As reported in the OC Register, I brought the pages of my book, Parting Ways, alive upon lighting a candle for my mother, and then for my father at a table covered in votive candles. I wasn’t in a church, or a funeral home.
In fact, I prepared for my life celebration, a tribute to the release of my book Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing, 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 praise a life mission accomplished.
Parting Ways 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 with friends and family at home. I was 26 then, my brother was 19. These experiences led me as a journalist to explore how families all over the U.S. were reinventing their roles at the deathbed. We were 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 an isolated, institutionalized occasion. Nine out of 10 Americans wish to take their end of life journey at home. Few do because we don’t know how.
Since we often encounter discomfort in talking about death, I’ve created an innovative guide, a map into the unknown territory to prepare yourself, your parent, your spouse, your sibling, your child, your friend or your colleague.
I opened the door to the Q Lounge at AnQi to greet my family, life-long friends, colleagues, my college professors, some of the individuals and families who I met along the way in writing the book such as Donna Miller, a life review guide who video records hospice patients sharing their story at Hospice Care of the West, Juanita Marquez Kelley’s family who had a vigil after her last breath at home, and Ron Wikstrom who invited me to report how his wife, Carol Ann prepared for her funeral at home like a wedding with the help of a death midwife here in Santa Ana.
Candle Light of Remembrance
I asked each guest to take a moment to pause and reflect as they entered.
“Light a candle for someone you love and want to remember,” I said. One by one, the flames danced above the white candles evoking the physical presence of those absent. I learned from the death midwives and death doulas I followed on my journey that any space can be hallowed even the deathbed using simple elements such as candlelight.
At the Reminiscing Corner, Jay Gianukos, a life story documentary filmmaker, who I interviewed in the book at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, video recorded the reflections guests had while lighting the candle. Like he does at many life celebrations and in the one in my book, Jay used the video camera as a focusing lens and permission for guests to surface meaningful thoughts and feelings.
Becoming Master of Ceremony
With the candles lit, reflections recorded, as the Master of Ceremony at my own celebration, I took the microphone to thank the An Family, introduce my book and my brother Chef Ryan Carson who created the molecular gastronomy delights like the champagne caviar cube wowing the guests.
Life Story Video
Looking around the room of more than 50 guests, I basked in the warmth and glory of this moment to finally share the book. I played a clip from my life video entitled “Coming Full Circle” created by Jay Gianukos. The guests were transported back to The Corner Bookstore in New York City, where Samuel Freedman, my Columbia University Professor, introduced Parting Ways as “the definitive book on subject of end of life.” On a 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:
“I love you D. Words cannot express the appreciation for the effort that you have put forth to make this family succeed. Had it not been for your persistency upon making me go to school I would not be the man, a CARSON man, that I am today. 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.”
I introduced Ken and Buffy Daignault, elders from my mother’s church and family friends, to lead a prayer because I learned at the end of life no matter what your faith, bowing your heads together brought solidarity to the deathbed. Ken prayed 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.”
After the prayer, I stood up to explain the importance of a living eulogy extolling a person in a celebration before death.
Denise Noble Allen, at eight and a half months pregnant, emerged from the audience and ambled to the microphone. Her pregnant belly made me realize we were both in the midst of giving birth, me to my book and her to a baby boy in a week’s time.
“I’m here to tell you Denise’s Story and recognize how very proud of her I am and her brother,” she said. “Not only have I been her best friend for over twenty years, I use to baby sit Ryan, It’s hard to sum up a 20 year friendship in five minutes, so I have to narrow it down to what shaped her to write this book.”
She retraced my footsteps from the moment we met at just 14 when I told her about how my father had died with a masking smile, and the day, she received the call that I would return from living in Paris, France, at age 24 to be with my mother diagnosed with cancer and the insight to use my reporting skills to record my mother’s life stories.
My oldest friend, Jolene Arambula, came up to the microphone with stories of our childhood,
“It was the summer of 1979,” she said. “I stood on the driveway of our new home, I watched a girl skip across the street hand in hand with her mother and without hesitation she walked up to me to say ‘Hi I’m Denise” We were four and that’s where our story began.”
Jolene recalled 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 culinary talents were endless, which obviously his skills have been passed on to his son Ryan.”
She reflected on reading my book taking her back to the day when her father gave my father’s eulogy.
Gina Calderone, my childhood friend, followed. We all grew up in the same neighborhood. She brought all the threads together as she turned from her reminiscing to talk to me directly.
“Denise you overpowered the darkness, never losing focus…Within your wounds of life has been one of your greatest gifts, this book Parting Ways. You are going to teach people how to love on intimate level and celebrate the end of life, a revolutionary concept.”
As we embrace, I watched Jeff Brody, my professor, my mentor and former advisor of the Daily Titan, the student newspaper at Cal State Fullerton, rise from the audience. He recalled how the “exquisite writing” caught his eye in a piece I wrote about raves.
“I said I’ve got to look after this student… I pushed her, pushed her for three more semesters, and asked her to become the editor, which is an honor.”
He reflected on starting a literary journalism class and how he selected me for the independent study, pointing out then that I could eventually go to Columbia University, his alma mater.
“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.”
Parting Ways Montage
As I stepped up to the microphone to say, “The reason I wanted to do that living eulogy is to give you an example of what it might look like and feel like if you decided you want to celebrate your life at really any stage. “You don’t have to wait till the end to do this.”
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 silver screen. The final video clip played 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 before her death. That dance stops and becomes the still image on the cover of my book.