James William Kauffman (1942 – 2021)

Dad slipped away quietly yesterday afternoon. Christy and I held his hands as he went.
He left with much more dignity than life afforded him in these last twelve months. His inability to find the right words for speech largely became an inability to speak. He went from walking to walker to wheelchair seemingly with haste. Six months ago he still fought the limitations which both grew in number and remained undefeated. He couldn’t tell us explicitly, but he seemed resigned… ready to go. So when an infection quickly began to overwhelm yesterday…

We let him.

There are moments when I find comfort in this. My mind tells me it was the right thing to do, but my heart feels pulped, and I struggle to accept I now live in a world that no longer has my father in it.


I try

Hi, my name is John and I haven’t posted anything of substance in a year or more.

I have a good thing not going here, so why start now? This is a couch and you are my therapist – so be warned.

After a few false starts, we’re really moving. Cheryl starts a new job in Orlando on Friday, we’re moving much of our furniture after Christmas (to the guest wing of my sister and brother-in-law’s house), and the kids start at their new schools when they reopen after the holiday break. As of a week ago, I have no idea what I’m doing – other than staying behind until I can find a job in Orlando. I have some ideas about what I may be doing (hopefully a transferring within my department), but much feels uncertain and depression doesn’t help. I feel deep depression waiting around the corner like a would-be mugger, waiting to beat the shit out of me and steal everything I have. This may sound odd at first, but it feels like an ego trip gone VERY wrong. Mixed with uncertainty, it feels like the mental health equivalent of booze and narcotics.

Putting all of that aside for a moment, let me tell you I am extremely proud of Cheryl and I know I’m very lucky. Not only is she the love of my life, my partner in life, and my very best friend, but she put our family on her back and carried us through a tough seven years while dealing with a few of her own problems…

… and this is where I lose folks who’ve never dealt with severe depression: I’m trying to be supportive.

Trying? you may ask. You either ARE supportive, or you are NOT. There is no TRY.

Thank you, Yoda.

If you’ve been depressed, read anything about depression, or have a shred of common sense, you know (on some level) depression is an internal struggle. There’s a reason I referred to it as an ego trip of sorts. Depression turns your thoughts inward and self-destructive. At its worst, it can take self-absorption to dangerous lows. Self pity, helplessness, self loathing, despair… I could go on and on – but I won’t – for your sake.

My aim is not to make YOU depressed. I want you to understand. Short of that (which isn’t realistic anyway), I’d like you to know where I am when I say I’m trying. Every day takes some effort. Sometimes it feels harder to get out of bed when I’m depressed than when chemotherapy was trying to kill cancer before it killed me. I constantly fight my mind’s (mostly) unconscious push to think the worst, overlook the positive, and focus on the negative. I struggle against a desire to isolate myself all day at work by seeking people out. I make my own signs of self worth by putting smiles on other people’s faces (or trying anyway). Then I come home and try to do at least as much for the ones who mean the most to me: my family. This still takes a toll – I’m often physically and emotionally exhausted. But it’s better than the alternative: the isolated, lonely, and hopeless downward spiral of profound depression.

So I’m trying to be supportive. I’m trying to see opportunity in change. I love Cheryl and I know I’m lucky we found each other, but I wish I didn’t have to try to be the kind of person I wish I was – that I know she deserves.

However, just wishing something were true rarely makes it so.

So I try.

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Some things you can’t have

I used to talk to my grandfathers as a child and as a young adult. I’m sure many of you did too. Some of your grandfathers may have passed on from the living too.

Sometimes it was out loud, as if I was talking to you – though I’d sure as hell make sure you weren’t there to hear me. As a child, sometimes it was a whisper filled with yearning, as if they’d be more likely to hear me if I wanted it enough. Mostly it was silent thoughts, knowing they were gone, unreachable, but imagining their invisible presence to help me sort through tougher times.

And no, there was no psychosis involved, no hallucinations, or sharp blows to the head.

I understood the implications of death, but I wasn’t afraid of it. I had strong opinions on the matter though. I hated it like it was a thing, something that had stolen from me.

I don’t talk to them anymore. I don’t think about them as much as I did. Life gives us too much as we grow to grasp so tightly the things we’ve lost so long ago. But of course I still miss them, even as my memories of them fade. Maybe that’s life crowding out the pain of loss, healing a wound by overwhelming it with healthier tissue. If so, I think it’s misguided if not cruel. I want those memories back. I’m not satisfied with random events, I want to remember who they were. I want to remember with all my senses, but much of it is lost to time. My memories are more like a photo album than something experienced.

I wish I could really talk to them. I’d like to ask them for advice. I’d like to get their take on current events. I’d like to talk politics with them over a cup of coffee, even if we didn’t agree.

Some people wonder if their ancestors would be proud of them and what they’ve done with their lives. I wonder sometimes too. Tonight I lay sleepless in my great-great grandfather’s bed, wondering the same thing, my fingers tracing the wood grain of the headboard, imagining him doing the same many lifetimes ago.

I don’t want to wonder about my grandfathers. If they’d lived as long as I feel they should have I’d know, talking to them over a cup of coffee.


My parents came over for dinner a few weeks ago, much as they do every Saturday, but this week my dad brought something for me. It was an old, manila envelope addressed to me (at my parents house), postmarked sometime in 1990. It was from my maternal grandmother and it brought back a slew of memories.

In the emotional days of fall, 2001, my grandmother passed away. She was the last of my grandparents to go, out living my father’s mother by ten years, and her own husband by almost thirty-five. Even though she never learned to drive she was fiercely independent, and lived the better part of thirty of those years alone.

We did visit. Before my grandfather died they were regular visitors at our house in Billerica. Afterward, we went to her at least once a week while we lived in Massachusetts, then only once every few years after we moved to Florida. My mother hated to travel, even to visit her mother. My visits increased to once a year in college, after I started dating Cheryl. Her grandparents lived 45 minutes away in New Hampshire, so it was a two for one trip. When we met in high school, we learned we were born and grew up less than a 30 minute drive apart.

Thinking back on her long life, when you add it all up, I spent more time with her than any of my other grandparents, despite some of the gaps.

I think I knew her the least.

If you were to picture in your mind a small, wiry, old, bitter, reserved to the point of stoic, long ago widowed, small town woman from Nowhere, Vermont – you’d have a pretty good image of my grandmother. (Though she lived not far from Boston, near Salem. Yes, THAT Salem: seven gables, witches, and a lot of history.) She kept her emotions close to the vest. When I’d go to visit on our annual trips to New England I’d get a regular outpouring of emotion: her frown would temporarily disappear and she would and say, “hello John, it’s nice to see you.”

Then silence, and the return of the frown.

My phone calls went much the same way. They were one sided monologues, sprinkled with questions met with the shortest possible answer.

Imagine me trying to carry a conversation.

I’ve learned more about my grandmother since her death. It’s funny how people feel freer to talk about others after they die. That’s when I learned we (her grandkids) were all she talked about – and apparently she did talk.

It makes me wonder. Why didn’t she talk to me? She wouldn’t tell me things unless I knew enough to ask her directly about it. Otherwise, my questions were answered in general, non-specific terms whenever possible.

When I thought about her, I pictured her sitting alone in her apartment. I imagined thirty years of dinner at a table with one chair. Whenever I thought of her, I always felt guilty, like I wasn’t doing enough. I felt like I had her seemingly cold demeanor coming. I only visited once a year. I’m ashamed to admit phone calls were so painful I only called once a month. Sometimes I think it took me that long to recover from the last one. I never really doubted she loved us, in her way, but I couldn’t think of how to return it in a way I thought would make some difference in her lonely life.

She showed affection long distance, if not in person. Although she was quiet, she was always paying attention. On those visits to Danvers while we were still living in Massachusetts, I’d always make my way to her latest issue of National Geographic. A subscription of my own followed me when my parents moved us to Florida. She gave me the gift of the world every year until I graduated from college, and an apartment was replaced by a nursing home.

My grandmother listened to most Red Sox games on the radio, and followed the Celtics, Bruins and Patriots in the paper, so one topic we could discuss was sports. One of the things I missed in Florida was coverage of Boston sports. However, I’d get large envelopes addressed to me from Danvers. There’d be no note or letter inside… just clippings from the Boston newspapers about the Celtics, Sox, Bruins, and Patriots.

Then there was the money. My grandfather was college educated but not exactly wealthy (though his father did well for himself). Yet birthdays and holidays always meant big paydays for me and my sisters. Each time two separate windfalls came, requiring an obscene number of digits for a child. One came in our name, and another to my mother to enlarge the piles under the tree, or sweeten the birthday haul. Most of the checks written out to me went in the bank – and ultimately became the down-payment on our house – after wasting chunks of it here and there on motorcycles, racing road bikes (bicycles), a slowly growing tool box with standard and specialized tools for both, stereo components, or the latest pair of Oakleys.

Have I ever mentioned I may have been a wee bit spoiled growing up?

So what was in that envelope my dad had for me a few weeks ago? There was no letter. There was no note. The only thing her handwriting graced was that envelope. Inside was a front page article cut from the Boston Globe about Red Auerbach stepping down as General Manager of the Celtics, and a special pull-out section on the Bruins’ Stanley Cup run (they lost to the Edmonton in the finals… though at least they didn’t lose to the Habs in the playoffs). Reading about the efforts of Cam Neely, Ray Bourque, and Andy Moog (one of my favorite player names of all time), I suddenly felt a little tickle in my throat, a little sting in my eyes – a little choked up.

I imagined a woman who in some ways lived 35 years longer than she wanted to, following the death of my grandfather. In most of those pictures she smiled. After he died she didn’t. I imagined a tough old woman living 35 years fueled by nothing but plain stubbornness.

I also thought about all the gifts, large and small; and the things we learned from her church friends just after she died. I thought about all those envelopes over the years in the mail.

Though sometimes it may seem a little thing to others – even a little odd – some of us show our love the only way we can.