At the book launch for “Parting Ways”, the community learned how to celebrate life at any stage. Read more in the Orange County Register column…
I brought the pages of my book “Parting Ways” alive by lighting a candle for my mother, and then one for my father. I wasn’t in a church or a funeral home.
I was in a candlelit lounge at AnQi Restaurant, where my brother, Ryan Carson is the chef. Most people wait until after their death for family, friends and colleagues to gather to celebrate a life mission accomplished. But I wanted to use the rituals I learned when researching “Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing.”
The book is a culmination of my personal journey: First with my father’s passing in a hospital and later with my mother participating in a living wake among friends and family at home in the last week of her life. I was 26 when Mom died; my brother was 19. These experiences led me as a journalist to explore how American families and communities are reinventing their roles at the deathbed. We are learning ways to change the wrenching hours at the end of life with a new set of rituals that give us a way to participate. This brings back intimacy, dignity and celebration to what has become an isolated, institutionalized occasion.
Nine out of 10 Americans wish to die at home. Few do because we don’t know how.
Since we’re often uncomfortable talking about death, I’ve created “Parting Ways” as a map into the unknown territory, filled with stories to inspire you to prepare yourself, your parent, your spouse, your sibling, your child, your friend or your colleague for the journey.
In the book and at the celebration, I asked people to move from passive observers to active participants in life’s last chapter.
I opened the door to the Q Lounge at AnQi to greet my family, lifelong friends, colleagues, college professors, and some of the individuals and families I met while writing the book. Included were: Donna Miller, who video-records patients sharing their life stories at Hospice Care of the West; Juanita Marquez Kelley’s family, who had a vigil after she died at home: and Ron Wikstrom who invited me to capture how his wife, Carol Ann prepared for her funeral at home like a wedding with the help of a death midwife in Santa Ana.
Candle Light of Remembrance
I asked each guest to take a moment to light a candle for someone they love. One by one, the flames danced above the candles evoking the physical presence of those absent. I learned from death midwives and death doulas that any space can be hallowed — even the deathbed — using simple elements such as candlelight, music and prayer.
At the Reminiscing Corner, Jay Gianukos, a life-story documentary filmmaker, who I interviewed in the book, recorded guests’ reflections of loved ones who have died. Like he does at many life celebrations, Jay used the camera as a focusing lens to give guests permission to express their thoughts and feelings.
Leading the ceremony
With the candles lit, reflections recorded, as the Master of Ceremony at my own celebration, I took the microphone to introduce my book and thank my brother Chef Ryan Carson for creating his molecular gastronomy delights, like champagne caviar cubes. I basked in the warmth of finally sharing the book.
Life Story Video
Video is becoming a staple of life celebrations, so I played a clip from my life video “Coming Full Circle” created by Jay Gianukos. The guests were transported back to The Corner Bookstore in New York City, where Samuel Freedman, a Columbia University professor, introduced “Parting Ways” as “the definitive book on subject of end of life.” On a reminiscing pilgrimage, I returned to the graduate school of journalism at Columbia University, where the book started. And just as we’re leaving to catch a taxi back home, I read a text from my brother that set the tone for the evening:
“You are the matriarch that shall lead this family into the next generation. You’re much more powerful and wise than you think. I love you more than I can express and I’m thankful to have you as a sister and a “mother”…Mom would be proud.”
“Coming Full Circle” by Jay Gianukos is shown at her book release party at AnQi restaurant. The book is titled “Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing.” CHRISTINE COTTER, FOR THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
In the dimmed lights, Ken and Buffy Daignault, elders from my mother’s church and family friends, led a prayer saying: “I ask that you bless and favor the fruit of Denise’s mind, heart and hands and the book Parting Ways, let this book be a blessing to many others.”
In the book, I explain the importance of a living eulogy. We decided to show our guests what one looks like. Denise Noble Allen retraced my footsteps from the moment we met at 14 — when I shared that my father had recently died — to the day she received the call that I was returning from Paris at age 24 to care for my mother, who was diagnosed with cancer. That led me to record her life story.
“Denise didn’t want to lose this opportunity like she had with her father. She always talked about writing a travel book, but I knew now it was going to be something different, something special.”
Jolene Arambula, told stories of our childhood from age 4 on. She recalled holidays, birthdays and how my father, Richard, always amazed “whether he was cooking crab straight from the ocean or a full-size pig on a stick in the front yard…. Richard’s death rocked our childhood.”
She said reading the book took her back to the day when her father gave my father’s eulogy and to my mother’s life-celebration.
Gina Calderone joined the toast, saying she witnessed me “overpower the darkness” by interviewing my mother and documenting our last years together.
“I truly believe that she was more intimate and loving with her mother during this period than most are in a lifetime,” she said.
Jeff Brody, my professor and former advisor of the Daily Titan, the student newspaper at Cal State Fullerton, recalled starting a literary journalism class with just me and one other student. “When I think about this book,” Jeff said. “We’ve spoken many times over the years, calls in the night…I feel like I was a physician, the OBGYN, as this book was being born.”
Then I opened my book and read a passage that segued into a visual montage to the song “Somewhere Only We Know,” that brought my parents and the birth of my book “Parting Ways” to life on the screen. The final video clip was of me dancing in our family room and falling into my mother’s arms on the day I asked her to have a celebration of her life. That dance stops, and that moment becomes the picture on the cover of the book.
I want people to realize that you don’t have to wait until your life is over to do this.
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org