Thanksgiving As Therapy.

 

A blogger friend’s recent post about traditions started me thinking about my own traditions with family and friends and how they’ve changed over the years.

As a child, and well into my young adulthood, I spent Thanksgiving at my parents’ house, my childhood home. The menu was classic and rarely varied: a big fat roasted turkey, stuffed full of sage and sausage dressing; potatoes and gravy; fruit salad; cranberry sauce; and some combination of vegetables, usually green beans, creamed onions, or cauliflower. Sometimes, Mother made sweet potatoes or squash. And there was usually a veggie tray and a divided dish with black olives (Mother being the only one who ate them after Grandma passed away) and pickles.

Of course, the meal was not complete without dessert — apple and pumpkin pies, for which my mother was renowned. Quite the feast! And that was for the early, big dinner – later on, at supper, it was time for turkey sandwiches and pie (for which we had been too full before). Oh my goodness!

I come from a big family, and I always looked forward to these holidays with my parents, because it meant that I would see most, if not all, of my siblings and their families. I relished the house full of loved ones, the Macy’s parade and football games on TV in the background, the chatter and laughter of my sisters, and the children underfoot and overhead in the upstairs bedrooms. The roasting turkey’s aroma, mingled with coffee, pumpkin, and pickles was a familiar and welcome bouquet.

When the bird was done and plattered, it joined the rest of the dishes on the table and we were called to “Wash up!” and “Come and eat!” Those of us with aprons on, who were already bustling about in the kitchen, made sure everyone had a spot to sit, and we’d round up the kids to sit at their own table.

We all sat and bowed our heads to say grace, giving thanks for the meal and the hands that prepared it, and asking blessings upon those at the table as well as those who couldn’t be there. I savored that moment of appreciation, thinking about how fortunate I was to be in that family, at that table, with the people I love, on that busy, but gratifying, day.

And although the meal was always impressive, and we all left the table stuffed and nap-ready, it wasn’t about the food.

It was never about the food.

Over the years, the family got bigger as my sisters married and had children, and eventually, I did the same. As the family got bigger, the Thanksgiving table got smaller, as my older sisters and I started our own Thanksgiving traditions or visited with in-laws. But even after I married and had children, my siblings and I still enjoyed celebrating at my mother’s table sometimes. Mother would do less of the cooking as we encouraged her to sit and rest. We’d make sure Dad had his cold beer so he could enjoy his football game. It was nice to feel like a kid again, but at the same time, to be a grownup.

 

Losing my parents and sister in 1999 dealt such a blow to my life; aside from the obvious, it also turned my whole notion of tradition on its head. I was unable to muster up any desire to celebrate the holidays; for several years, I was lost when it came to Thanksgiving. We were invited to join other family members for their festivities, but nothing really felt like it fit. Not to me. And it wasn’t a reflection of their generous and loving hospitality; it was just how torn I felt from the very fabric of my life. The old tradition was gone – obliterated – and I had nothing with which to replace it.

Eventually, we accepted the invitation of our very dear friends. Their Thanksgiving, while not what I was used to, was a warm and welcome gathering, with a menu that’s a little different each year. I worked my way through the grief by literally working my way through it – I would arrive early in the day, don an apron, and set to prepping vegetables or making pie or whatever task I was given. Many times I found myself in tears over the sink, but those tears were the catharsis I needed.

Thanksgiving with our close friends is the convention we’ve embraced for over a decade now, and although sometimes I yearn for the turkey dinners of the past, I am overwhelmingly grateful for what we have now. We are not guests; we are family, and this is our custom. To honor my parents, I make my mother’s sausage stuffing. Mr. Stuck and I share in the preparation of delightful and creative dishes and serve them proudly. The house is abuzz in activity and laughter and music, with family members, friends, and guests arriving throughout the day. Every year, there seems to be at least one new face to welcome to the table. This is our new old tradition.

And as we sit down to the table heavy with goodies, we carry on the practice of my friend’s late grandfather and take turns sharing what each of us is thankful for. There are many mentions of friends and family, those who have gone before us, and the bounty of the day’s meal. When my turn comes, I am nearly always choked up with emotion and gratitude. I am thankful for so much: the traditions of the past; the generosity of our friends, the hosts; the faces of the people crowded around the large table; the abundance of the meal itself; and the healing that it has meant to me.

But more than anything, I am grateful for what it all represents – the loving ritual; the anchor; that feeling of belonging and the carrying on of a tradition over generations. These are memories that we build together and that our children will look back on and build from.

 

It’s not about the food.

It was never about the food.

 

photo credit Hey Paul Studios

It’s Okay To Be Sad.

Dad, Wendy, and Mom - Dec 1996
Dad, Wendy, and Mom – Dec 1996

March.

It’s nearing the 16-year anniversary of the train crash, which is always a time of great emotion and introspection for me. I think a lot about what life has been like for me and my family since that day, and I think about how far we’ve come. As time has passed, the loss has become easier to bear, and I’ve been able to view more clearly the blessings it carried.

I wanted to write my post about that, about blessings, but I fought for every word that I typed. It felt like I was choking. I hate that. If it’s not there, it’s just not there. I can’t force it. So, I changed direction.

Talked to my sis about it a little. She lives in the folks’ old homestead and she says she feels them there all the time. That makes it tough for her sometimes, but it is a comfort, as well. I think we’ve all moved on enough in our lives that the anniversary is not as profoundly difficult as it was. We all observe it differently, anyway. It’s a day where I do a lot of navel-gazing and thinking.

Last year, going to my friend’s wedding was the best thing that could have happened. It really helped me manage my feelings. It’s not as if I hide under the covers and sob all day like I used to, but I am still so very sad and lonely on that day. Well, to be honest, the whole month is kind of blue. With the possible exception of my birthday, I just have an underlying emptiness this time of year.

I just miss them so damned much.

I don’t want people to feel sorry for me or anything – that’s not it at all. I just feel the need to say it out loud. It’s a validation of the love and the loss and the empty space.

The whole month carries a kind of fog that descends at the end of February. I have to consciously redirect my thoughts to happier things, which often is more easily said than done. I coach myself to put on a smile and be cheerful when I feel it coming on. I talk myself through the day, a moment at a time. When I’m at work, sometimes I take a walk for a few minutes to get some fresh air and clear my head. Sometimes that works, and sometimes I end up in the bathroom stall with tears rolling down my face. That has happened more times than I care to admit.

I know I’m not the only one who struggles with grief. I’m not the only one who has lost a parent, a sibling, a child, a spouse. I know you’re out there, crying silently in the dark, biting your quivering lip, wishing you could turn back time. I know you still want to hear their voices and feel their hugs. I know you steal glances at families and couples and happy strangers and your face burns with envy or regret. I know the ache that really does feel like your heart has broken in two. And whether it’s been a week, or a year, or a decade or two, it doesn’t matter — because sometimes, it feels like now and it feels like then at the same damned time.

It’s been 16 years, and I still hurt, and the depth of my grief still scares me. I’ve come to accept that it will always be there, and I’ve even come to the realization that it has done me some good, but it’s still unwelcome. I mean, come on — by this time, I’m supposed to be done with it, right?

Wrong. Five years, ten years, twenty years down the road, it’ll still be there, and I’ll still struggle with it. There is no closure. I don’t care what people say — I don’t believe it. You move on, you get past the worst of it, and your life takes a different turn. But the issue isn’t closed and it isn’t resolved. It’s unfinished, like a half-built highway overpass that looms ahead – a bridge to nowhere. There is no end.

I wrote back in October that I have sort of an inner governor that keeps me from going off the deep end and drowning in my sorrow. That’s true. But it doesn’t protect me from the heartache. Most of the time, I function at the level I’m supposed to. But sometimes, a big rolling wave crashes over me, and it’s a day or two before I can breathe again.

I miss them with every hair and bone and piece of flesh that I am.

I’m here to say that it does get better, yes. The worst passes, even when we are quite certain we won’t survive. Healing is slow, and a broken heart is never quite whole again, but I think that’s okay.

And it’s okay that sometimes I still break down in the ladies’ room, and it’s okay that my throat catches when I talk about my Daddy.

It’s okay to be emotional when you need to be.

It’s okay to be sad. It won’t last forever.

xoxo

 

 

 

Have Courage.

 

What would you do if you knew you could not fail?
 – Eleanor Roosevelt

 Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.
 – Neale Donald Walsch

 

Comfort zone.

As much as I believe the term has been overused, it is an easily understood concept. We do what we do out of habit and out of a love of routine. Just like when we nestle into our warm beds, once we’ve set ourselves up in a comfy spot, mentally or physically, we are loath to change. It doesn’t really matter if our zone is actually, truly comfortable; as long as it is familiar, we are more likely to stick with it than choose the alternative. Even when the alternative is better, we often find ourselves mired in the wheel-ruts of our routines. Why?

I’ve asked myself this question many times over the years and with increased intensity since WLS became part of my life. Why do I continue to hold the negative thought processes and perspectives that landed me here? Why is it so hard for me to embrace a more positive self-image? Why am I unable to let go of my old self?

What am I afraid of?

I have to believe that many of you are also struggling with embracing the change and leaving the old you behind with all its associated beliefs and baggage. It’s why we can’t let go of the past. It’s why we still have closets full of clothes that don’t fit and pantries full of food we don’t eat. It’s why we brush off compliments but take every slight to heart. It’s why we take tentative steps forward, all the while looking behind. It’s why we let the opinions of others dictate how we feel about ourselves. What if we fail? What if this new thing doesn’t work out? If you listen, you can already hear the ‘I told you so’ chorus warming up.

I am motivated, in large part, by fear. Fear is an unwieldy and unwelcome part of my life. I’d like to say I’m getting better at dealing with that part of my psyche, but honestly, I don’t know if that’s true. What I do know is that I have made it into a big, scary monster that either keeps me from doing certain things or compels me to do them. I’m afraid of the dark, so I leave lights on unnecessarily. I’m afraid of what other people think, so I don’t always say what’s on my mind.

What are you afraid of? Ridicule. Embarrassment. Being misunderstood. Failure. Risk. Success. Revealing yourself. Loss. Not being good enough. Commitment. Rejection. Missing out. Death. Action. Inaction. Change.

Real or perceived, fears can easily control us.

Fear can give me a ton of reasons to do something, and it also gives me a ton of excuses not to. It’s been very prosperous in my life; I’ve allowed it unrestricted access to my decisions, my self-image, my language, and my activities. I’ve deferred to it and allowed it to be my default position, whether I realize it or not.

As a result, I haven’t challenged myself much. It’s much easier this way, you know: if I do what I’ve always done, I’ll continue to get the results I’ve always had, and there won’t be any doubt or uncertainty about it. I can coast right along.

Right?

Well, if I am to be honest with myself, I’d have to admit that I like challenges. I like them because they offer me the opportunity to achieve, to learn, and to overcome. Challenges, by their very nature, are confrontational; they defiantly stand in front of you with arms crossed as if to say, “So what?” Challenges dare you to act; dare you to upset the status quo; dare you to prove them wrong.

In January of last year, I viewed starting a blog as a challenge, so I braved the naysayer in my head and met it head on. It may be too early to tell, but I think it was a good decision. Blogging has been good therapy for me in many ways, but it hasn’t healed my grief or solved my problems; rather, it has brought those things front and center for me to deal with. It has made me recognize and appreciate the flaws and frailties that make me who I am. Writing has helped my comfort zone expand, and as it has grown, so have I. I highly recommend it.

Losing weight and changing myself has been an even bigger challenge. It has dared me to rethink everything about my life and my choices. It’s teaching me things I never knew and giving me strength. I’m coloring outside the lines now.

As I live my post-op life, challenges arise on a regular basis. I admit I haven’t taken up all of the gauntlets thrown at my feet; some will have to wait until I feel a bit more confident. But each one I do accept makes me that much happier and secure in myself.

I’m slowly coming to the realization that allowing for what other people think should not be a platform of my personal development. In some ways, that position reflects how I felt through my grief – what is right for you is not what’s right for him, or her, or me. I can’t live my life in fear of the judgment of others. Chances are, they care far less than I give them credit for, anyway.

I’m 50 years old, but in some ways I feel like I’ve just started living.

 

 photo credit Garry Wilmore

A Little Bit Blue.

Funny thing about grief: it finds its own way.

It barges in sometimes, an unwanted, boorish intruder with a booming voice and bad body odor, and forces you into a confrontation. You’ve barred the door and closed the curtains and turned off the porch light, but that doesn’t matter. It’s here, and it WILL BE HEARD.

I was minding my own business this weekend, trying to find my desk under all of the stacks of mail and paper, when I found it.  The Book.  It’s a nondescript hardcover, coffee-table sized, with writing on the spine and section dividers.  It is the book that was prepared by my family’s law firm to provide personal portraits of my mother, father, and sister to people who never knew them.  It was intended to show them as special people who were loved, who were important, and who are deeply missed.  It does a pretty good job of it.  There are photographs, excerpts from our depositions and testimonial letters from family and friends.  It touches on highlights of their lives and then devotes the end of the text to their sudden deaths.

I had brought it down from the shelf a few months ago when Number Young Son had some questions about the train crash.  Having been so young at the time, neither of the boys have read the newspaper articles or seen this book.  Their knowledge of the crash has come from me and their dad. I hoped that maybe the book could fill in some of the holes and answer some of their questions.

Of course I had to open it.  I just thumbed through it, pausing to read a few lines here and there.  The tears welled up and spilled, and my throat was tight, but it was more of a release than anything else.  Reading those heartfelt words about my Pa, my Momma and my goofy sister made me cry good tears.  But even those tears just drip into the void.

I’ve done that ‘grief work.’  Don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy — it’s not. It’s horrible, brutal, cruel, painful, exhausting, punishing work.  It’s as tiring as hard physical labor. It drains every last bit of energy, spirit, ambition, and hope right out of you. It robs you; it takes you down to the raw nubs of your most naked inner self and leaves you with nothing.  I have spent way too much time there, thanks.  No need to go back.  These days, I have a sort of inner governor that kicks in when the going gets rough – it keeps me from the deep end of that drowning pool.

But that is not to say that I don’t mourn.  Believe me, I miss my parents with every cell in my body.  I miss my sister the same way.  I ache for their voices and yearn to be wrapped in their hugs. But fifteen years after the fact, the jagged edges have been worn smooth.  The peaks and valleys are there and the road is still bumpy in spots, but I’m no longer picking splinters out of my heart.  My sadness is a still, deep well.

So when I saw an item shared on my Facebook feed, a link to a post entitled Mourning My Mom, Before and After Facebook, I had to read it.  The author talked about how different it might have been had Facebook been around when her mother passed away in 2002.  I won’t summarize it here — you can read for yourself — but she made some great points and made me think about how we mourn and how people offer comfort.

I could write at length about my grief and mourning.  I could, but I can’t.  I can’t, because I still have some kind of block that prevents me, like that governor inside, from taking it too far. Self-preservation, I suppose. But that can be so frustrating, when I know that each time I write about it, talk about it, and read about it, it gets a little easier for me.  I really want to scream and holler and throw things and Get It All Out. Then I would feel so much better, right?

That’s a myth, though.  A pipe dream.  I could never get it all out.  It’s part of me now, and it’s changed me.

In the article, the author says, But grief is illogical. It never feels resolved.  She’s right about that.  I want to spit every time I hear someone use the term ‘closure.’  Like you can close the door on that part of your life, and it’s done.  Pfft.  Maybe there are people who can, but I haven’t met one.  I can’t close that door because there’s a big boot stuck in it.  Grief, that paragon of perfect timing, is not about to be shut behind that door.  It is going to show up unannounced and unwelcome, for the rest of my life.  When you least expect it, expect it.

I’m no expert.  I’m not here to tell anyone how it’s done.  I’m not here to wear my loss like a medal or trot it out as a trump card at the pity party.  It’s fact, and it’s my life.  Even my siblings, who had the same loss I had, don’t experience the same mourning in the same way.  I don’t want to carry it around as an excuse for what I do or don’t do.  In reality, it’s there; sometimes I spend time thinking about it, but most times I don’t.  When it was new and fresh and ugly, there was a part of me that wanted everyone to know, so they could understand the person pretending to be me.  I wanted justification.  I wanted reasons.  I wanted something.  Anything.

So I guess this is rather a pointless post.  I’m blue now, but it won’t last forever. I’ll pause and reflect and savor warm memories of the way Momma pushed up her glasses and how she answered the phone in her sing-song voice; how my Pa would perch on the stool in the dining room, peeling apples for the pies she made; and the taste of Wendy’s World-Famous Potato Salad.  I’ll wipe some tears and bite my lip.  I’ll think about what could have been.  I’ll wish I could wake up from this bad dream that’s lasted fifteen years.

And then I’ll be thankful to be as far down this road as I am, and I’ll pray I don’t have to walk that stretch again.

Thanks for listening.

 

 

photo credit perfect_hexagon

Glazed Over.

Crazing, they call it,
This fine lacework of surface flaws,
Brittle, tenuous,
Smooth to the touch.

These spider web cracks betray the fault.
Passing eyes may not notice
The mark of unbearable stress,
But it’s there.
It’s always there.

Walk a little faster,
Keep your eyes fixed on what’s ahead,
And hope that your forward momentum
Is enough.

Because when it isn’t
And your pace slows
And your heart quickens
And your smile fades
And your breath catches
And the fissures widen
And the dam breaks

That’s when it shows.

That’s when they notice.

9-30-14 RLP

 

 

photo credit Tim Regan

The Ides.

Dad, Wendy, and Mom - Dec 1996
Dad, Wendy, and Mom – Dec 1996

Many of you know that I lost my parents, a sister, Wendy, and her friend on March 15, 1999 – the Ides of March.

Every year since then, I have marked that day: early on, I would stay home from work and be miserable.  It was too much to try to be ‘normal’ when I was grieving so deeply.  Between late February and late March, I faced heartache on days that should have been celebrated:  February 26, my parents’ anniversary; my mother’s birthday; Wendy’s birthday; and even my birthday, which was the last time I ever saw the four of them. 

Every one of those days was tough to get through, but not as tough as the day: the 15th, the Ides of March.  For a long time, I was unable to function on that day; it was overwhelming, and I couldn’t manage much more than taking flowers to the graves, awash in tears.  After several years, I would take flowers to the graves and spend the day in quiet reflection, but I no longer took the day off from work.  I would still be overcome with the memories, preferring to keep to myself that day. 

For the last few years, the day has passed much more easily for me.  If I let myself, I can easily be swallowed up in that quicksand of sorrow, but I don’t want to do that, because it’s hard to return when you sink so low.  So I have deliberately tried to go the other direction and find some happiness in that day; it’s tough but necessary.  This year, I am happy to report that I am attending a dear friend’s wedding.

In the last fifteen years I have become a different person.  That sudden and catastrophic loss changed everything.  My heart was shattered, but in healing, it became more open and loving.  I have become more compassionate; living through those terrible times when I thought I might never recover broadened my capacity for love and understanding.  My empathy for those who are struggling is deeper than it ever was.

But I am also afraid.  I am more fearful than ever before of things I cannot control.  I worry constantly, and I can’t seem to stop.  I know my anxiety won’t change a situation or make things better; and I know that being concerned and worrying are two different things.  But no matter what I tell myself, the worries creep in.  I no longer believe that things happen ‘to other people’ – they happened to me and my family – so I keep wondering what will happen next.  It is always — always — in the back of my mind. 

My mind reels with ‘what ifs’ for every situation.  What if that driver crosses the center line and hits me?  What if this plane goes down?  What if a prowler shows up when I’m home alone?  What if something happens to my children and I am helpless to do anything?  I am mostly able to manage the worries, but some days they take over, and when they do, I am an unreasonable, agonizing mess.  Nevermind that many of the things I worry about are not going to happen; that doesn’t matter.  What matters is that once the fear arises, all reason goes out the window, and I become a frightened child. 

I have also noticed that my memory is not as reliable as it once was.  I think the trauma of that incident was a huge factor.  My recall of those first days and weeks is rather muddled, which is understandable, but even long-term recollections of my childhood and young adulthood are gone.  Wiped from my mind.  I can’t remember movies I’ve seen, books I’ve read, or things I’ve said and done.  This is one of the hardest things for me to accept.

My priorities are different now, too.  I used to envision myself having a successful career, great investments, and a busy social life.  Those things changed.  Now, I value time with my family more than I ever did.  After the crash I stopped balancing my checkbook and lost interest in building my investment portfolio; instead of hoping to maximize my profits, I only cared to have enough to pay for my sons to go to college.  I prefer gifts of time and experiences to material things, because I am always aware that time (and life) is short.

My internal turmoil during those first few years matched both the external chaos of the tragedy and the subsequent upheaval among my siblings.  It was an exceptionally difficult time for us all, and with emotions running so high, conflict was inevitable.  There was a lot of anger and pain, and I think we learned more about one another than we ever wanted to.  But that time also taught me to look deeper into people’s hearts for their motivations.  The roller coaster extremes of emotion, the irrationality, the impulsiveness, and the inertia that I experienced all taught me to take a second look at situations instead of merely reacting.  I try to see the underlying issues that make people act and react the way they do. 

Using myself as an example, I realized that stress and emotion cause people to do crazy things sometimes – things that are uncharacteristic of them.  At times, I was sure I was going crazy.  I lost interest in my life in general and sunk into depression.  I acted strangely.  I would hope that people who saw me like that realized that the crazy person wasn’t really me, but a product of what I was going through.  So I try to extend that same understanding to other people.  Who knows what their back stories might be?

Not a day has passed since March 15, 1999 that I don’t miss my parents and sister; the gaping hole in my heart is still there.  So I’m marking the day.  I’ll take flowers to the graves, but then I will go to the wedding and enjoy myself.  “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,4). 

I spent some time in the pit of despair, and when I crawled out, the world was different.  But I was different, too.  Not all of it was change for the better, but that is life. 

And life is still good. 

 

The Big Five-Oh.


Next year, I’ll be 50.  Half a century – you know, Nifty Fifty – ripe fodder for jokes about ‘Old-Timer’s Disease’, gag party gifts like adult diapers and Geritol, and paybacks for all the ribbing I gave my sisters as they reached that golden age.  

Fifty isn’t old.

Fifty isn’t traumatic.

Fifty isn’t the end of the world or the end of my life.  At least, I hope it isn’t.

But fifty is the number of years my sister Missy was given on this earth, and as I approach that birthday, my head and heart are filled with a certain apprehension – what if my life stopped right here?  Am I ready?  Would I fight it, or would I accept it?  Would I be strong enough?  I confess that because my sister Wendy died just a week shy of her 43rd birthday, I could think of nothing else when I reached 42.

When my sisters died, I was an adult, and so were they.  I am sure it is much more difficult for people who lost their brothers or sisters as children – I cannot even imagine, and I cannot speak for them.  Children tend to blame themselves when things like abuse or divorce happen; I suspect that they would also blame themselves if they lost a sister or brother.  I did not have that guilt; as a grown up, I knew it wasn’t my fault.

Still, the sad regret is there – the what ifs…the if onlys… the second-guessing…the replaying of events in my head.  And it’s not just family whose passing makes me compare my lifespan to theirs.  My friend Jon was only 32 when he perished in a house fire.  My dear friend Shirley was 47 when she succumbed to a pulmonary embolism (blood clot).  At each of those ages, I looked in the mirror and asked the questions for which I had no real answer.  I suppose this is a normal part of grieving and moving on.

Life offers no guarantees.  Today I talked with a friend about people who overcome extreme personal adversity, such as the loss of limbs or a grave illness, to live their lives not defined by, but in spite of, those circumstances.  We talked about how attitudes toward death can determine how we live.  We agreed that even for people like us, who do not live under the cloud of a serious disease or catastrophic injury, life holds no promises.  We talked about how life can change – or end – in a moment.  Can we ever really be ready?

So, at 32, with young children, I was grateful, but still checked my smoke detectors.  

At 42, I looked at my own family and was thankful that my sister’s passing would leave no children motherless. 

At 47, I thought about Shirley and how much she had done for others all of her short life. 

And when 50 comes, I will think about Missy and what a terrific grandma she would have been, and I will cherish every moment with my family.

Because sometimes, it feels like borrowed time.

photo credit tawest64

Remembering June.

GE DIGITAL CAMERA

Been in rather a blue funk for a few days.  In addition to the letdown after the hyperventilation surrounding high school graduation for my youngest; the impending 6-week hiatus from our dear friends; and the sick week I just had, it’s June.  June is Father’s Day and graduation, or, for those with younger kids, the month when school lets out and kids are underfoot.  Roses fill the air with their perfume; gardens explode in green; we celebrate the summer solstice; and Sir Paul McCartney and my friend Chris blow out birthday candles in June.

And it is also my sister Missy’s birthday.  Next week she would have been 52.

Two years ago, two of my sisters and I flew down to Georgia to visit Missy and join the sister who was already there.  It was the occasion of Missy’s 50th birthday, and she was in the hospital.  We wanted to make sure to give her a 50th birthday none of us would forget.  We brought along goodies she loved but couldn’t get in Georgia and took decorations and funny things to make her laugh.  Once there, we went shopping for more.  We got her a cake and even a little contraband — small ‘splits’ of wine we thought she might like to try.

None of us could voice what was aching in our hearts.  We were there because we feared that this birthday would be her last.  She needed us, and we needed her.  So we went down to spend time with her, all of us, together.  We would bring some fun to her for awhile and show her some sister love. Our eldest sister was already there helping to care for her, which was a blessing.  We came to see her husband and children and give them some support, as well.

When we first surprised her in her room, on our arrival, it was wonderful.  She hadn’t known we all were coming, and it was a joyous occasion.  Missy perked up, and we set about fussing over her, laughing and joking like old times.

A couple of nights later, in the darkened and vacant hotel lobby, with poster board, markers, and stickers, the four of us made signs to brighten her room.  We laid the paper on the floor and drew around our feet; we traced our hands and thought of silly slogans to write.  We talked and sang and danced and laughed until we nearly wet our pants.  I haven’t felt so close to my sisters in a long while.

The day of her birthday, we arranged for her to be taken out of her room for a few minutes while we set up her party decorations.  We had hoped to put a sign on the outside of her door, as well, but the staff wouldn’t allow it.  No matter — we had streamers and hats and noisy things and cards and little fun gifts for her.  We had cake and shrimp and the contraband wine.  We had to stall the nurse a bit, but when it was all ready, we gave the high sign for her to come in.

She was happily surprised at the party; in addition to her husband and sons and us girls, she had other visitors and well-wishers.  We sang and chatted and she opened her gifts; we had silly hats and glasses for her, as well as a big round ‘button’ made of a paper plate pinned to her gown that said, “Ask Me about AARP!” (American Association of Retired Persons)  We all had fun.  Afterward, she was tired, so we toned it all down and left her to rest.

I will always remember that visit more for the bonding we shared during those days than for what specific things we did or talked about.  We all carry the scar of losing the sister who died with our parents fourteen years ago; that is a sad, but strong, bond we already share.  Even as different as we all are, our love for each other is steadfast.

I wish I could better describe that feeling of oneness with my sisters; it is rather new, as we are not all close in age, and therefore didn’t all grow up together.  We are of three different groups within the family: the two eldest sisters and my brother, who is firstborn, are the first group; after a five-year gap, there are two more girls; after another five years, Missy and me.  We have always been a close family overall, but after we lost our parents and sister in 1999, we realized how short life is and we drew tightly to one another.  We are not often all together physically, either, since one lives in Georgia, one spends half the year in Arizona, and the rest of us live in Washington.  For those few days, we were all together, with no agenda but to be grateful for them and enjoy ourselves.

There is a lot more to this story, but there will be time for that.  Let’s just say that she left us at the age of 50, which was far too young.  Life is so damned short.

So I’m blue.  My heart aches with the weight of memory and loss.  Junes will come and go, but they will always be Missy’s month: not only was it her birthday, but her husband’s birthday is the week before, and their wedding anniversary falls in between.

Dads and grads may take the spotlight, but June belongs to her.

A Patchwork of Memories.

quilt
Memory quilt

5/21 Daily Post: Bittersweet Memories.
You receive a gift that is bittersweet and makes you nostalgic. What is it?

The monumental task of clearing out my parents’ home after their deaths was made even more difficult by the tragic circumstances under which we’d lost them.  Nothing was normal about it, and every little normal thing in the house just reinforced that.  What to do with the contents of a house that grew from small to huge as the family itself grew large?  Where do you start, in a house where most of their 55-year marriage was nurtured and against which all of our childhoods were staged?  We did our best to evenly distribute the “things,” the mementoes of youth, the heirlooms, the books, the spoons.

When it came to their bedroom, it was another matter.  Here was the heart of the house.  Here is where the window stayed open, even on the coldest nights; here is where the ‘workin’ things’ that resided in my Pa’s pockets would tumble onto the nightstand: washers; marbles; screws and nuts of various sizes; a bit of string or wire; a fuse; a flashlight bulb; a butterscotch candy; a hose clamp; a wire nut; some coins (he always jingled the coins in his pocket); and maybe a broken piece of something he intended to repair.  Here were Mother’s ubiquitous safety pins and headscarves and the jewelry she seldom wore.

My parents’ bedroom was normally off-limits when I was a child; without express permission from one or the other, I had no business in there.  I am glad that my parents taught us to respect their privacy; we kids always knew that while we were loved and important to them, they put one another first.  A happy marriage makes for a happy family.

It was difficult to dismantle that room, probably more so than any other part of the house.  Aside from the closets and dressers filled with clothing they no longer wore, there were memories stashed everywhere — everywhere: Birthday cards.  Letters.  Dad’s WWII memorabilia.  Photographs.  Reminders of the early days of their marriage and family, when money was tight and they scraped to get by.  Gifts that we kids had proudly made for them; baby clothes; items that they had kept from when their own parents passed away.  Each drawer, box, and bag spilled more memories.

When we got to the clothing, we knew that most of it would be donated to charity; however, there were a few things we wanted to keep that were meaningful to us.  Those of us who could wear Mother’s lovely wool coat or her favorite blouse were able to choose those things.  There were plenty of Dad’s heavy, plaid flannel shirts to go around.  The clothing with tears or stains that was not going to be given away we set aside for the rag bag.

One of our cousins, who was very close to our family and our parents, is a very talented seamstress.  With great love for our family, she offered us a priceless gift: she would make each of us a quilt from our parents’ and sister’s clothing.  If we would select the items and cut the squares, she would help us lay out the pattern and she would do the piecework, with custom embroidery.  We would select the fabrics for the backing and the binding; a friend of hers would do the quilting.

IMG_20130521_210717_361
windmill pattern

Each quilt (she made SIX of them!) was crafted with loving care.  We chose our preferred fabrics and colors and cut the pieces.  She helped us lay them out, and she pieced them together.  There were scraps of Dad’s work jeans; mom’s aprons; the daisy-printed sheets we all remembered; my sister’s blouses; a red handkerchief here; and a tee-shirt there; all affectionately combined to make a quilt that would warm our bones and our hearts.

The relationships we had with our family reflected in the items we selected to use.  Each quilt is an original; none looks like any other.  Each quilt mirrors its owner and honors its subjects.  Each is embroidered with a brief note of provenance: my cousin’s name, the date, why it was made, and for whom.  She made us promise to use the quilts, not box them up and leave them in a closet.

I have kept my promise.  Mine is no longer stiff and new; it is soft and shows wear on some of the seams.  Some of the squares were made with fabric that was thin to begin with, and those have now worn through, showing the backing behind.  I sometimes look at each square and sigh as I remember Dad in his flannel shirt or Mom in her headscarf; I finger the fabrics deliberately as my mind wanders down that path.

This gift was truly the most heartfelt and bittersweet of anything I have ever been given.  At once it represents sorrow and joy; fun and work; and family and love.

A Damned Stupid, Blubbering Mess.

open journal

Excerpts from the first year.

************************

19 Oct 8:45pm. 
Saw the therapist today.  I hope this is all normal.  Sometimes I feel I’m going crazy.  She tells me I’m not.  Sometimes it’s hard to believe I’ll ever get through this.

20 Oct 9:30pm.
I wonder what my husband thinks?  I don’t want to bore him – if he asks me how I am, I guess I’m just the same.  Every day.  Nothing changes.  Will my marriage survive?  Will I?  He’s got to be tired of this.  I am.  And my kids probably wonder who I am anymore –  certainly not the Mommy they used to know.

22 Oct 10:10pm.
I always seem to do this before bed, don’t I?  What a nice way to go to sleep.  But it’s the only time I have to myself – and since I’m always thinking of it anyhow, I guess bedtime’s as good as any.  Any quiet time for me is painful.  Sometimes noise is easier – but I frustrate so easily now – I’m a real shrew.

25 Oct 9:15pm.
Going to bed early tonight.  Hope it helps.  I’m always so tired.  The therapist says grieving is hard work and wears you out.  I agree.  I could stay in bed all day most of the time if I had the chance.
Mom, I can hardly stand it without you.
Dad, I miss you so much — I try to hear your voice in my head so I don’t forget what it sounds like.  I am so terrified that I will.
Wendy, it feels so awful to lose you — you were so young and full of life — I wanted you to grow old with me and still be shuffling in the kitchen and ‘popping’ your cheek.

27 Oct Weds pm.
I didn’t work today.  Guess I tripped and fell.  I’m a mess.  A damned stupid, blubbering mess.  I’m so tired.  Maybe I’m coming down with something.  Isn’t it funny that my pen from the funeral chapel fits so nicely in my journal?  Why is that funny? Boy, if someone reads this someday they’ll probably have me committed.

********************

It feels strange reading these pages again.  Almost voyeuristic.  Can I be a voyeur of myself?