What’ll I Do When You Are Far Away?

What’ll I do when you are far away
And I am blue?
What’ll I do?

What’ll I do
With just a photograph
To tell my troubles to?

When I’m alone with only dreams of you
That won’t come true,
What’ll I do?
(What’ll I Do: Irving Berlin – 1923

I could feel the sob beginning to well up when the Carpenters’ song, “We’ve Only Just Begun”, started playing. It was on the soundtrack of the video Brian Kirst had produced for the Memorial Mass Reception at the Army and Navy Club, in Washington DC. Until that point, the video and soundtrack had offered nostalgic and sometimes funny vignettes and photographs of Mary Ellen and Bill Kirst and their family and friends over the years. Going backward and forward in time, starting from their wedding day in 1966, the video showed movies and stills of Mary Ellen with her mom and dad, sisters and brothers, children and grandchildren, and their other family and friends. The locales of the scenes and photos varied from around the world: Moscow, Rome, Washington DC, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Iran, Poland, Texas, and Sherman Oaks, California. Mary Ellen had led a remarkable life and the video captured the humor, bravery, stubbornness, and wonder of her life and her love of family. Yet the song, “We’ve Only Just Begun” struck a nerve for me and gave the video a new and unifying context. The song became a narrative of the life Mary Ellen had lived for 54 years with her husband Bill. It started with “white lace and promises, a kiss for luck” and they were “on their way”. They had “so many roads to choose” and they started out walking and learned to run. The song is about beginnings – the beginning of M.E. and Bill’s marriage, their life together, and the continuing beginnings of the lives of their children and grandchildren. It was poignant and sad at the same time, but still and all, I managed to keep my welling sob from springing forth until I heard the next and final song on the soundtrack. Leaving the humorous and travel photos behind, Judy Garland’s version of Irving Berlin’s song ushered in a new series of photos of M.E. with only her husband, children, and grandchildren. I could feel the haunting question Judy Garland posed in her song echoing in the hearts of all those attending – each in their own way: “What’ll I do when you are far away? What’ll I do?” What would we all do, with the departure of Mary Ellen Greaney Kirst from our lives?

 All my resolve at being steady, solid, and unemotional in supporting Kathy at all the previous memorial events collapsed with Judy Garland’s song, and my stifled sob broke free and tears began to flow. When I caught sight of Brian at the conclusion of the video, I managed to collect myself and approached him, saying in a choked-up voice, “You son of a bitch! Your bloody video made me cry!” He hugged me fiercely in reply, and said, “Thanks, Tony, that’s what it was supposed to do”.

I had heard tales of Mary Ellen long before I first met her at the Greaney family Christmas party in 1973. During the earliest days of our dating Kathy never tired of telling me stories of her family – her parents, her Aunt Mary and Uncle Clay, and her 9 sisters and brothers. But in those tales of a proud and unique Irish American family, three women always stood out: Mary, her mother, Mary Ellen, the eldest sister, and Debbie, who was born a year after Mary Ellen. Being the third daughter in sibling succession, it always made sense to me that Kathy admired her mom, and in many ways idealized and looked up to her two older sisters. They were both beautiful, young high school and college women – smart, independent, and proud – but Mary Ellen seemed to occupy a special place in her heart. Kathy told me stories of her unique humor, her marvelous laugh, and her fearlessness and boldness to seek out adventure and confront prejudice and meanness. According to Kathy, M.E. was a beauty who looked like the young actress Dolores Hart and had countless suitors. She loved driving through the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood, and West L.A.; challenged the blackballing tactics of her sorority; and enlisted in the Navy as a nurse during her last years at Mount St. Mary’s College. The story was that upon learning from her nursing friend Kathy McGroarty, that delayed enlistment as a Navy Nurse provided paid college tuition and a salary, she impulsively enlisted and bought herself a Mustang convertible with the money. I think in many ways Kathy envied M.E.’s independence in never being under anyone thumb and making her own surprising choices and decisions, sometimes running counter to the wishes of her parents. Her announcement that she was engaged to Bill Kirst after only six months of dating was one of the biggest. The urgency was caused because they were both going into the military soon and they wanted to be together during their training. Kathy still describes the day Mary Ellen left for training in Rhode Island as “the saddest day in my life”, because she knew M.E. would never return to live in their home as her sister.

 By the time I met Mary Ellen and Bill at Christmas in 1973, they had been married for eight years with a daughter, Margi, and were on the verge of leaving for Rome to work for the accounting firm Price-Waterhouse. I remember having a long conversation with Bill when he discovered that I was completing graduate work in Latin American Studies and looking forward to a career in the Foreign Service of the State Department. It seemed to match up with his own desire to work overseas and travel the world. However, I was immediately captivated by M.E., and she proved to be everything Kathy had described: charming, funny, witty, and smart. She too engaged me in conversation and wanted to know all about me – where I’d grown up, gone to school, majored in college, and of my plans.  She was obviously curious about how I had managed to win the affection of her younger sister who had never brought a suitor to the family Christmas party, and I wanted to make a good impression. Kathy had briefed me that M.E. “did not suffer fools” so I tried hard to win her over without being obvious. I felt that a “thumbs up” from Mary Ellen was crucial in my relationship with Kathy. Happily, we found many commonalities to talk about and share that evening, and it didn’t hurt when I mentioned that I had been a Goldwater supporter in 1964. Ultimately though, I believe M.E. always judged me on how much I loved Kathy and how that was translated in my actions and behaviors toward her and our children. I too grew to love her intelligence, her humor and orneriness, and devotion to her family. I think Kathy’s “saddest day” was repeated in August of 1974, when M.E., Bill, and Margi left for Rome. Except for a brief sojourn in Orange County, California, the Kirst family, which would ultimately include Katie, Bill, Mary, Kevin, and Brian, spent the next 20 years traveling the world at work or vacationing: Rome, Tehran, Houston, Warsaw, Moscow, Frankfurt, Galway, Basil, and finally Washington D.C. Except for visits and vacations, Mary Ellen, Kathy’s eldest sister, never returned to live in Los Angeles, California. On August 14, 2020, Mary Ellen passed away at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland due to complications from a heart attack after surgery.

Even though I’ve experienced the death of my own mother and father, grandparents, and many more relatives and friends, I’ve come to believe that there can still be nothing more devastating than suffering the sudden and unexpected death of a sibling. When a sister or brother dies, I feel that a part of you dies with them. The events, memories, and stories that the departed sibling experienced and shared with you through childhood and young adulthood are gone – never to be remembered or recounted again. With their death, it is as if the treasured personnel file that only your brother or sister kept on you has been shredded, burned, and turned to ash. A part of your past has been buried with them. What made the death of Mary Ellen Kirst so doubly hard to bear for her siblings was the separation caused by its suddenness, and the distance and travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. I cannot fathom the grief and sense of helplessness and loss suffered by M.E.’s eight surviving Greaney siblings when they learned of her unexpected heart attack and subsequent death in Washington D.C. and were prevented from attending her funeral and burial in August of 2020. Only their brother Mike, who lives in Connecticut, and their nephew Jeff Parker, who lives in Chicago, were able to attend and participate at the funeral mass and burial. The remaining brother and six sisters were forced to restrain their natural inclination to be present at the funeral and burial and stay at home, making do with a private mass at the home of Meg and Lou Samaniego, and dealing privately with the emotions they found difficult to express. Without the full benefit of religious ritual, and the embrace of one’s family and friends, how does a sibling living in Los Angeles, California, mourn and begin processing the grief of their loss? This essay is my way of describing how the Kirst family provided the healing answer to this haunting question.

Several months after M.E.’s funeral and burial, Kathy received an email from Margi explaining that the Kirst family wished to host a Memorial Funeral Mass and Reception on the anniversary of Mary Ellen’s death, and to hold a private rosary at the burial site followed by a family brunch at her home. Phone calls followed and Kathy enthusiastically conveyed the information to her siblings, indicating immediately that she planned to attend. “Showing up” is a Greaney Family hallmark. The 10 original siblings showed up for family events, both joyous and sad – swim and diving competitions, basketball and water polo, birthdays, plays and recitals, marriages, baptisms, and funerals. They could turn sad events into celebrations, and happy events into parties. It was simply a matter of time, as word spread, and husbands and wives talked, that the list of those siblings and family members able to travel to D.C. for the memorial grew to 14: Kathy and I, Mike, Greg and Anne, Meg and Lou, Tootie, Tere and Mike, and Jeff and Lynn with their two daughters, Grace and Constance.

The day we arrived at Washington was a kaleidoscope of action and emotions: apprehension at being in a crowded LAX; anticipating the weekend during the long flight; joy at seeing Margi and her son drive up to pick us up at National Airport; delight at listening to her describe the different places we could visit near our hotel where we could eat and reunite with other family members; and the wonder of being together after so many months apart. Meeting at an Irish pub nearby called Kirwan’s on the Wharf, our original party of six eventually expanded to 13 with the arrival of Tootie, Greg and Anne, Billy Kirst, Margi and Ron, and Theresa Colston. That dinner pretty much set the tone for the next two days. Although the plan was to attend the 3 “official” events (Rosary, Funeral Mass, and Reception), the imperative was to be together as often as possible. We would be together in varying large numbers throughout the weekend, and in that unity was a sense of strength and resolve to celebrate the wonderous life Mary Ellen had with her siblings, children, and the family members who could remember her – each in their own way – toasting and recounting stories of M.E., and the ways she had affected and influenced their lives.

While I participated wholeheartedly in all these reunions, get-togethers, and activities, I tried to keep myself separate from the emotional grief that underpinned them for Kathy and her siblings. I found shelter in my camera. I would use it at the cemetery during the rosary, at the brunch at Margi and Ron’s home, and at the church during the mass. The lens I placed in front of the individuals and groups I photographed gave me the space to stand emotionally apart from the underlying sadness of the events. The itinerary of events was very proscribed – which was very typical of Bill Kirst who is “a man, a plan, and a canal” type of guy. On Saturday morning, one year from the day that Mary Ellen died, all family members who had traveled to D.C. were picked up by designated Kirst drivers and transported to All Souls Cemetery. There, our sequenced arrivals quickly took on the festive atmosphere of a mobilizing family reunion. Kirst family members we had not seen for years were finally present, and the cacophony of greetings and hugs grew louder and stronger as more and more Greaneys’ and Kirst drivers emerged from the cars to greet them. I moved from group to group with my camera hoping to catch the joyous mood of the gathering crowd, but I couldn’t miss how each member of the Greaney family spent time gazing at Mary Ellen tombstone, which was the focal point of the tented arrangement of chairs. The chiseled granite tombstone was impressive – decorated with an Irish Cross and military symbols – but there was an unsettling sight that all of us gradually noted. Directly in front of the stone marker was a long rectangle of unseeded dirt which indicated the exact location where Mary Ellen was laid to rest. I didn’t think much of it at the time because the happiness of seeing so many long absent relatives was overwhelming. When the plethora of greetings, hugs, and reminisces concluded, Bill, standing behind the tombstone, called for our attention and commenced the ceremony. Explaining the importance of the ritual, he asked us all to come together to recite the funeral Rosary which usually takes place during the vigil, the night prior to a funeral mass and burial.

 I must confess, at first, I thought the rosary redundant. M.E.’s actual funeral and burial had already taken place the year before, and I feared the unleashing of immeasurable grief at its renewal. But I respected Bill and the wishes of the family and tried hiding the emotions that I knew would well up at the recitation of the rosary with my camera. It didn’t help. A different member of the Kirst family led in the recitation of the five decades of the rosary: Theresa, then Ron, then Patrick, then Christopher, and finally Mary. Although there is comfort in the recitation of long-ago memorized prayers, every Our Father and Hail Mary seemed to tear at the hearts of those responding, especially when led by the childish voices of Christopher and Patrick. Their voices – sometimes strong and confident, other times low and quivering – brought forth tender images and memories of their grandmother. When the rosary concluded, I thankfully let out a deep breath, believing that the ceremony was over – but it wasn’t. Bill again resumed his position behind the stone and stated that he wished to reenact the ritual performed at Dr. Greaney’s burial, where each of his children placed a red rose on his grave. In slow procession, each of M.E.’s siblings received a pink rose from Theresa and placed them on the tombstone and on the rectangular site of M.E.’s interment. This was followed by their spouses being asked to do the same. It was a startling request. Bill was asking the spouses to be more than witnesses to these family rituals, he was asking us to share in the depth of their loss.

It was only weeks later, while listening to Kathy and her sister Tere recalling the rosary and funeral mass, that the symbolism of the roses on the dirt struck me. The laying of roses at M.E.’s gravesite elicited images of St. Juan Diego, the Mexican Indian, who, when soliciting proof of the miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary at Tepeyac, was directed by her to gather up roses from a nearby hillside in his “tilma” and present them to the Archbishop of Mexico City. When he did so, and as the roses cascaded from his “tilma” onto the ground, the archbishop saw the imprint of the Virgen of Guadalupe on the cloth that hangs at the Cathedral today. You may ascribe this association to the mind of a cradle Catholic who is still susceptive to religious signs and symbols, but something special happened that day at All Souls Cemetery, and it was more than just a repetition of prayers.

After the somberness of the rosary, the following brunch hosted by Margi and Ron was a celebration and a feast. It reminded me so much of the Greaney Christmases I’ve attended since first meeting M.E. and Bill in 1973, with different groups forming and breaking up into conversation and laughter; and being able to rotate from group to group, listening to the talk and jokes, and deciding to join or walk on to a different group. Margi and Ron’s home resonated with voices on different topics and with countless reasons for laughter. The only interruption came when I suggested that we retire outside to take photos of all the groups and individuals present. Since the day of Aunt Mary’s funeral reception at Lakeside, family photos have been an important touchstone for the Greaney’s at these events. Despite the sadness of their loss, they took the time to document the occasion as a celebration of the life that has passed and the lives that will continue forward. It’s a way of remembering the past, the present, and the future. At the conclusion of the photo session the party slowly subsided and we soon returned to our respective hotels. Any lingering emotions of grief dissipated later that day when Kathy made dinner reservations for a large family gathering at our hotel for the Greaney contingent. The Kirst’s were planning a private dinner that night, so the Greaney clan, which numbered 14, was on its own until the memorial mass on Sunday. Dinner proved to be another family celebration, with people moving from place to place, while talking about school, sports, movies, and travel plans. It was a satisfying end to a cathartic day.

On Sunday, I felt that everyone “girded up” for M.E.’s memorial mass and reception. The liturgy readers for the mass – Greg, Kathy, Mary, and Lou – were nervous and uncertain in giving voice to words they had been asked to read; and the men and women attending wore formal attire for the first time that weekend. I of course took shelter with my camera. I asked Margi if it was all right to photograph during mass, and she encouraged me to do so. “I want you to take pictures of everything,” she said, “we want to remember today”. It was a tough memorial mass for the Kirst’s and the Greaney’s – especially during the readings and the singing. Kathy, Greg, and Lou were solid in their recitations, but hearing Mary Kirst, the lone sibling, read was heartbreaking. Softly and slowly, never looking up to see the crowd of people who were in attendance, she read. I couldn’t imagine the courage it took for her to do this alone. I think everyone managed to contain themselves well until Jeff and Theresa began singing Panis Angelicus. I, with my camera, concentrating on the singers, could not bear to see how M.E.’s siblings, spouses, and children were reacting. Although the assemblage in front of church after a funeral mass is very much like a baptism or wedding, with large groups of people gathering and talking, I couldn’t treat it as such. I took some photos of couples I knew but chose not to intrude on anyone else. I felt that my sojourn as official photographer was over, and I resolved to simply be an objective observer at the reception scheduled at the Army and Navy Club. My job was done. Through the lens of my camera, I’d wanted to show the Kirst and Greaney families at their best: happy at being brought together in sadness at the loss of their wife, mother, and sister, but intent on celebrating her life, and united in the joyous belief that all of Mary Ellen’s struggles, pains, and debilitations were behind her. She was at peace. Safe in the comfort of the Faith that had sustained her throughout her life, and in the company of her deceased parents and sister Debbie.

Postscript: If your are interested in watching the Kirst video for Mary Ellen, the link follows below:

Family Portrait 2006

Me and My Sister

Sisters, sisters,
There were never such devoted sisters.
Never had to have a chaperone, no sir.
I’m here to keep my eye on her.

Caring, sharing
Every little thing that we are wearing…
All kinds of weather, we stick together,
The same in the rain and sun.
Two different faces, but in tight places
We think and act as one.

Those who’ve seen us
Know that not a thing can come between us.
Many men have tried to split us up, but no one can.
Lord help the mister who comes between me and my sister.
(Sisters: Irving Berlin – 1954)

Recently Kathy and I hosted our two granddaughters, Sarah and Gracie, for an overnight sleepover – giving their parents, Prisa and Joe, some quality private time and a sleep-in morning. These sleepovers are always interesting for us because they give us the opportunity to observe these two youngsters at their current levels of maturity. They also give us the chance to interact with them: learning and playing their new board games, listening to their stories of school, and taking long walks with them to the neighborhood 7-11 Store for slurpees. What especially delights me is watching their joyful interactions and realizing that they are sisters – the most intimate of companions for years to come until they are bonded in a lifelong union of love and common history. And yet they remain very distinct girls, at very different levels of physical development and emotional maturity. This fact was clearly demonstrated when we saw them playing basketball in February and March…

I had just re-situated myself into a new seat along the sideline of the basketball court when I noticed that Sarah, the tall, blonde-haired point guard of her third-grade team was slowly and casually dribbling the ball up-court with her left hand. As an opposing defender approached her from that side, she quickly shifted the ball to the other hand and began driving to the right corner. I barely had time to react and position my camera to shoot as she sped along my side of the court. “Click-click-click-click” went the shutter as she blurred past me, putting out her left arm to fend off the opposing player. She reached the corner of the court and head-faked a halt to freeze the defender before suddenly stopping and hefting a shot at the basket. It struck the opposite side of the hoop and the slowly rimmed out. More than feeling the disappointment of her miss, I prayed that I had managed to capture her impressive drive and shot on camera. I couldn’t stop feeling amazed at the progress of her basketball skills since the last time we’d seen her play.

Sarah’s game was the second in a double-header we watched that weekend. Kathy and I had seen her 5-year old sister, Gracie, play in her Torrance playground league the day before. We did this over two months – each time spending the night between games at a nearby hotel to avoid the long car rides back and forth from the west San Fernando Valley to catch two games on consecutive mornings. This last double-header was in February, so a month had passed since we’d seen the girls play – and their progress was stunning.

Sarah is 9-years old and Gracie is 5, and they play the game at very differing levels of ability. Sarah has played organized basketball for three years now and Gracie is just beginning, so there is a wide disparity in their games. As point guard of her 3rd Grade team, Sarah is a fierce competitor, looking up as she pushes the ball downcourt, switching hands on the dribble, and slashing past defenders. Gracie is just learning the game – dribbling with both hands and occasionally losing control of the ball, and barely reaching the hoop when she shots. It is great fun watching and photographing these two young cagers, although I have to admit Gracie’s games are much more humorous because all her other teammates play in the same awkward manner. No points are tallied on the scoreboard, which only shows the time remaining in the game, and all the family spectators cheer when either team manages to score. What these girls do best is run up and downcourt, and eagerly look forward to being substituted out so they can sit in the bleachers and rest with their parents. We can always tell when Gracie’s interest in the game begins waning because, when she doesn’t have the ball, she begins skipping downcourt instead of running, and starts doing cartwheels on the court whenever there is a pause in the action. Sarah, on the other hand, is a consistent study of intensity on defense and offense.

There is a truism in sibling relationships that younger siblings always desire to imitate the actions and sporting activities of their older brothers or sisters. That was certainly the case with my own brother, Arturo, who was one year younger than I. Art always wanted to play the games and sports I played, and to tag along with me and my friends. I witnessed it again while watching my own children grow up. My son Toñito was two years older than Prisa, so I had him learning to play soccer, baseball, and basketball first – put Prisa was always in the background watching and wanting to play as well. She very quickly joined in, shagging balls that Toñito hit, playing catch with us, kicking soccer balls, and rebounding and shooting baskets. Eventually Prisa sustained her love of organized sports through high school and college, while Toñito’s sporting interest waned, choosing to emphasize theater instead. As I watched my granddaughters grow up, I suspected at first that Gracie would deviate from this sibling tendency, because she showed such different developmental patterns than her older sister, with very disparate likes and dislikes. As an infant, Gracie preferred riding over walking, solitary play over interactive ones, and rarely agreeing with my suggestions for lunch meals, outings, and outdoor activities – as her sister had. However, since attending the same school as Sarah over the last two years and watching how she wants to imitate and compete in all of Sarah’s sporting and extracurricular activities, I’m not so sure anymore.

Gracie’s games continue to be more entertaining because of the limited skills of all the novice players, but their improvements have been huge. Since watching her play a month ago, Gracie has scored baskets and was now playing and dribbling with more confidence and always looking to shoot. One sequence I caught on camera was very similar to the one I described above of Sarah. Gracie was dribbling the ball up-court (with one or two hands), and when halted by a defender she stopped, then pushed past her (holding the ball), until she positioned herself on the left side of the basket and heaved up a shot that ALMOST went in. Scoring baskets is always nice, but the joy and buoyancy these 5-year-old girls exhibit in running, guarding, and trying to dribble and shoot make the games delightful to watch. Sarah still shows some of this child-like exuberance when she plays (and especially when the games are over), and I hope both girls continue feeling it as they get older and more skillful. However, there is another aspect of sibling relationships that I have noticed more and more, and it may have something to do with Gracie’s desire to imitate Sarah’s sporting interests – sibling rivalry.

Being 3 years older than Gracie, Sarah was always very solicitous and caring of her sister as an infant baby, and little girl, but by the time Gracie was walking, talking, and expressing her desires at two years old, their interactions began to exhibit some levels of conflict. Gracie started calling Sarah “bossy” and “selfish” and wanted to be treated in the same manner as her older sister or given the same gifts and benefits offered to an older child. As I watched them during our recent sleepover, these interactions can become very acrimonious at times, and Kathy and I are challenged to referee and resolve them peacefully. These sibling “fights” reminded me of the ones I had with my own brother Arthur, who was only 1 year younger. As the older brother I always felt put upon and victimized because it seemed to me that I always had to be the understanding one and back off or give in to Arthur’s complaints about me. I had to take him along when my friends and I went to the playground or park to play sports and had to include him in our games. Thankfully our conflicts decreased as we got older. Strangely I never noticed my sisters having these manifestations of sibling rivalry, nor my two younger brothers, although I think they are a normal product of sibling development. At least I hope so, because over the years I’ve observed that there seems to exist a special “sisterhood” of sorts among girls and women, especially between sisters and cousins. Girls and women seem to interact and form a unique bond of friendship, love, and unity, that provides an endless source of solace and support in times of trial and difficulty. I’ve been fortunate to see this bonding modeled by Kathy and her sisters, and by Prisa and her cousins. This is the bond I hope to see grow and develop in Sarah and Grace as they minimize their arguments, mature as siblings, and are taught to sing the Irving Berlin song Sisters, by their grandmother, great-aunts, and female cousins.




gossimer threads bind
green willows on verdant fields
by Gallic fairies loomed


sunbeams on cobalt
yellow arrow points the way
to a field of stars