom’s pain wracked body onto a stretcher and into the glowing cavern that was the back of the emergency vehicle.  The police came, there was a cacophony of dispatching calls coming over the squawking radios, and the lights and sounds were just too much for my sensitive kid.

It was the end of the sleepovers.

Eilis was afraid to go spend the night after that, and my mother knew.  She talked to me often about how guilty she felt over Eilis being exposed to human frailty in such a traumatic way.  I had a hard time getting Eilis to even go visit after that, and she was more than happy to pass on the mantle of best sleepover buddy to Granuaile as she got older.  Eilis didn’t get over it, silently lamenting the loss of this precious bonding time, and I think it impacted her more than we ever realized.


Today, after one of her increasingly rare visits to my stepfather at the home heshared for nearly 40 years with my mom, Eilis and I were driving home.  We were talking about our annual visit to Walt Disney World this coming Christmas, the first one we are taking with my sister, her husband, and my stepdad.  In between conversation, she was singing along to theCD she had popped into the car stereo.  And then she was crying.  The tears were silent, yet they poured as if a flood gate had been opened down her cheeks, dripping onto her shirt.  Quietly, acknowledging for the first time the loss she suffered last December – if not those many years ago – she said, very simply, “I miss Dram.”

I can do nothing with my own broken heart except pray that this is at last a step toward healing for Eilis.  Perhaps this is the beginning of her heart accepting – or at least understanding – the loss she has suffered.  And even though they can’t be together, maybe this is the point where Eilis lets the memories be of some comfort.  Maybe she can focus more on the bond they had than the separation they suffered.

And maybe she’ll find peace.

In the Blink of an Eye

That’s how fast life happens.  It’s how quickly life changes.  When we are least expecting it, in the blink of an eye, the things we thought we were sure of are gone.

Grace and Dram

My mother has had some very significant health problems these past five years.  She has been through multiple surgeries, and she has seen the inside of too many hospital rooms.  There are days when I think she might be telling me stories of old childhood friends and the fun times they’ve had, when really, if I actually pay attention, she’s recounting tales of the nurses on various floors, in various wings, at various hospitals, and how they helped her get through some of the roughest roads.


I sat silently this afternoon while the nurse in ICU tended to my mom.  She emptied containers of fluids that were too full, measuring each with deft precision, taking notes on her gloved hands that could be later transferred to the medical records she was keeping on my mom.  I watched as she drew blood for more lab work through the port in my mom’s neck, talking to her the whole time, patting her hand, wiping hair that wasn’t there out of my mom’s eyes.  She put a thermometer in my mom’s mouth, letting her know she was doing it ahead of time, gleefully announcing a normal temperature reading.  Vitals were checked, IV bags replaced, blankets straightened.

Dram and Grace POR Christmas Tree

In the blink of an eye, the nurse was gone.  We were left sitting, watching my mom’s chest heave up and down with each breath of forced air from the ventilator.  Life support.  Without it, she would be gone.  She appeared every now and again to shiver, but in the blink of an eye, that movement ended, leaving us to wonder if maybe she was expressing some discomfort or if her reaction was purely involuntary.

After 8 hours of surgery on Friday, my mom is gravely ill, with words like, “grim”, “brutally honest”, “seriously ill”, and “advance directive” being tossed in our direction.  I last spoke with her on Thursday.  It was a quick, blink of an eye conversation, one that ended with “I’ll call you later.”  She was in pain, a doctor was coming in, I was taking a kid somewhere.  There wasn’t time for much to actually be said.

Now, I wish I had been able to say it all.

Because in the blink of an eye, life changes.  And the things left unsaid remain unsaid.

I can do nothing now but pray I get to say them.


Philip Seymour Hoffman – Tragedy or Travesty?

In what may be his last interview, given during the Sundance Film Festival just a few weeks back, a reporter asked Philip Seymour Hoffman how he most connected to his character his latest movie.  Hoffman responded, “The loneliness, he’s pretty lonely…unforgiving of himself.”  More than anything, I think this hints at the demons that plagued Hoffman throughout his life.

I’ve seen numerous tweets and Facebook posts talking about the ridiculousness of calling Hoffman’s death “sad” and a “tragedy”, taking the opportunity to attack a man who clearly lost the handle he held on his addiction after 23 years of fighting the good fight.  So where do you stand on his death?  Is it clearly a travesty to treat his death as a tremendous loss?  I’ve seen posts that have said things like, “Cancer, that’s a tragedy.  PSH is a fat loser who offed himself.  Good riddance.”

Where do you stand?


Every day that an addict stays clean is not a day where they have won the battle.  It’s a day that they’ve survived another day without succumbing to their disease.  The battle is never “won” for an addict – it’s fought every day, with every breath.  It takes a strength and a willpower many of us could never understand, let alone live up to.  Yet Philip Seymour Hoffman got up every morning for 23 years, determined to fight for his career, for his long time partner, for his children and his friends.  He showed a strength for those 23 years that highlights his determination to survive.

And he didn’t.

Jim Carrey said it best in a tweet about the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman.  “For the most sensitive among us, the noise can be too much.”

After 23 years of fighting to block it out, the noise won.  He was a brilliant talent, and from all accounts, a dedicated father and supportive and devoted friend.

Where do I stand?  Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death was a tragedy.  On more levels than I want to imagine.

PSH Sundance

How Long Does It Take For a Heart to Heal?

On March 9th, 2013, I realized my sister Bean had been dead for 10 years.  The odd thing about that?  She died on March 7th, so I was two days late in making this realization.

It didn’t occur to me until just a week or so ago, during a phone call with my sister Meg, that none of us – not me, not my mom, and not Megan – talked about Bean on the anniversary of the day she died.  It had become an annual tradition.  Megan and I always called my mom on March 7th, and then my mom always connected the calls so we could all talk to each other.  I think we called Mommy to make sure she was okay, and I feel like she made sure we talked to each other so that the sadness could be overshadowed by the sarcasm and humor that always prevails in our phone conversations.

But why didn’t we all call each other on March 7th this year?

I’m busy.  In school full time, raising my family, sprinkling pixie dust – it all takes a lot of time.  Megan works long days and has had mountains piled on her plate.  My mom is finally feeling well, getting around, doing some shopping, making up for time she lost while she was sick.  Any of those things could have contributed to the missing phone calls.

Or maybe, finally, we have healed.

There will always be pain, especially when I think about the things she didn’t get to see or do – or my kids she never got to know.  But there isn’t crying.  When I think of Bean, there is joy – that we got to do so much with her when she was here, and that we all benefited in this life from knowing her.  There are more stories of good times and happy occasions than there are memories of the circumstances of March 7th, 2003.

So it does happen.  Time does heal all wounds, even those of the heart.

It just takes ten years.

Frances M. (Bean) Bilbrough


Suddenly on March 7 2003. Age 37.
Beloved daughter of Anna and Bob Holak of Medford NJ and John and Ann Bilbrough of Laurel Springs NJ. Dear sister of Anna Skamarakas (Jim) Megan Holak (Brett) Kathleen Flaherty (Paul) and Danny Orbanus (Angela). Loving aunt to Brighid and Eilis Jonathon and Michael Danny and Christian. Bean is also survived by her grandmother Caroline Holak and many aunts uncles cousins and many dear friends.
She was a 1984 graduate of Shawnee High School.
Relatives and friends are invited to visit with the family Tuesday eve from 7 to 9pm and Wednesday morning from 8:15 to 9:15am at GARDNER FUNERAL HOME RUNNEMEDE 126 S. Black Horse Pike Runnemede. Funeral Mass 10am Wednesday morning Annunciation BVM Church Bellmawr. Interment private at the request of the family. In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Annunciation Regional School 605 W. Browning Rd. Bellmawr NJ 08031 of which Bean was a volunteer. Expressions of sympathy may be e-mailed to Condolences@GardnerFuneralHome.com

30 Days of Thanks – Day 18 – Bean

When I began my 30 days of thanks, I wanted to think of things a little bit outside the box. I didn’t want to just be thankful for my home, my family, and my friends – I am so grateful for all of those things every day.  But Day 18 – November 18th – is my sister Bean’s birthday.  How could I not be thankful for her?

There were days during her life when I can admit I didn’t always quite appreciate having Bean for a sister.  She was somewhat of a slob.  No, she was an enormous slob.  I was constantly on her about cleaning up her stuff, putting things away, picking up shit she left all over.

When the holidays would come, she would take her disability checks and spend nearly the entire amount on dollar store gifts for my children.  I loved her for wanting the kids to have a huge stack of presents, but wanted to kill her when twenty minutes into Christmas, I was picking up broken dollar store toys all over.

But when her life was over, I had time to how very fortunate we were – in spite of her dollar store spending sprees.  As bad a cook as I am, I knew I could put something on the table that Bean would think deserved to be on the menu at Buckingham Palace.  She never met a person that didn’t like her, and she had friends from all walks of life.  Imagine my surprise when, just after she died, a woman I knew from a Yahoo Group I belonged to for years sent me a note to tell me she had met my sister during a stop at the store where Bean worked MANY years before.  In all the years this woman and I had chatted, she never put two and two together, but when I mentioned Bean’s passing, she remembered her from that casual meeting.  She made an impression and people loved her.

I never had to do anything alone when Bean was alive.  I could drag her to do anything with me, whether it was yet another trip to Walt Disney World, a 30 day trek across country, or to the dentist’s office to hold my hand.  She was always ready and willing to go.

Above everything, I am so thankful that I had her to help me with my youngest two children.  When I moved to Florida, I felt so isolated and alone.  Bean flew down, intending to stay for two weeks, but she always extended her stay for me.  She volunteered at school, she went to all the recitals and feisanna, and she made me a better mom by keeping me from feeling so sad and depressed that I wasn’t able to get up to be a mom.

November 18, 1965.  It is the day my sister was born, and the day I feel like I should have been ensured a partner in crime for life.  There’s so much I’ve gone through that I wish I had been able to have Bean here with me to share, but the sadness I feel at not having her here is quickly replaced by the joy I have in my heart that we had her in our lives at all.

I am forever truly thankful.

For Bean.

March 7 – Our Day That Will Live in Infamy

On March 7, 2003, I woke up, got Brighid up for school, got Eilis up and dressed, and got ready to drive Brighid to school.  My sister Bean lived with me, and she was still sleeping when I left.

When I came home, I went in to wake her up.  She had gone to bed early the night before, complaining of a stomach bug.  We had just gotten back from Florida two days earlier, and although Bean hadn’t gone with us, we fought a stomach bug throughout the vacation, so I naturally assumed she picked it up from Brighid.

I opened the bedroom door, found her laying in bed, and yelled at her.  Yep, I yelled.  She had promised to make Irish potatoes for Brighid’s Brownie meeting that afternoon.  The girls were going to have a bit of a St. Patrick’s Day party, and Bean volunteered to make her delicious candy treats.  When she told me she didn’t think she could get up to make them, I was furious.  I already had a full day stacked up, and now I had to run to the grocery store, pick up all the ingredients, and make the candy myself.  And, god damn it, I didn’t know the recipe.

Bundling up Eilis, I headed back out to the store.  I can’t really repeat all the nasty things I said about my sister, as I’ve already “god damned” once in this blog, and I’d hate to go overboard with the language.  Let’s just say there weren’t thoughts of sunshine and rainbows as I gathered up the ingredients, thinking of the burden my day now held with the added responsibilities of “Candy Maker”.

When I came home, I didn’t hear the shower.  She swore to me she would get in the shower while I was gone, and I had even gotten pissed enough to call my mother, put my mother on the phone, and make her tell Bean to get a shower.

I took Eilis downstairs, put her in her walker, and went upstairs, with all the venom of 1000 rattlesnakes waiting to spew forth at my sister.  I shoved open the bedroom door, and she wasn’t there.  Well, what the hell?  I knocked on the bathroom door, but I got no answer.  So I opened it.

While I will never, ever, ever, ever forget what I found when I opened the bathroom door, the thing I will remember forever and a day is the bitterness and anger I had for Bean that whole morning.  My last words to her were mean, hate filled, and nasty.

And I never got to take them back.  Or make up for them.  Or let her know I didn’t mean them – it was the frustration speaking.

The best I could do to take back the things I said was to write her eulogy, reminding myself as I reminded everyone else of the good person she was.

Bean is still the best person I have ever known.  We got along like oil and water sometimes, but honestly, there is no heart bigger; no soul gentler; no person kinder than my sister.

And I miss her as much now as I did the first minute I realized I didn’t have her anymore.