Grieving, while messy, can be transformative. I have chronicled my process in 13 letters written to Laura on significant dates after her death. I used journals as source material to document my evolution from sadness and anger to acceptance and the motivation to power forward.
Laura and her husband, Richard, on our wedding day…
August 8, 1987
June 14, 1999
Janet & I had just returned from a Seattle/Silverdale weekend trip when we received a chilling midnight phone call from your nephew, Dwayne. He said you had died, and my first reaction was disbelief. How could this be? You had attended an AA meeting with me recently, and admitted you were an alcoholic in recovery. I thought you had been sober for 6 months. As it began to dawn on me I was the only one left from our family of origin to deal with your disease, I felt disheartened and totally numb inside. We learned from doctors in the following days you sustained a perforated ulcer causing toxic peritonitis. You put on high heels but never made it out of your house the evening of June 13th. A quarter-century of hard drinking caused you to die prematurely 4 months and 6 days after your 46th birthday. The addictive path was your choice at every turn, but what a loss.
Do you remember your intervention at Portland Adventist Hospital Thanksgiving week of 1998? You screamed, “Poor little rich boy” in a futile attempt to disrupt the proceedings. Doctors, your trust officer and I agreed in order to live, you had to stop drinking. Do you remember your mandatory outpatient follow-up treatment in Oregon City? You resisted mightily my driving you to a required appointment where the counselor stated plainly: either stop drinking or expect death within 6 months. You never attended any further scheduled appointments. I told a friend during Christmas season 1998 you would die within half a year, and I still couldn’t process Dwayne’s phone call. None of us knew that women sustain health complications due to alcohol abuse at an accelerated rate when compared to men.
You and I did a surreal dance with your alcoholic disease for over 25 years … or was it a symptom? Do you remember numerous stays at Damasch State (Mental) Hospital in the 70’s and 80’s? You had been dual diagnosed affective-schizophrenic and bipolar and prescribed appropriate medicines. Do you remember when I found you a new shrink? After Rick, your husband of almost 19 years, died from alcohol-induced health complications, you found solace talking to a psychiatrist.
I wish you had not self-medicated with booze. I tried to be your champion and your advocate, Laura. I tried to be a good brother. We were the only two who shared the common thread of children linked inextricably to Dad’s addiction until he stopped drinking for good in 1965. We both survived his bipolar episodes from 1965-1970 but I left you to cope alone after heading for Whitman College in the fall of 1968. Now what? Thank God for Janet! I miss you like crazy.
June 20, 1999
Today we will gather at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Parish to celebrate your life and share the Holy Eucharist. Mom and Dad were married here May 24, 1947, and you grew up in this church. Dad offered a comically nervous spoonerism, “I trite thee my ploth,” as a wedding vow and never set foot in our familial house of worship again. Back then it was the Cathedral … go figure! Do you remember your confirmation? Shortly after your 12th birthday, February 7, 1965, we also gathered at St. Stephen’s to honor your dedicated study and receive the blessed Body and Blood of our Risen Saviour. I was the attending acolyte and was exceedingly proud of my little sister. You were glowing in your white dress and mantilla cascading over that signature strawberry blond hair … courtesy of a recessive gene that allowed for Grandfather Chapman’s red beard. Someone snapped our sacramental picture. We were outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.
I was assertive with the interim minister in scheduling today’s memorial service. He expressed a desire to feed his Koi fish in their outdoor pond as usual on a Sunday afternoon. I suggested today would be the exception to his routine as this was the most convenient day for family and friends to congregate and pray for the repose of your soul. Since we were little I fought many of your battles, Laura … big and small. Today was no exception.
There was an abundance of love in God’s house for you as we assembled to remember your vibrant life approach including that delighted laugh when you got a case of the giggles. Your favorite nieces and nephew were in the front row. You were more than their baby-sitter, Laura. You were loved, and you were family. Your best friend from high school had a tear in her eye. Your nurse/caregiver for the past 6 months and I offered loving remembrances during the homily portion of the service. Judy had become your new best friend, especially when you had to visit the dreaded dentist.
It was difficult to say goodbye, but we were comforted by your eternal presence with the Lord. You will suffer no more. I have just begun a journey which will require a new form of detachment. As time passes I hope to learn about and incorporate the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference!
August 22, 1999
What a wild summer! About a year ago I joined a Search Committee to find a new full-time minister for St. Stephen’s. We met last Wednesday, and I welcomed him to our healing service. This dude appears to have lots of charisma so my piano solo composition presented itself that afternoon. It’s called “Arrival” and the harmonic structure is based on 4th intervals full of hopeful anticipation … no resolution, but lots of expectation. I will play my tune on the sanctuary Steinway this morning as a welcoming gift from our parish family.
Arrival also represents a new chapter for St. Stephen’s as your death triggered a generous endowment “no strings” gift from Mom’s estate to our church. I hope and pray that effective stewardship principles will align with a sense of fiduciary responsibility and be our guide. Since mom’s death in 1992 and in spite of my behind-the-scenes gifts, my prayer has remained unanswered as church expenses consistently have exceeded revenue. 1996 was the only year in the past decade when we produced a budget surplus. Remarkably, we were in the black to the tune of $666! What might that sum portend? It may well be that my prayer petitions have been solely from a self-centered human perspective or that I have not been open to God’s answer. It may well be that St. Stephen’s mirrors some of the emotional dynamics and dysfunction you and I experienced as children. On this day I remain thankful to God for his instruction through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in all matters!
Today is also Uncle Sam and Aunt June’s Golden wedding anniversary. I’m looking forward to a fun piano gig celebrating two of our favorite relatives. I’ll start playing appropriate love songs in about an hour.
You won’t believe what just happened, Laura. Wait a minute … you already know.
Aunt Terri composed and just sang a tune for Uncle Rol, who died earlier this year, called “I Just Remembered.” She whispered to me that it was a simple little waltz and that nobody would be listening. Of course we were mesmerized and moved to tears. There are no coincidences in God’s universe. Terri was playing the Steinway that Uncle Rol had played as a child. Our grandmother and great aunt and grandfather and great uncle were sisters and brothers who lived next to each other. Dad’s childhood home was now Aunt June and Uncle Sam’s address. Uncle Rol and Aunt June’s grand piano simply moved next door. I enjoyed finishing the gig playing a Steinway with so much history. Aunt Terri just mentioned under her breath she would like “I Just Remembered” to be orchestrated. I have such respect for her musical sensibilities and am thinking I have a new tall order to fulfill. Wish me luck.
September 19, 1999
Since you can no longer send me a card, I’ll correspond with you on my 49th birthday. You now know my thoughts before I write them. Does dad still call you “Little Sweetheart”? I thank God you no longer feel pain. With the possible exception of my godmother and mom’s best friend, Aunt Knoxie, nobody in this world sent more birthday cards to me than you. I remain grateful for your love and support. We shared some special times in spite of the tumult. We had each other’s back, and that still feels like a grand birthday present to me.
Speaking of presents … thank you for your courage in attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with me in late March. I enjoyed our breakfast together … especially when you kidded me about “stealing your toast.” I must have been hungry. Then I was so proud. You courageously introduced yourself to the group and said “I am Laura Mersereau Pressnall, and I’m an alcoholic.”
I have been thinking about our last dinner together April 30th at Shari’s restaurant in your Clackamas neighborhood. Janet and I were preparing for another Hawaiian adventure, and you were excited for us. You and Rick enjoyed staying at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel which was mom’s favorite base of operations with her family in the 1930’s. Your enthusiasm was palpable, and we very much appreciated the red rose you gave to us after our meal. Your smile was sweet, and your eyes were filled with love as we said goodbye.
I still have a card from you in a special box of mementos that says “Thank you for being my brother.” I will always treasure you, Laura. Thank you for being my sister.
December 25, 1999
Another milestone … our 1st Christmas not in the same world. We completed Aunt Terri’s orchestrated tune, “I Just Remembered,” and sent copies of the CD to her children and their children. What a thrilling process. My friend Steve produced the recording session and we collaborated with a gifted LA orchestrator and arranger named Michael. He supplied the synth string section and harp. We hired musicians to play flute, trumpet, English horn, piano, bass, and drums. Nancy sang Aunt Terri’s poignant lyrics. I hope she will be pleased. I sure am. The entire process was a gift, and I hope to create a musical project with larger scope soon.
Thinking about you inspires me, so I want to remember some compelling characteristics that defined your essence … freckles, giggles and smiles for everyone. I loved your joy-filled spark. Sometimes I was serious and stuffy. You offered needed balance. I can’t thank you enough, Laura. You taught me lessons that I never found in books. Your people skills were pronounced and seemed to flow naturally. Sometimes I envied that.
You also loved animals … guinea pigs when you were little and always our beloved Labradors. You were best friends with Kookie, Chocolate Frosting and the Cinders. In childhood you lived a delighted golden-rule philosophy. It was a supreme gift to everyone you met. It still is. Merry Christmas.
February 7, 2000
We’re in a new millennium and today would be your birthday. More than anything I wish we could light 47 candles to celebrate your birth and the gregarious little girl we all loved. You took a hard left turn at 17. You chose to align yourself romantically with a 25-year-old sociopath who introduced you to LSD. I comforted you into the following dawn. This was no fun ride. You couldn’t shake the nightmarish images for the next quarter century. You thought booze was the answer but it wasn’t.
Sometimes my anger moves with such determination through my toes and upward that I think my head is going to explode. Why did you do this? Why did you desert me, Laura? We all tried for over a quarter century to bring back your joy but the sparkle never returned to your beautiful eyes, and the giggles were gone.
I have been dealing with the prospect of processing your inevitably early death since that bad trip in 1969. Alcoholics who self-medicate rather than confront their mental health demons die on the average at 43. You beat the odds, but I’m still mad as hell. Maybe composing a bunch of tunes will help us both. What do you think?
March 15, 2000
Janet and I donated your house today to the YWCA. It feels like an initial healing step to endow a long-term sobriety program called Laura’s House. Our goal is to honor your memory by providing hope and help for young women. We’ll work out the details later, but please know I am thinking about you.
Concrete plans are also on the drawing board for my first CD project dedicated to you, Laura. My friend Steve will be the producer. He’s lined up some fabulous musicians, and our friend Michael from LA will provide a lush orchestration and arrangement for the title track I’ll be singing entitled Laura.
I am slowly feeling waves of sadness and anger recede. Your death has become my motivator to help others avoid your addictive path. I expect this forward journey will offer many twists and turns, but my mission to make your memory matter will remain on the horizon for the rest of my days.
December 25, 2000
Mission accomplished! We completed our musical project dedicated to you and plan to donate 1000 CD’s to the YWCA for next spring’s fundraising banquet. It is a Christmas present on multiple levels, and I am pleased with the results. Whitman alum and Oregonian columnist, Margie Boule, wrote an illuminating article December 19th chronicling our mutual journey. With a circulation of over 400,000 potential readers, I am convinced we are helping others with our story. Transparency is good, and I hope you agree. Even if you don’t concur, I must share the truth as I know it … musically and verbally. It helps me. Here are my liner notes, Laura. Merry Christmas.
This project is dedicated to the memory of my sister, Laura Mersereau Pressnall, a vibrant gregarious love-filled human being who died at age 46 due to physical complications from a quarter-century battle with her enemy, the disease of alcoholism. She was able to maintain sobriety and confront her previous denial demons in the final six months of her life, but sadly this just wasn’t enough. We wish to continue the good fight against this pernicious combatant by donating the majority of proceeds from this cd to the YWCA “Laura’s House” fund dedicated to providing assistance to women who wish to break free from this addictive disease state. The YWCA has designed a three-pronged proactive program that assists all phases of recovery, each of which embraces the truth found in sobriety – through transitional housing, education, and a life style that promotes ongoing alcohol-free choices.
The music in this collaborative effort is also focused on a most sobering truth. Each phase of our existence offers hope and possibility if we let it. This is the truth that all musicians cooperatively involved with my compositions communicate. From “Sunrise,” “Arrival,” and “Sojourn,” through “Vision,” “Spiritus,” and “Au Revoir,” each segment of the life cycle has it own significance and meaning.
Laura is now in the next phase of her journey, but her memory can serve as a reminder musically and literally that hope continues to exist … “a face in the misty light – footsteps that you hear by the door.” Here’s to you, Laura. We lift you up and that is the truth.
April 6, 2001
We continue to move forward. My musical partner Alice and I offered a Terwilliger Plaza concert this evening which featured piano, synthesizer and singing. Many friends attended and the auditorium was packed. At 88 Alice still sings like a bird, and she closed our performance with a poignant vocal of Some Enchanted Evening. Her son Bruce surprised his mom earlier singing Someone to Watch Over Me. Avery and Bruce presented Alice with a plaque affirming her love of music and their love for her.
I thank God for music. It allows for the authentic expression of feelings in a way that no other artistic form can. I love connecting with myself, the other musicians and the audience. It is raw and it is real. Alice just called to thank me. She was pleased with her musical performance and appreciated her children’s and friends’ love and support. She said she didn’t need anything else, and then exclaimed, “What’s next?” We make our own kind of music, Laura. Something magical will always be on the horizon.
January 27, 2002
I never expected that losing you would be such an untidy process. You continue to be free of pain, and it appears through my journals God continues to offer me transformational possibilities beyond any conceivable expectation. The process is uncomfortable, but I remain open. Today will be cathartic as I speak at the St. Stephen’s annual meeting. Talk about a living, breathing, Serenity Prayer opportunity. Please give me strength and courage.
My struggle at our beloved church home has escalated since your death. It mirrors my failed attempts to keep you alive and to fix our family of origin. Do you remember our childhood nicknames from Mom and Dad? You were “Little Sweetheart” and I was “Doc” – capable of familial fixing … or so I thought.
I am slowly integrating new internal connecting emotional knowledge, Laura. These lessons are a result of your death, so thank you! Something in my gut told me to politely decline multiple offers through the years to participate formally in church governance. God helped me with that valuable decision of self support, and I remain grateful. My supreme lesson is: God is in charge here on planet earth … not me, not you, not our Rector, nor any authority figure.
With the help of a dedicated Senior Warden we successfully convinced the St. Stephen’s vestry to donate 5% of mom’s $600,000 gift to the YWCA Laura’s House program. For the past 30 plus months since you died I have been way too concerned about how our church spends the other 95%. It’s not my call and never was. I will proudly lift up your memory today. This is the largest charitable donation St. Stephen’s has ever offered in its 130-year history. I know young women may survive an addictive path and possibly teach others to do the same because of this gift. Interdependent teamwork produced beneficial results … even in the midst of chaos. Thanks be to God!
June 13, 2009
On the tenth anniversary of your tragically premature alcohol-induced death, I still miss you like crazy. When Janet and I first learned you had died, I felt numb inside. How could this be? We can both be heartened because my mission to make your memory matter continues. Sharing your story offers hope and help to countless others, and the snowballing benefits are overwhelming. 13 articles chronicle your journey at www.bradmersereau.com Laura’s Story webpage. We must be transparent, Laura. I believe illuminating your struggle and offering the possibility of consistent sobriety-maintenance will save lives.
Central City Concern dedicated a 24/7 monitored drug-and-alcohol-free 4-plex to you in February 2009. It’s called Laura’s Place and I couldn’t be more proud. Young mothers are grabbing on to the wonder of a lifetime sobriety paradigm-shift. 125 students from 25 different Portland Metro area high schools participated in last December’s Laura Mersereau Memorial Essay Scholarship Contest co-sponsored by the Oregon Partnership. Mayor Tom Potter announced two first-place cash awards at the City Hall ceremony. Most importantly all 125 students won by writing thoughtfully about their individual drug-and-alcohol-refusal skills midst a sea of peer pressure. 47 youngsters have pledged to honor their minds, bodies, and spirits by simply following the law and not messing with drugs or alcohol before their 21st birthdays. You also inspired me to establish a Sobriety Anniversaries Page at our website dedicated to your memory, Laura. 219 brave souls have documented 2820 collective sober years. Your legacy warms my heart and I will remain devoted for the rest of my days.
March 28, 2012
Thank God for revelations and healing. 12 years ago I wrote to you about my anger regarding your choice to dance with a 25 year alcoholic life style which culminated in your death, June 13, 1999. Since that day my mission has been to make your memory matter with addiction prevention and recovery resources at www.bradmersereau.com. Through grace and tenacity we have received 70,000 web page views since launching our website May 1, 2006. 182 teens pledge not to mess with drugs or alcohol before 21 on our Sobriety Pledge web page. 725 champions celebrate 9425 clean & sober years on our Sobriety Anniversary web page. Your passing has been my supreme motivator, and I thought my grieving process was mostly resolved. Today during a massage session I received the surprise of my life. With 10 minutes left, I felt intense shivers for no apparent reason. My masseuse said “You may be thinking about your sister. I will depart from the room and let you process your feelings. Take your time.” In those minutes my shivers (anger) turned to sobs (sadness) and it felt profoundly cathartic at a body level because of your traumatic departure, Laura. I appreciated Geppina’s insight and will accept that shivers and sobs remain a necessary part of my grieving process for you.
February 7, 2013
Thank you for being my sister. February 7, 2013 would have been your 60th birthday, but your addiction to alcohol prevented any more celebrations in this life after June 13, 1999. Our mission is to make your memory matter. I am thankful for the 865 champions who affirm 11,650 clean and sober years on our Sobriety Anniversary webpage. I am grateful for the 207 teens who choose to honor mind, body, and spirit without drugs or alcohol before 21 at Laura’s Pledge thus significantly reducing the possibility for any future addiction.
Happy Birthday with love, Brad.