We can find it everywhere – the bright Christmas lights, ornately decorated Christmas trees, radio stations playing Christmas music, and of course the Christmas sales on gift items we would not pay any attention to buying the other 11 months of the year. The countdown began after Thanksgiving, leading up to a day that is filled with great joy and excitement.

Like most people, I usually look forward to the Christmas season each year: spending time with family, exchanging gifts and good cheer, sharing old memories and making new ones, and reflecting on the year that has nearly passed. This Christmas, however, will be very different. In spite of my best efforts, I know the good cheer will be more somber, the memories bittersweet, and the reflections more contemplative. I suppose this is to be somewhat expected; the memories of Stephen’s accident are still very fresh in my mind and still weigh heavily on my heart. I doubt there has been a waking hour in the past six months when I have not thought about my son.

There are some friends of mine who seem simply amazed that I can function at all, and cannot imagine themselves being as “strong” as I have been in this situation. If the truth be told, I do not look at myself as a strong person; I may appear calm, cool, and collected on the outside, but if you could look into my heart and mind you would find I am a total wreck. My wife has commented that she has not seen me crying openly for our son, as she has been doing; what she does not understand is that on the inside I have not stopped crying since the day he died.

What is it that keeps me going forward? I believe it has been because of the need for “someone” to make sure that all of the things that needed to be done on Steve’s behalf were actually done. From making sure all of the funeral arrangements and details were covered, to handling all of the paperwork, and to being the “voice” of the family, I have focused on each task and given it my utmost attention and effort.

The last of those tasks is soon to be completed – we have received word that the monument for Stephen’s grave is finally finished and will be installed sometime within the next few days. What will happen to me after that is done? Will I still be “strong” or will I collapse into a blob of uncontrollable emotion? Or something in between? I do not know for sure, but I will find out soon enough.

In the meantime, the Christmas countdown continues…


An Update On My NaNo Writing — And Me

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

It is almost mid-month, and as I expected I am not on track to complete the annual NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) goal of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. Instead of being 50% of the way (25,000 words), I am at about 15% (7,400 words). The fact that I am so far behind does not bother me; the subject I selected, writing about Stephen, was destined from the outset to be a labor of love rather than a labor of typing.

I tackled the most difficult piece first, which was the day of his accident and the following day when funeral arrangements were made and I attended a remembrance event at the school’s band hall. I haven’t made it completely through the rest of the days leading up to the funeral yet, but I have outlines of what I plan to write. The reason I have not finished that piece is because my mind began to wander, and I found myself looking back at the day Stephen was born. I recently found a set of pictures taken in the hospital that day, and as I looked through them the memories came flooding back…and I felt compelled to stop where I was and start writing about his birth instead.

As I was writing that section, I discovered something about writing itself that I had never considered before. I have been a technical writer for many years, and the thought process that a technical writer goes through is linear in nature – step 2 always follows step 1, A always comes before B, and so on. Technical writing focuses on the technical aspects of putting words on paper – namely, accuracy and orderly precision – and leaves no room for compromise. In contrast, the creative writing process is not linear at all, but instead is somewhat random in nature. Creative writers focus on feelings and emotions, which like all of human nature are constantly changing shape, flowing and ebbing with the events going on in a person’s life. Accuracy and orderly precision are mostly set aside in favor of expressing what is on the mind or in the heart of the writer. As the writer searches for the right combination of words to use, compromise becomes the rule rather than the exception.

This was a real eye-opener for me. Until now, I had been trying to develop creative writing skills but following the path of a technical writer; the result has been writing that expresses feelings and emotions, but does so in a very stiff and regimented manner. In order to be more successful as a creative writer, I have to follow a different path – one that is more random in its choice of direction, is peppered with spontaneity, and which molds itself to the feelings and emotions I am experiencing at the moment. The result should be writing that flows rather than stutters.

I can think of no better opportunity to put this to work than writing Stephen’s story. It may take longer to produce a finished product, but it will have a heightened level of expression over my previous writings.

And with that, I will now go off and continue working on the story. I do not know exactly what part of Stephen’s life I will be writing about next, but I do know the words will be more meaningful to me and to anyone else who reads them.


It’s NaNoWriMo Time!

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

November is NaNoWriMo time. What is that? It stands for National Novel Writing Month, an almost tongue-in-cheek project/competition organized and managed by the whimsically-named “Office of Letters and Light” to encourage writers (and want-to-be writers) to commit words to paper and write those stories they have always wanted to sit down and write “someday”. The goal? To write 50,000 or more words in exactly 30 days (from 12:01am on November 1 to 12:59pm on November 30). The task is very daunting; to stay on track, an average of 1,667 words must be written per day. While that may not sound like a lot, consider that this blog posting is a little more than 550 words…imagine writing about three times as much every single day for 30 days, and you can begin to get a feel for the size of the project.

What is the prize? Apart from some web “badges” and a print-it-yourself certificate, nothing of financial importance (i.e. no cash awards)…but “winners” do have the satisfaction of having finally put those words down, and hopefully the momentum from participating will carry them forward to finish their novels (if they have not already finished by the end of the month). Many participants over the past 10 years of the project have gone on to have their writings published, including some making it onto best-seller lists (for a rundown of this and all the other details, you can visit their website at http://www.nanowrimo.org).

Last year was the first time I participated in NaNo (as some people refer to it), and I had the good fortune to “win” (I finished the month with almost 52,000 words, and added more to it in December). My writing was not a true “novel” or work of fiction; instead, it was a form of autobiography I wrote about a very significant period in my life over 20 years ago, written as a favor for a close friend. The book is still being reviewed and edited, and I do not know when or if it will ever be published.

I have plans to participate this November as well, and hope that I will succeed in reaching the goal. My subject this time was originally going to be a fictional story I have had sketched out for several years, but following Stephen’s death in June (has it really been over four months since the funeral?) it became obvious to me that my original idea was not going to fly this time. Instead, I plan to write Steve’s story. I have little doubt I can eventually come up with more than 50,000 words; after all, I have 16 years of material to work with. The question is whether or not I will be able to write it all down in that short timeframe, which will be even shorter because we have made the decision to travel to Georgia for the first time in several years to visit relatives at Thanksgiving. I suppose I can find some time here and there to write while we are “on the road”, but my best course will probably be to write a little extra each day before and after the trip.

And with that, I will now go off and prepare for NaNoWriMo 2010. I probably will not be able to post anything elaborate here while I am off writing, but I will try to at least put up some brief updates on my progress as we move through the month. Wish me luck!


Mixed Days And Negative Feelings

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

October has been a busy month of anniversary days and feelings to match.

On the 1st I celebrated my 10th anniversary of working for Hewlett-Packard. Well, sort of. Back in 2000 I left Coca-Cola to accept a job with Bank of America. I was with the Bank for a little over two years, and then they decided to outsource my job to Electronic Data Systems (EDS). EDS was very gracious and rolled over my service time with the Bank. About five and a half years later EDS merged with Hewlett-Packard, and again my service time was rolled over. So, while 2010 technically marks my 10th service anniversary with HP, I have physically worked for them only two years. It seems strange to think that my time keeps getting rolled over from one company to the next…what would have been nice is if back in the beginning Bank of America had counted my time worked with Coca-Cola (about 12-1/2 years); then I would be in my 22nd year with HP instead of my 10th. But, it really would not mean very much in the long run…to recognize my “special day” my manager wished me a happy anniversary and I received a certificate (via e-mail) from the CEO of the company thanking me for my years of work. It felt somewhat underwhelming for the occasion, but given the state of the business world these days I am grateful to have a job.

Last Friday (the 15th) was another sort of anniversary, marking four months having passed since Stephen’s accident. I no longer count the weeks; they are becoming too numerous to keep up with. I will probably stop counting the months as well once the first year or two has passed. It reminds me a lot of when he was born…first we counted his age in days, then weeks, then months until he was about 2, and then we counted years after that. It feels strange that once again I am counting time like this for one of my children; I had not expected anything like that to happen until my children started having their own babies sometime in the far future.

Today is yet a different anniversary – my 48th birthday. It is another year older for me, which I really do not mind at this point in my life, but it is also another “first” because Stephen is not here. I am sure my wife and younger son will do something special this evening to celebrate and my friends will offer their best wishes throughout the day, all of which I greatly appreciate, but I am certain I will still feel somewhat empty inside because Steve isn’t here.

Underwhelmed, strange, and empty – all negative feelings, even for the days that should have been positive. I do not know what significance, if any, could be tied to that. Any thoughts?


It’s All Relative

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

I recently made an unscheduled trip to Georgia (the first trip in several years for any of us) to visit my oldest brother, who was in the hospital after collapsing in his bathroom a couple of nights before and seemed to be doing very poorly. I went alone; my son is in school, and my wife stayed behind with him. It was an interesting trip for many reasons, but most of all it was interesting because of the way my relatives acted toward me while I was there. No, there was nothing bad about it; quite to the contrary, it was the most pleasant and accommodating visit I have had since moving my family to Texas ten years ago.

I felt like royalty – my mother tended to the bedroom and bathroom I used in her house like I was staying in a five-star hotel; my oldest niece took me out to lunch the day I arrived; and both my mother and my sisters-in-law cooked delicious dinners each night I was there, including a big steak dinner the night before I went home. I got to visit with almost all of my family at one point or another, missing only my youngest brother’s wife and his oldest daughter. Each and every one of them seemed overjoyed that I had come to visit, and one niece in particular kept pushing the question, “When are you going to move back to Georgia?”

When I finally left to begin the 14-hour drive back to Texas, I had many things to think about. The most pervasive thought was over whether to start visiting Georgia more often. Moving there permanently is out of the question; with our son Stephen buried here in Texas, my wife and I have decided that when our time comes we will be buried next to him. But, there is nothing to say we cannot visit relatives more often. The first opportunity for us to do that would likely be at Thanksgiving; school is out for that entire week, and getting time off from work should not be an issue either. My mother has already offered her spare bedrooms for us to use; all we have to do is get there.

Therein lies the issue. How should we travel – by air or by road? Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Flying is much faster, but is more expensive than driving…and we would still need some form of ground transportation after we arrive in Georgia, which means renting a car. Driving is less expensive and gives us a means of transportation when we arrive, but the trip is quite long (as I mentioned earlier, it is about 14 hours each way). My wife prefers flying, but when we look at our budget it quickly becomes clear that driving is the more affordable choice.

And with that, the discussions continue. What will we finally decide? When I find out, I will be sure to let you all know!

(Postscript: My brother had a very large bleeding ulcer in his intestine that was causing him to pass a lot of blood, lowering his blood count and making him weak. He is now out of the hospital and resting at home.)


Visible Cause, Hidden Effect

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Yesterday's Memories

Had my father lived, and had my parents stayed married, they would have celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary this week. But, sadly, neither of those events occurred. My parents made it about 18-1/2 years as a couple; their divorce became final about a month before I graduated from high school in 1980. Dad lived only eight more years after that, dying from cancer at the age of 57.

I don’t know the exact description used back then for the grounds of the divorce; these days, it would probably be called “irreconcilable differences” because they truly had a conflict between them that tore their marriage apart. I don’t know all the details, and I don’t want to know them; what I do know is my mother filed the papers and my father didn’t contest it, hoping she would change her mind and want to work out their differences…but it didn’t happen. He kept on hoping she would take him back for the better part of seven years. Finally he met another woman who he eventually married, and she cared for him as he became more ill in the months before his death.

I used to think that their divorce did not affect me very much; after all, I left home for college a few months later. Now, I’m not so sure.

I’ve been married for a little over 17 years, having celebrated an anniversary just last month. By all appearances, my marriage is on track to last much longer than my parents’ time together. Like my parents, my wife and I have had our differences, but so far there is nothing we haven’t been able to work out. Not too long ago, I was asked by a more-recently-married man what our “secret” was. “Just keep talking,” I told him. “Don’t clam up and walk away and hope things will fix themselves, because they won’t.” When I thought about it later, I realized that I had learned that lesson by watching my parents. Whenever he didn’t like what Mom was saying to him, Dad would simply close his mouth and walk out of the room; if he had stayed and kept talking, I believe he and Mom would have been better able to work out their differences. Who knows? Maybe they would have stayed married a few years longer, perhaps until he passed away.

I wonder how many other lessons I learned from my parents without realizing it?


The Final Award

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Yesterday's Memories

We received a large envelope for Stephen in the mail today. It was from the College Board, the organization that manages all the standardized testing that students take when applying to college, like the SAT. Steve had taken four Advanced Placement (AP) tests back in May in an effort to earn some college credits for his high school work. He was waiting for the scores to come in when he died, so he never knew how he did. When the scores finally arrived in mid-July, we learned that he had done extremely well on three of the four exams.

This takes us to the envelope that came in today. In it was a letter of congratulations on his test scores, and a certificate recognizing him as an AP Scholar. The date on the certificate was August 14th – a month after his scores came in, and almost two months after the accident. It is the last award Steve will ever receive in a very long line of awards he earned over the years, starting with numerous prizes for reading in elementary school. He won every reading award the school offered, and he pushed the limits so far that the faculty had to invent new awards to recognize his work. He won numerous academic trophies, medals, and certificates over the years, and was very proud to receive each and every one. Many of his medals and trophies are on our fireplace mantle and the nearby shelves, and we framed and hung many of the certificates on the wall outside his bedroom; but, we quickly ran out of space to put more up, and the newer ones ended up scattered around his room and the rest of the house. He far and away outstripped me and the awards I received in school, and he was in an excellent position to achieve his goal of becoming class valedictorian.

And yet, in spite of everything he accomplished, he never felt satisfied with his work. He always pushed himself to try harder with each new assignment given to him, and his schedule during his sophomore year was filled with almost all AP classes. He sometimes whined and lamented over that, but he was quick to remind himself that it had been his choice to make, and then he would go back to his work.

It is unfortunate for all of us that he died just as his efforts were starting to pay off for him. There will always be the thought of “what might have been” making its way through the corridors of our minds, but there is some comfort in knowing that whatever might have been, Steve would have strived to be the best.


An Unwanted Anniversary

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Yesterday's Memories

It was 22 years ago today, on August 20, 1988, that my father passed away. It was a Saturday morning, and the word came from his wife at about 7am (my parents divorced in 1980, and he remarried in 1987). The entire sequence of events that followed, right up to the end of the funeral two days later, are as clear in my mind today as they were when they happened. Those memories were actually helpful to me when my son passed away in June; having been through the experience of making funeral preparations back then made it much less confusing when the time came to make Stephen’s arrangements.

For the first few years after Dad died, I would visit his grave on this day. I was always by myself when I visited…that was not because I wanted to be alone; it just seemed to work out that way. He had been in the Army when he was younger, and the government provided a metal grave marker that sits flush with the ground; I would usually make sure nothing was growing over it, then stand there silently for some time. Some years, I would talk to him as though he was there listening patiently; somehow, I felt he was.


Photo courtesy of Randy Sheppard

I got married in 1993, and the effort of raising a family took me away from visiting his grave regularly; then finally in 2000 I moved out of the state altogether, making any kind of simple visit impossible. I have been back to visit relatives several times since then, usually around holidays or while on business trips, but I never seemed to have enough time to pay Dad a visit.

When I stop to think about all of the changes in my life since that day, it boggles my mind – getting married and raising three children, moving 1,000 miles away from where I was raised and starting over in a new town, watching the kids grow into teenagers, sending my first one off to college, and recently losing my son. I have reached the pinnacles of success and the depths of despair, and had many accomplishments in between that were both good and bad; I wonder, though, how many of those might have been different had I been able to seek Dad’s counsel. There were countless times I wanted to talk with him about what I was doing and where I was going, and ask for his advice on so many difficult decisions, but I could not; instead, I had to figure things out on my own. I have tried to reason with myself, asking “what would Dad have done in this situation?” but it is simply not the same as talking to a living, breathing person.

If he were alive today Dad would be 79 years old, but I would be willing to bet his mind would still be as sharp as it ever was. He was a big baseball fan, and would watch or listen to every Atlanta Braves game each season and could rattle off stats about all of the players; today, he would probably still be trying to follow them, even though their games are rarely televised any more. He and my son Stephen would have gotten along great because Steve was also a big baseball fan, having played in Little League and also having followed the Braves as much as he could. I am certain they are both in Heaven now, swapping stories about their favorite players and games. They might even be taking turns hitting some balls around; both of them liked to do that, oddly enough. I’m sure I’ll have a lot of catching up to do with both of them when I get there!

And so, this is my salute to you, Dad. May you always rest in peace.


The First Of Many Firsts

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

Today would have been my son Stephen’s 16th birthday. It is the first one to pass without him.

The high school band Steve was a member of decided to have a brief event today in remembrance of him, and my family was invited to attend and participate. It was held outdoors on their practice field. Everyone was given a helium balloon and stood together in a large circle. After a moment of silence, the balloons were released to float away with the wind. Following that, we went to their band hall for lunch, and I spoke a few words of thanks to them for remembering him today. We also took the opportunity to present his pallbearers (most of whom were his fellow band members) with small thank-you gifts, as well as give small tokens of appreciation to several other people. In return, my younger son was given several t-shirts that were being worn by the band…two were what are called a “section shirt” (worn by everyone who plays a particular instrument – in his case, the trumpet), while the other was a “leadership shirt” (he was a section leader). In both cases, his name was listed on the shirts. When I saw them, I realized that the band was going through a “first” of their own by commemorating someone who was so loved and respected.

I know how emotional “firsts” can be. In July of last year I had coronary bypass surgery. Every major event that happened for the next twelve months – my wedding anniversary, birthday, holidays, even the changing seasons – became a “first” for me…but in a good way. These were events I might not have lived to see were it not for the skilled hands of the surgeon and the love, support, and prayers of my family and friends. They were firsts I looked forward to, and when each one arrived I felt so very grateful to be alive and able to share them with everyone. I was still going through those firsts on the day of Stephen’s accident. So now, I have another twelve months’ worth of firsts to live through, but I am not looking forward to any of them.

In this case, the firsts go beyond the annual events to include many of the firsts of any young adult’s life – first driver’s license…first time borrowing the car to go out on a date…first day at college…first full-time job…even his first love. But then, who is to say he had not already met his first love? If he did, he never spoke to me or my wife about her; or, perhaps he had already met her and did not know it because they were both too shy to say anything to one another. If this were true, I am sure that girl has felt absolutely devastated since his death. If she truly exists, I would hope that someday I could meet her and tell her more about him.

I have been told that writing is therapeutic for some people, and I believe this to be true, at least in my case. Writing helps me organize the jumbled thoughts I often have running through my head; and, more importantly, it allows me to share my thoughts, and wishes, and memories that would eventually be misplaced or lost had I not done so. I hope to write much more about my son in the days to come, and I hope you will be along to read about him and share in my memories.

Happy Birthday, Steve.


What’s My Writing Style?

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

At the suggestion of a fellow writer’s group member, I went to a website called I Write Like, which analyzes samples of writing and compares them to that of several famous authors. I tried it myself by feeding it the first chapter of the NaNo book I wrote last year (The Best Gifts In Life), and this is the result:

I write like

Dan Brown

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I’m not entirely sure if that’s an accurate description of my writing, so I tried it again using one of my earlier blog posts (Playing Chess In A House Of Cards) and got this result:

I write like

Stephen King

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

This is starting to get confusing. So, I decided to try a different blog post (Does Summer Have To Wait Until Memorial Day? ) and got this result:

I write like

James Joyce

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Now I’m really confused. Three different writing samples, and three completely different results. I decided to try one last blog post (I Could Be Their Next Winner!) and ended up with:

I write like

Margaret Atwood

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Four samples, and four different results. But, after thinking a bit about it, I think I’ve come up with an explanation: Instead of following a specific author’s style, I draw upon the styles of many different authors, blending them together into one style that is uniquely my own.

At least it makes sense to me…!