An Open Letter to 2023

Dear 2023,

Despite a considerable amount of time devoted to contemplating Death, I look back on all that was with happiness and a peaceful heart.

Yes, it sounds dark, but the year didn’t start that way. There was lots of bright light…fluffy snow!

The Twin Cities had its third snowiest season in 2023 with 90″ blanketing the metro. From shoveling sidewalks, snow-blowing driveways or raking rooftops, I feel like we had a proper winter and that’s what living in the North is all about.

That said, 2023 was the world’s warmest year on record.

At the end of the year we had little-to-no snow or bitter cold due to El Ninõ. So we did our best to enjoy the “heat wave” by taking advantage of a longer than anticipated autumn with outdoor activities like wood splitting and camp fires.

Darkness Hereafter

Death appeared a few weeks into 2023. This time in the form of an audition notice for a new television program that takes viewers inside gripping murder investigations as if the dead have a voice from beyond. I auditioned, was cast, and shot the episode in February 2023.

In this heartbreaking true story I play a funeral director who is shot and killed inside their funeral home in Hudson, Wisconsin. I would’ve mentioned something earlier, but I swore to secrecy signed a nondisclosure agreement. The show is called, Me Hereafter, and the four-episode docu-drama will be released via Hulu on February 29, 2024. (Full press release here.)

Grandma’s Upcoming Move

Shortly after shooting wrapped, I received a call from my parents concerning Grandma. She was moving on March 9, 2023.

For the last 27 years Grandma lived two blocks from Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota’s smallest nursing home: a 21-resident skilled nursing facility for adults with mental illness.

Typically when Grandma and I visit we’d meet in the community room. This meant we were also usually surrounded by her friends/co-residents who chatted along as we played bingo or Uno at the table.

Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic ruined this rhythm. To the facility’s credit, for the duration of the 30-month national emergency none of the residents contracted the virus — or so I read in a MN Department of Health report card.

My parents urged me to see Grandma. So I went.

In the vestibule at Grandma’s nursing home I signed in on a form. Date, time, name. Was I nauseous or have diarrhea. There was a temperature check and a squirt of hand sanitizer. Then I put on a mask, opened the door and walked twelve paces to Grandma’s room.

Grandma was watching TV from her bed. Her roommate wasn’t there. I pulled up a chair and sat next to the bed. Aside from murmurs coming from the TV, we were otherwise alone.

Grandma thought I looked familiar. She’d search my eyes and her expression would turn hopeful. She perked up like bumping into someone you know unexpectedly at the grocery store —

‘Oh hi! It’s so good to see you! What are you doing? Shopping? Yeah me too!’

Then her expression would fall —

‘Ope! You’re not… Sorry. You look…someone else. Excuse me, stranger.’

I grabbed a picture of us from her dresser, briefly took off my mask and showed her it was me, her grandson.

Grandma didn’t recognize me.

Grandma Moved

The care center Grandma is moving to is a 100% new construction building run and managed by the same organization caring for Grandma for all these years. So the building is new, but the people are the same. This is a gift and a blessing for our family.

But Grandma isn’t excited about the place.

Even though Grandma’s the first resident to occupy room 204. Her room is perched just above the entryway to the building. The room is large, clean, and modern. Three north facing windows fill the room with natural light. She has a view of the trees and a walking/biking trail alongside four lanes of MN State Highway 7.

Grandma didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy any of these amenities. A week after she arrived, she started hospice care and received her last rites.

The family gathered. We held vigil for nine days. Surrounding her with love, sadness, gratitude, peace, and above all: noise. Grandma had five kids and nine were in the room.

Grandma Isabell died on Thursday, March 23, 2023. Three, twenty-three, twenty-three; same forwards and back. That’s pretty neat, Grandma.

Given that Grandma passed a few minutes after I arrived that day, I feel like she waited for me. Which is narcissistic and/or silly.

But we did have a special connection. I was the first born grandchild. I made her a grandma. And then at the end of her life, the last word I heard from Grandma was my own name. She sounded hopeful. Happy.

The day she passed I entered her room, kissed her on the head, told her I was there and I love her. Seconds passed and then so did she. After nine days it was really that fast.

Watching death in action was new, 2023.

Immediately after her passing, I took a stroll on the walking/bike path with my emotions and discovered a tunnel under the highway. On the wall of the tunnel in yellow spray paint read a message:

Grandma’s message in yellow spray paint: “Take your dreams seriously.”

At Grandma’s memorial I spoke about her life, the connection we shared and the impact she made on me and on the thousands of children who played with the toys she made. Then I held it together.

During the inurnment about a month later — on her husband Harley’s birthday — it was not so held together. This moment was more emotional.

Aunt Tammy suggested each member of the family place a few Uno playing cards with Grandma’s urn as we said our goodbyes. We each took turns laying down our cards. Leaving them with Grandma until our next game.

Funeral Music & More Funerals

Logo for WFNU Frogtown Community Radio show, "Your Funeral Music," featuring two music notes, a headstone engraved with 'RIP,' a gray casket, and the WNFU logo with a white frog sitting in a circle of back almost like a vinyl record.
Your Funeral Music logo by Philip Gracia

On the heels of Grandma’s death, I was nudged by the co-founder of WFNU Frogtown Community Radio to develop a new program. The show, Your Funeral Music, launched in April.

Over the course of 13 episodes I chatted with folks about the music they want played at their funerals and their thoughts on life, the great beyond, and everything in between. (Season 2 hasn’t started production yet.)

Around this same time my neighbor / adopted sister asked me to officiate a celebration of life for her father. Despite officiating weddings for the past 15 years, I was nervous that those skills wouldn’t translate. So I attended celebrant training at the National Funeral Directors Association offered by the Insight Institute.

The following week I officiated my neighbor’s father’s ceremony and it went well. Training provided the confidence necessary to dive into deep waters with family in order to tell their patriarch’s story. In the same way officiating weddings feels like a calling, officiating ceremonies at the end of life does too.

Sean Stephenson – Olympic Champion

In July my cousin, Sean, died. He was 37. Ultimately, Covid-19 finished what it started months earlier…

Sean was originally hospitalized with Covid in October 2022. He spent a month in the ICU and was discharged to hospice care the week of Thanksgiving.

Over the course of Sean’s life he was in and out of the hospital dozens of times. I don’t know how many surgeries he had, maybe 30… But after each procedure Sean bounced back. He was resilient.

At Sean’s memorial, I spoke on behalf of his mother, friends, and coworkers. It was an honor to share stories and speak on behalf of those who love and miss Sean most. (Eulogy | Keepsake Slideshow)

Something I purposefully omitted in Sean’s remembrance were his political leanings. While I did mention his patriotism, I failed to include Sean’s favorite refrain:

” Dump Trump!”

A few years ago on Sean’s 32nd birthday, he destroyed a cake with my face. After, we plotted and schemed which family member to ‘cake’ next. Eventually Sean would be the one to get ‘cake’d,’ or so I assumed.

We only ‘cake’d’ again once (Campbell). Sean never ‘cake’d’ his true target (Cassandra). If I ever see Sean again, I hope this time he let’s me ‘cake’ him.

Here’s to you, Sean!

Dark/Light Within

Over the course of the 2023 a handful of folks raised their eyebrows at the rabbit hole of death I’ve tumbled down.

I get it. Death is scary. Let’s not talk about it.

But ask yourself this question:

Why should I fear death? If I am, death is not. If death is, I am not. Why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do?

-Epicurus

Rather than be afraid of something that’s been happening since the dawn of existence for all living things, I’m leaning into it. This isn’t rejoicing, it’s acknowledging and accepting.

So rather than fear or stigmatize this natural event, I want to be comfortably rooted in the truth that the darkness of death is connected to the light of birth.

The two are not separate. There cannot be one without the other.

By talking about death in an open, vulnerable, and honest way I hope to help others discuss death, too.

This isn’t a new/radical idea either.

Prior to the Civil War most families were intimately acquainted with death. People died at home. Their bodies were cared for by the family. Customs were passed down through generations.

However, mass casualties (620K) during the Civil War coupled with the soldier’s family’s desire to bury their dead at home ushered in widespread use of embalming courtesy of the burgeoning funeral industry. With so much death surrounding citizens of the day, they opted to trust funeral directors to care for their dead. In doing so American customs surrounding death and grief changed dramatically.

This is a very longwinded way to say I support and am part of the Death Positive Movement. Also a proud member of the Minnesota Death Collaborative.

I should’ve just said that. Way less words.

Closing 2023

As we entered the final stretch of 2023 more time was devoted to completing outdoor activities. Here’s some of what we completed before the end of the year:

  • a landing / step off the garage was built;
  • a firewood crib from recycled shipping pallets constructed;
  • new electrical wired for string lights;
  • chimney repointed;
  • landscaping edgers installed;
  • walkways established with crushed granite
  • French drain reengineered

Finally, after nearly 5 years the backyard is ready for landscaping!

Here’s some of what house-happened in ’23:

Sweat Equity added to a 1928 Saint Paul charmer!

Naturally, a newly constructed firewood crib necessitates being filled. Harvesting and splitting became a top priority. Thankfully our neighbor, Jake, is a fellow firewood enthusiast/truck owner.

Jake and I hauled truckloads of wood for splitting. Other loads I hauled in a Mini Cooper like a clown.

Each load of wood represented at least a few hours of ‘swinging time’ — a meditative time of splitting wood with an axe and immediately stacking it away neatly. A clear work area is a safe work area.

If it sounds weird, good — I’m leaning into it.

Would you believe all this ‘swinging time’ led to a injury?

Yes, I’m just as shocked as you!

Thankfully no limbs from my or anyone else’s body were severed. In fact, the only blood involved was actually internal. So, that’s excellent news — no mess to clean up!

At the time I didn’t know if I had a ruptured hernia or pulled a muscle, all I knew was pain. Something wasn’t right. My primary care physician ordered an abdominal ultrasound to confirm.

Sure enough, I had a bruise. An intramuscular hematoma.

The scan also revealed my liver had seen better days… This wasn’t entirely surprising. I ate my feelings and gained weight during the pandemic. For years my relationship with food was about comfort not nutrition. The standard American diet is killing me.

Alcohol, also.

Despite tracking my alcohol intake over multiple years, I know its time to stop flirting with sober-curious and start living sober-serious.

And that’s how things ended, 2023.

Sober.

Grateful.

Being present. It’s nice.

Intentions In 2024

In the coming year, I plan to use more two dollar bills.

A $2 bill is a great way to share a bit of fun with others.

I’d also really like to produce a stellar season 2 of Your Funeral Music.

And read more in hammocks. Perhaps write poetry. Ride a bicycle again!

Simple things. Little pleasures. Like unsubscribing from unnecessary newsletters.

1 Second Everyday Video Diary

Some of my favorite clips from the past year are on 5/17, 6/17, and 12/17. The fact that these three appear on the “17th” is merely a coincidence.

Enjoy this snapshot of 2023 one second at a time.

Noted Happenings & Intentions Met in 2023

What were your intentions in 2023? How’d you do?

And what are you most looking forward to accomplishing in 2024?

THOUGHTS?