My Mother’s Pendant
After he died, I gave my mother a necklace with my brother’s image. What I didn’t know was how that would help me
After my brother Sean died, I commissioned a gold pendant, the size of a quarter, on a matching gold chain for my mother. My brother’s initials, “SFK,” were monogrammed on one side and on the other was his photo, a perfect close up of his green eyes, deep dimples and cleft chin, fixed on by a kind of enamel photo processing.
It was just over three months after Sean suffered a massive heart attack, the kind that many paramedics and hospital emergency room staff call “the widow-maker.”
My mom wore the pendant around her neck with the monogram facing out. When it flipped over by accident, the sight of Sean’s face would catch me off guard, and I’d quickly ask her to turn it back over.
His image was too painful to bear as I continued free-falling into deep grief and confusion over his death.
I worried about losing my mental stability. A quick glimpse of his face felt like a potential destabilizing coup de grace and I was desperate to keep myself as sane as possible.
But it was soothing to my mother, which I appreciated.
My Own Talisman
I was a great believer in the comfort of talismans after over a dozen years living and working as a photojournalist, and then as a TV and radio correspondent, in conflict zones, mainly in the Middle East.
The previous year, I had been traveling with the top US commander in Afghanistan at the time, four-star General John F. Campbell, in his own Black Hawk helicopter as it rose up to spectacular heights of about 10,000 feet in craggy, snow-covered mountains. We were delivering Thanksgiving turkeys to the American troops in Paktika Province bordering North Waziristan.
It was 2010, nine years into what remains America’s longest war.
I had no idea that by the next holiday season I would be back at home, grounded for good.
Since it was such a significant American holiday, General Campbell made it his duty to deliver the turkeys personally. Traveling with the top rank is like flying private, albeit with a bit more flight anxiety.
The gunners were firing barrages of warning fire as we ascended. One of them turned toward me and quickly tossed me a spent casing that had just fallen on the floor. I caught it and kept gripping it in my pocket, running my thumb across the smooth metal and the pointed groove to calm myself the rest of the trip.
I kept it with my gear for months afterwards — as I headed to assignments in Egypt and Libya — as a kind of protection, like a lucky rabbit’s foot.
As General Campbell and I hopped out at several stops to drop off the turkeys to the young soldiers, I felt grateful to be there. The troop commander’s leadership and their loyalty to their subordinates always inspired me.
A year later, I organized Thanksgiving at my brother’s suburban home, now empty without him but still home to his wife and two sons. I had moved in to help my sister-in-law and had sworn off war zones for the sake of being present and loyal to my own family.
Wartime and Religious Images
My mother’s pendant reminded me of the small amulets mothers and wives of suicide bombers in the Middle East pinned on as small brooches when their sons or husbands were “martyred”– either killed in clashes or by voluntary suicide.
I’d photographed an essay for Marie Claire magazine in the late 1990’s in Lebanon called the “Widows of Hezbollah.” After their sons and husbands died, the family was given a video of the actual suicide bombing as a memorial.
The families also kept framed portraits, large wall-sized ones, in the living room and crafted small charms with their sons’ or husbands’ faces that the mothers and wives wore. This array of death mementos was meant to both honor and offer comfort to the wife and her kids, and keep the families loyal to the cause of pushing Israel out of southern Lebanon at the time. The wearers said they also helped keep the grief at bay.
Shia Islam is a religion dedicated to Imams and iconographic imagery that some Sunnis see as heresy sort of in the same way some Evangelical Christian groups shudder at the pageantry and icons of a crucified Jesus and many saints decorating Catholic churches.
My mother grew up holding rosaries and wearing a lace mantilla to cover her head during Mass.
She touched the smooth gold of her pendant with my brother’s face as comfort similarly to how she used to say prayers, like the Beatitudes, while moving her fingers down the beads of one of her rosaries.
A Moment of Clarity
I was put in charge of organizing the readings for Sean’s Catholic Funeral Mass.
The strictness of the church mandates that the first reading comes from the Old Testament.
I had a listing of approved passages. A friend suggested to me that I read one that went something like, “I will no longer know joy or happiness.”
Despite my devastation, I had a moment of clarity.
“No I can’t read that,” I said, “because I will always know joy because I knew my brother.”
Sean — my Irish twin by one year, one month, and one day — taught me loyalty, strength, and love. I wasn’t willing to lose that too.
Today, when I need to ease my anxiety, I conjure up Sean’s image in my mind. His chartreuse eyes — which almost match mine — inspire me to smile as big as his million dollar smile that could knock out a room full of people upon entry.