JANUARY 20, 2012 11:13AM

Writing Sympathy Cards

Rate: 21 Flag



 The two blank sympathy cards have been sitting on the shelf in the corner now for over a week. Why are they so hard to write?


“You are,” I chastise my refection in the computer screen, “supposed to be a writer. Why can’t you write?


Cousin Al’s passing came pretty fast. He fought it hard. Used a sense of dry humor that I even remember from back when we were kids. The guy was really funny when he was eight years old.


You fear a sympathy card just wouldn’t carry the message. Just wouldn’t say it. A sympathy card would end a story. And you really, really, really don’t want to begin with an end.


So you stop with the search for wisdom you don’t have. You listen. Like writers do. You try to pay attention.


Your brother sends Allan’s twitter feed. Both of you amused by the fact that his twitter handle was “Rainmanreuters.” That fit well.


You start reading his stories. You pause.

He was really good.

And then from the reading, from that looking for clues, you get a chance to act. To do something besides the card. Allan’s colleague, Nicole Mordant, is participating in the Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer.


She’s riding to fund the research so others won’t have to go through what Al went through.


You send what you can send here:



And then you remember, when you can’t write . . . . . read!

So you read what a pro wrote. You remember why God made reporters when you read something this well said. Janet Guttsman. Al’s boss writes:


“Dedicated master of quirk Allan Dowd, pictured, died this month in a Vancouver hospital at the age of 52. Allan, who delighted in the oddball stories that everyone loves to read, joined Reuters in Vancouver in 1998 after several years working in Maine as a stringer for Reuters, Maine Public Radio and other news organisations. Born in Rochester, New York, where his mother still lives, Allan was an old-school Reuters all-rounder, able to tackle any story that might come up including business, commodities and sports. But he was happiest with politics, general news and brights, where he really made his mark on the news file. His colleagues speak fondly of his dry humour, and of his stories. There was the tale about the sasquatch, and whether it had any connection to the UFO, or the one of the single feet that washed up on BC coasts – four right feet and one left foot, according to a 2008 story – and where they might be from. He could write with sensitivity and tenacity, as shown by his years of coverage of Vancouver’s notorious case of dozens of missing women, and the gruesome trial of murderer Willie Pickton.


Allan went to his doctor with what he thought was a mysterious, hard-to-shake cold in July, just weeks after reporting on the rioting that erupted when Vancouver lost in the finals of the Stanley Cup. It turned out to be a particularly aggressive form of lymphoma, and he died on 10 January. His mother, and his sister Laura were with him. Special thanks from the Reuters family to all the Vancouver journalists who stepped in to help when Allan fell sick, but especially to his Reuters colleague Nicole Mordant.”



Those blank sympathy cards have now somehow moved from the shelf in the corner over to your desk. Almost ready to be tackled.


You wonder if it was all that good reporting that made you want to stop typing and pick up your pen to write the cards. Maybe it was the thought of that bicycle ride. Later on this year. A 130 mile ride from Vancouver to Seattle.


You imagine the sights of that ride. You hope Nicole makes her goal for the money and finishes the ride.


And then from somewhere, from the blessed unknown, comes this image of a very large, smiling Buddha like Hawaiian man strumming a ukulele and singing like a golden sunrise angel.


You picture Al listening to this guy sing. Getting the guy to talk. Getting the interview.


The story is never over.


So now you can write the cards.


Take care Al.




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This is riveting, Roger!
Your note is right on.
Scroll down for "Cousin Al's Mystery Visit". . .that time he came to Chicago and didn't know it. . . .
Nice job. Writing those cards is tough at any time but when you've lost someone as special as your Uncle Al, it's tougher still. Nice portrait. Iz can sing at my funeral anyway. Unfortunately, he is deceased as well.
I always cry when I write sympathy letters. Don't use cards...they are too wierd. I write, I cry, I celebrate that I knew them. Back to the beginning because like you, who wants to focus on the end?
I think, or hope really, we all have a Cousin Al who enriched our lives and made us smile. It it wasn't for the cousin Al's of the world, this would be a boring place indeed!
You say the most with as few words as possible. That's the more fitting condolence and I think you've found it here. Sorry for your family's loss.
Roger: Cousin Al sounds like my kind of reporter. It's very clear to me, from your words and his boss's clear-eyed appraisal, that he had a great gig and loved what he did. He certainly was blessed -- as a quirk meister -- when those feet washed ashore. I'd love to read his report.
fusun---going back and looking at some of his stories really was riveting.

Gerald--Yeah---there is that feeling that you need to do better than what somebody at Hallmark corporate wrote.

JH--That phrase "he loved what he did" comes up a lot. Thanks!

Elizabeth---they are weird. But I also see their value when it's hard to find the words. Or when there really are no words.

Scanner---Exactly. I got a feeling more than one person calls you Cousin too!

Stacey--Drawing from all these real reporters, I got to.
You expressed it so well here, Roger, I'm sure you won't have a problem putting pen to paper. He sounds like such a wonderful guy.
Thanks, "Chicago Guy" and OS comment-ers.

I've been ?"moughty"? struggling with this just now. Trying to figure out what to ?say? or not ?"say"? to a fellow OS-er who's recently had a (in my scale of ratings?) "moughty" devastating personal loss and (for partly that reason though initially other reasons) hasn't been posting here recently.

Sent him a[n] inadequate "pm"; took a nap, and woke up from a nightmare which felt to me to be saying I ... well, hadn't gotten it said right.

Se my most recent blog if anyone's interested, and "thanks, y'all", for "bein' thar". [Or: Wherever you are or aren't right now while I type these words into my computer screen? :-0
Oops ...... :-(

For "se", please read "see", o.k.? ;-)
My condolences. I'm normally at a loss for words also. I usually mention one memory about the deceased and what that meant to me.
When it comes to dealing with loss of a family member or close personal friend Roger, I just run right out of words to say.
I recently went over and read what I wrote when my brother died. It seemed pathetic yet I found myself sobbing all over again like it was yesterday.
But I found your note clear and precise. I expect that is all that is needed.
Thank you for sharing your wonderful cousin Al with us. His story definitely lives on in you!
Roger, first, my deep condolences. It is hard to think of the right things to say, until somehow you just let your heart open and share the memories and his impact on your life. Israel Kamakawiwo'ole welcomes him.
This has an amazing quality of being suspended between thoughts and action. I absolutely love the way you constructed this. This is excellent writing...far more than a tribute. Rated and appreciated.
Trilogy--Al's boss wrote the heart of this. I did the assembly work and brought in Izzy!

Frank---Yes there is!

pod--thanks for commenting. I know it does get hard when all the speaking is done in typing.

Stim---That's usually my M.O too. I rarely find myself at a loss for words. But I am sometimes (and some would say often) at a loss for the right words.

Suzy--- I've found that the word loss can come when you least expect it.

Barb---Thank you!

Muse-- Al was a writer--so I did the best I could.

Sheila---Ya gotta love Izzy!
As always so much to say in response -- which is the surest compliment I can pay your writing. Yes, if you can't write, read. I say there's no such thing as writer's block, there's only writers who haven't done their research.

That being said, sympathy cards are hard to write because they are a form of good-bye, and there's really no good way to say good-bye but to simply say good-bye -- and that always seems so inadequate -- and so final.
You let the grief work awhile before it became your muse. Cousin Al would be proud.
TC---It's that inadequacy/finality thing that is such a challenge. Which is why the tribute from Al's boss and the upcoming bike ride was so important. Good news is that I got word they saw this---as did his Mom and sister---which was the whole point.
So, onwards!

CM--I did not think of that, but you're right. Thanks for that. It is about the time.
Roger, this is beautiful. It was Jackson Browne who wrote "For a Dancer" in 1974, but you have written "For a Writer" in 2012.
Paul Haider, Chicago
That song kills me every time. R
Paul---For a writer was totally the goal here.

CG--Me too. The song came on yesterday when I was working out at the gym and was glad I had a towel for the misty eyes.