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. 


Back to School? Better You Than Me.

School clothes, the bane of my existence.

I was thinking about how different this August is from last August.  In June, I celebrated Number Young Son’s graduation from high school; but what he probably didn’t know is that I also celebrated the end of school clothes shopping.  I hate clothes shopping.  I have always hated clothes shopping.  And I will hate clothes shopping as long as I live.

Yes, I said it.

Shopping and I have had a mutually antagonistic relationship from the start.  School clothes shopping was by far the worst.  For one thing, Mother was practical.  She had to be, with seven children on one income.  She tried very hard to be equitable for each child while maintaining her budget.  So there was an allowed amount that would be spent on each of us; we would get shoes, a winter coat, undies and socks, and maybe a new outfit.  Being the youngest, my wardrobe was supplemented with hand-me-downs, too, and Mother also sewed for us.

In grade school, my mother would take me to the local stores for clothes and would choose several things for me to try on.  I hated — no, loathed — trying on clothes.  I was a chubby girl, and it was hard to find clothes that fit me right.  She would come into the changing room with me, and after I dressed, I would have to stand before her, following her direction to turn, bend, squat, and raise my arms.  She would tug on zippers and snaps, check snug waistbands, adjust crooked seam lines, and button my blouses clean up to the top, with running commentary about my posture (“Stand up straight!”), the fit of the clothes (“Now, why would anyone put bust darts in a child’s blouse?”), and their construction (“That wouldn’t see three washings before falling apart!”).  Ugh.  By the end of the day, Mother and I would be angry and frustrated with one another, and I would try to distance myself as far from her as possible, which was hard to do in the car.  I grew up hating clothes shopping, and that has stayed with me all my life.

When I was a teenager, clothes shopping trips were a little better, only because Mother would load us up in the station wagon and drive 45 minutes to the only mall around.  Plus, Mother no longer had to come into the changing room with me.  It was one of the two times we would go there each year — once for school shopping and once for Christmas shopping.  My sister and I would be chatting about all of the new fashions of the fall that we had seen in  magazines and catalogs, and we were eager to make our pilgrimage to the department stores and mall shops.

I would follow my sister’s lead into the junior department, where she would find cute clothes at bargain prices.  Missy was a great shopper — she had style and an eye for quality.  She had extra cash from her babysitting jobs, so she often bought accessories to make her outfits more versatile.  She enjoyed shopping, and her enthusiasm kinda rubbed off on me during those trips.  Instead of getting frustrated with clothing that didn’t fit, like I did, she’d shrug it off and find something else.  We’d hit a few stores that were having big sales, and eventually, we’d be done.  Mother often put our items on layaway, which was more affordable, but that meant we couldn’t even bring our new treasures home yet.  All that work and nothing to show for it — what a letdown.

The only part of school shopping I actually liked, rather than tolerated, was when we would buy school supplies.  Now that was fun — new PeeChees, unchewed #2 pencils, hard pink erasers, and later, binders, compasses, and a TI-30 calculator.  I loved the stiffness of the new folders, the perfect point on the freshly-sharpened pencil, and the clean, white pages of the new spiral notebooks.  I would try to negotiate with Mother for the ‘cooler’ pens — Flair felt-tipped or a nice Bic 4-color retractable — and sometimes she gave in.  When I got my own babysitting money, I spent it on a fountain pen with different-colored ink cartridges, finely perforated notebooks that wouldn’t leave the ragged edge that spirals do, and mechanical pencils with fine lead.  In high school, I had pens of every color and style, stencils, stickers, fancy binders, and a better calculator.  I still made paper-sack book covers, though.  Didn’t everyone?

Now this is the cool stuff.

When my own children became school-aged, I had to step into my mother’s role and take my kids shopping.  I had to endure their frustration with the changing room routine as I found myself doing the same things Mother did: tugging at zippers and snaps, checking snug waistbands, and commenting on the quality of the clothing and my children’s posture.  It never failed that the size they wore at the beginning of summer was too small by fall.  I budgeted a set amount for each child and broke it down to shoes and coats and pants and shirts.  I hit all the sales in all the stores and tried to get it done before we were all tired and cranky from hunger.  Still, for me, the best part of school shopping was done not at the mall, but in the stationery section of the department store.  Binders. Composition books. Protractors. Crayons. Glue. Red pencils. Blue pencils. Index cards. Rulers. I was in heaven. My sons didn’t care at all about a certain type of pen, nor were they concerned about the lead thickness in their mechanical pencils, but I shopped my little heart out.  It sorta made up for the other stuff.  Sorta.

When my sons entered high school, clothes shopping got easier.  I’d follow them around to the stores as they tried on what they liked, and I’d whip out my credit card and sign on the dotted line.  That kind of shopping I can do.  We didn’t have to spend a lot of time browsing and pawing through racks of clothing for just the right color or style; we didn’t have to try on 10 different outfits at each store.  Get them some sneakers, some socks and underwear, some shorts and tee-shirts, and maybe a hoodie, and that was fine.  It was a necessary fall ritual, and although I didn’t hate it with them as much as I did when I was young, it still wasn’t on my list of fun things to do.  Sorry, guys.  I love you, but I hate shopping — that’s just how I am.

College — that’s the new mindset.  It’s a whole different ballgame, but at least they can do their own shopping.  Thank goodness.

photo credit (top) Jessie Pearl

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

Playing Chicken.

Chicken purse

Weekly Writing Challenge: The Best Medicine
Time to work out your own funny bone! This week, write about whatever topic you’d like, but go for laughs.

My sister Missy and my dad had an especially playful relationship.  They pulled pranks on one another, gave each other trouble, and goofed around constantly.  Missy was as much the instigator as Dad was.  For example, when Dad teased her, she’d admonish him and threaten, with mock seriousness, to ‘get the spoons.’ 

Getting the spoons meant she would pull two large serving spoons out of the drawer and ‘play’ them on Dad’s arm or back (or sometimes his head) like drumsticks.  Dad, in turn, might ‘accidentally’ butter her arm at the dinner table as he buttered his bread.  Sometimes he would go outside when it was getting dark, and, as Missy and I did the dishes, would sneak to the window above the sink, suddenly showing his face and making us shriek. You just never knew what to expect from Missy or from Dad.

I always wished that I could joke with my folks the way she did, but none of us other siblings had her special touch. Dad and Missy had a very close bond, and much of that was their shared sense of silliness.  Missy, especially, was always thinking of stunts she could pull on Dad; while she was the brains of the operation, I usually ended up being dragged along as the brawn.

One afternoon, when she was about 15, and I was about 12, Missy had a grand idea.  She collared me and told me to go find a box: we were going to pull a trick on Dad.  So, like the dutiful little sister (and errand boy) that I was, I found a box and reported back to her.  We went outside to the shed, and she got me a fishing net with about a 4-ft handle.  We proceeded to the chicken coop out back.  We were going to catch us a chicken! 

After running around in the pen for awhile, I was finally able to get the net over one of the agitated hens.  She squawked something fierce, and left me with a few scratches and welts, but once we put her in the box, she settled down.  We folded the flaps over on the top of the box so there was just a little opening at the top.  We peeked inside; the chicken was eyeing us, but she stayed quiet.  Perfect.

We sneaked in the back door, and I carried the box into Mom and Dad’s room.  Missy told me to set it down on Dad’s side of the bed.  Then, with hushed giggles, we ran upstairs to her room, which was directly above our parents’ room, to listen at the vent.  For some reason I can no longer recall, she knew Dad was heading to his bedroom

Soon enough, we heard Dad in the hallway.  We held our breath.  We heard him go into the bedroom, where he saw the box.  He went to open it, and we heard, WHAT THE — ?!??  MELISSAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!  And then laughter.  She had gotten him again.

Missy and I were rolling on the floor, we were laughing so hard. 

Fortunately for us all, Dad hadn’t let the chicken out of the box – he had opened it only far enough to see what was in it and closed it up quickly when the chicken started squawking and flapping her wings.  (I was really glad, because I didn’t want to be cleaning up the mess.)

Of Tonsils, Adenoids, and a Pouty Little Girl.

When I was a kid, having your tonsils out was both the norm and the cool thing to do.  I mean, come on — back then, going to the HOSPITAL and having an OPERATION was pretty danged cool.  A lot of my friends had had theirs out.  I was so jealous!  They had something they could brag about.  Kinda like the rich kids who skied — the ones who broke their arms or legs had the best bragging rights.  Wow…you broke your leg skiing?  WOW!  Can I sign your cast?

Me, I had a pretty normal, boring life.  I didn’t have any operations.  I didn’t ski.  I didn’t fly somewhere to visit my grandparents during spring break.  I didn’t go to Dad’s one weekend and Mom’s the next.  I didn’t have a cast that everyone could sign.  So when I was a kid, I just knew that my life was nowhere near as exciting as the other kids’.  They got Christmas presents at TWO households.  They got to go skating and skiing and swimming and all of that.  And they had their tonsils out.

For me, the closest I got was when I smashed my finger in the front door and the nail turned purple and it hurt a lot.  Dad took me to Dr. Graisy, who heated a needle with a match and pierced my fingernail so the spurting blood would relieve the pressure.  I hated that doctor.  I hollered and cried and fought him, and he tried to smack me, and my Dad told him to leave me alone.  Dad bought me a 7-up on the way home for being brave when the needle pierced my nail.

An older girl in my neighborhood — Kathy was her name — told me she’d had to get her ‘adenoids’ out.  I didn’t even know what an adenoid was, but I could tell it had to be cool.  Kathy was way cooler than the tonsillectomy veterans, because what she had removed was a mystery to everyone, not just me.  I assumed that’s why she had such a nasal voice — even the word ‘adenoid’ itself sounds nasal when you say it.  I never really liked Kathy because she wielded her adenoidectomy (is that even a word?) like a Coach bag — look, everyone, I have this and you don’t!  So we neighborhood kids plugged our noses to imitate how she talked, saying, “My name is Kathy, and I had my A-DEN-OIDS out!”

My next-older sister had her tonsils out.  She had been sick for awhile, and the doctor said it was tonsillitis and it was bad.  I remember Mom and Dad getting a flashlight and looking down her throat.  She spent the night at the hospital.  I was so jealous…you have no idea how far my nose was out of joint.  She got all the attention, and she got milkshakes.

When we came to take her home, she played it up pretty well…at least, that’s how I saw it.  Dad even stopped for ice cream and 7-up for her on the way home.  Back then, those were pretty special treats.  I recall that Dad let me have a bottle of pop, too, even though my tonsils were intact.  When we got home, I was still pretty pouty watching my sister get fussed over.  (I was a champion pouter in those days, being the baby of the family and all.)

A little while later, Dad called me over to where he sat in his big chair and had me climb up on his lap.  I always liked sitting with him, because he always seemed to have some kind of treat hidden in his shirt.  I patted his pockets, feeling for a butterscotch candy or a piece of “lickernish.”  I felt something in his shirt, but it wasn’t in his pocket.  I patted around the lump above his belly, trying to figure it out.

I gave him a sideways look.  “What’s in your shirt, Daddy?”  as he pretended not to know what I was talking about.  He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out one of his ever-present mechanical pencils, offering it up.  “No, not the pencil!  What’s in here?”  I said, grabbing hold of the lumpy thing under the buttons of his shirt.

“Oh, for the love of Pete!” he said, acting surprised.  “I don’t know!  You’d better take a look, hadn’t you?”  So I fumbled with the middle buttons; when I got them undone, I spied a paper sack, a bit bigger than the penny-candy sacks we used to get at Esser’s, the little corner store.  “I wonder what’s in there?” Daddy said.  “Can I open it?” I asked eagerly.  “If you think you can,” he smiled.

Inside that paper sack was a puppet — a marionette, to be exact.  For me!  She was a simple wooden doll in a pink skirt with painted-on yellow shoes and black hair; strings joined her moveable head, hands and feet to the handle.  The handle was simply two pieces of wood that crossed at right angles, and you held it horizontally above the puppet.  I was so excited!!  I had never had a marionette, so Daddy showed me how to do it.  It was really fun!  I forgot all about being jealous and pouty.

My sister got a marionette, too; hers was a man dressed in black.  After she felt better from her operation, we played puppet show a lot.  My sister always had new storylines for our dolls to act out.

I still have my tonsils, and I still have my marionette.  Resplendent yet In her (dirty) pink skirt and (scuffed) yellow shoes, she now rests in a box in the garage.  Even though the strings have long since rotted and she’s a little worse for wear, I can’t bear to get rid of her.  In my litlte-girl memory, it was my Daddy’s way of comforting me when I felt very left out.  It made me feel special, and it still does.