First Words

Here we are at the first day of the first month of the two thousand twenty-first year. There it is again, the contrivance of time. “Two thousand twenty-first year,” indeed. I have no better measure of time in mind, so I’ll stick with what we have. And I bid good riddance to a year laced with pain, sadness, heartache, fear, anger, and lies. With that boot to the rear of an ugly year, I also welcome a year that holds promise and potential that can be met only if humanity collectively applies itself to correcting the errors of the past. I wish I felt more optimistic about the likelihood that the potential will be met. That having been said, I believe attitude contributes to accomplishment. Attitude alone, though, is impotent. Attitude coupled with engagement and commitment, along with a significant store of resources, is necessary. But not sufficient. Without collective will, wishes and dreams languish and shrivel. I’m rambling. It’s what I do best. I’m not at all good at writing motivational copy. 😉


Yesterday morning, a phone call from the crematorium notified me that my wife’s ashes are available for me. I was told I could select from one of two times to arrive at the Little Rock office of the crematorium. I chose Tuesday morning. The woman with whom I spoke said the death certificates I ordered would be available at the same time. Though I did not expect a deeply solemn conversation, I think I expected a bit more dignity of the interaction; something a shade less like I was making an appointment to pick up an appliance from a repair shop. Perhaps it was just my extreme sensitivity that left me feeling dissatisfied with the conversation. The woman was perfectly pleasant and professional; I just expected a tone more like the one I heard when I was making the arrangements last Sunday.

Maybe it was the text, not the voice interaction, that unsettled me. This is the text, verbatim (including the lower case “mistake”), except for the pickup address:

This is Arkansas cremation and you have a scheduled pickup on 1/5/2021 at 10:30 am. Address

It struck me as cold. My immediate thought was whether my wife would have been treated with dignity by an organization that would send such a message. I got over it. I can never know how she was treated. I do not want to think about it. But I felt like I had to document it here, if for no other reason than to have a record of it to mull over at some time in the future when my emotions are not so freshly raw.

I do not know quite what to expect, both from the process and from myself, when I get to the crematorium. My emotions could well overflow, making for a teary, awkward encounter. I suspect teary, awkward encounters probably occur there with some regularity, so I should not be concerned. Regardless of how I react to the situation, I will get through it.


I got a call later in the day yesterday from a friend, asking if I was interested in getting together on Tuesday afternoon. By then, my confusion had allowed me to forget the time and even the date of my Little Rock appointment, but when I checked I thought a visit that afternoon would be exactly what I needed. The call could not have come at a better time. A rather new virtual friend has suggested such things are part of a pattern of synchronicity, as if the universe is responding to circumstance. My mind attempts to argue against it, but I have to admit I do not know precisely how to interpret, nor to understand, all the laws of physics. And all the rest. So, on Tuesday afternoon I will meet friends for tacos and social lubricants, AKA alcohol. My focus on weight and health will have to wait.


Last night, my very fine neighbors had me over for dinner and drinks and conversation in celebration of New Year’s Eve. We ate Mexican food from a local restaurant and drank some of my friends’ favorite wine, followed after dinner with ice cream and then, later, some champagne and, still later, a snifter of cognac. As I thought about all the kind and generous things my neighbors have been doing for me, I felt enormous gratitude. And then I started thinking about all the other kind and generous and compassionate things others have been and are doing for me. A sense of guilt for being so receptive to all that kindness and generosity started welling up in me, as if I should refuse such goodness. But I caught myself. All the caring things people have been doing for me should not cause me to feel guilty in the slightest; instead, I should allow myself to embrace the love and decency and humanity they are showing me. And I should allow them the opportunity to demonstrate their care and their interest in helping me get through a tough time. Even knowing this, though, I still cannot help but feel I don’t deserve so much kindness; I am not entirely sure why that is.

My neighbors urged me to play the game, Mexican Train, with them. It’s a game my wife and her sister played fairly frequently, a game I steadfastly refused to learn because I am not much into games. I relented last night, though the fact that I did so bothered me. Not long ago—I don’t recall precisely when—I promised my wife and sister-in-law that I would learn the game and play it with them when my wife came home. Because putting off learning to play it was a standing joke, I offered to put it in writing; I wrote a note saying just that. But she never came home. I came across that note yesterday. Seeing the note triggered some tears. Succumbing to my neighbors’ urging to play with them made me feel like I let my wife down by refusing to play the game with the two of them for so long. My neighbors knew nothing of my history of avoiding the game; they would not have suggested it if they had known.


After I got home last night, intending to go to bed before the stroke of midnight, I started watching some BBC coverage of New Year’s Eve celebrations around the world. Most of the celebrations had taken place hours earlier: in Sydney and Wellington and London and Hong Kong, etc., etc. Sydney Harbor was awash in spectacular fireworks, but without crowds. Wellington, though, did not have to keep crowds at bay, thanks to Jacinda Ardern’s leadership; she led New Zealand through a response to COVID-19 that yielded spectacular results. Somehow, I missed the ball drop in an empty Times Square; I suppose I was in the midst of switching channels by then. I finally went to bed around 1:00 a.m. As usual, I woke with some regularity through the night and finally climbed out of bed at 5 this morning.


No shave this morning; I opted only to shower. I doubt I’ll be going out today, so my almost invisible stubble won’t ruin anyone’s day.


I went to the grocery store yesterday in search of black-eyed peas, thinking I would buy a can. There were no cans to be found, so I bought a bag of dried peas. Half the bag soaked overnight; I will cook them so that they will be ready about the same time the leg of lamb comes out of the oven.


No matter how much I try to boost my own spirits this morning by writing silly nonsense and meaningless drivel, I think I feel sullen and grey. I am in no mood to celebrate the beginning of a new year. I hope that changes as the day wears on.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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3 Responses to First Words

  1. Robin, I find it so calming to read your words. I appreciate so much your thoughts and your reflections. You are so kind and compassionate to virtually sit shiva with me.

  2. Robin, I find it so calming to read your words. I appreciate so much your thoughts and your reflections. You are so kind and compassionate to virtually sit shiva with me.

  3. robin andrea says:

    Reading this post, John, reminded me of the old Jewish tradition of Shiva. In the tradition, mourning for seven days begins after the burial. Friends and relatives bring food to the home and sit with the mourners. They spend the time remembering the lost loved one. It is a very old tradition that is still done today. When you describe your neighbors and friends bringing you food and condolences, it’s like the ancient rituals we all still practice to honor our dearly departed loved ones. This is how we work through such a loss. It is inherent in our species. We sit shiva, my friend, as you are already doing. I virtually sit shiva with you.

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