I’ve been writing this blog in my head all week. I just can’t seem to find a theme I can stick with for more than a paragraph or two. Or, if I’m honest with myself, a sentence or two.
Regular readers will know a friend of mine passed away and her memorial service was this last weekend. I’m in the second or third tier of mourners. Tier one – the decision makers and those truly being overwhelmed with waves of grief. Tier two – the organizers. The ones asking the decision makers what they want and striving to make it happen. The people whose grief makes them prickly, rude, short-tempered, unclear and perfectly sure they have everything in line because keeping things in line is how they cope. Tier three – the support system for the first two tiers. The listeners. The worker bees. The one’s who are distant enough to put off their mourning until it’s convenient (at least a little more effectively).
Having the memorial made it real. That’s part of the point of course. Being gifted some mementos makes it real and personal (which it has always been, but denial is so convenient). Having nothing left to “get done” means there is no longer an excuse to put off the emotional response.
I’m sure the death certificate doesn’t say my friend died of cancer. But it is certainly the undiagnosed and untreated cancer that caused the heart failure.
I’m grateful my friend didn’t die alone at home, but had people around her who cared about her.
I’m grateful my friend went quickly, all at once, rather than having to slowly and painfully waste away.
I’m grateful her very elderly mother dared to get on a plane and put herself in the hands of a community of her daughter’s friends whom she had never met.
I’m grateful for the presence of people who spoke about areas of my friend’s life that I wasn’t privy to.
I’m angry that a cancer that large and impactful goes undiagnosed for so long. I’m angry that the complaints of a large woman (both exceptionally tall and not willowy) are dismissed by our medical community as always being about weight. I’m upset that no matter how good the insurance you’ve got, unless you know what to ask for medicine is practiced according to the insurance company guidelines rather than actual medical need.
I had breakfast today at Gilda’s Club. It’s a sort of monthly social event. At Gilda’s I am surrounded by people living with cancer, many of whom know they have no hope of a cure. I am always buoyed up by the spirit of care and acceptance. I am reminded that there is pain and sorrow, but also hope and joy.
I’m putting one foot in front of the other. Step by step.
The only thing that is certain is that things will change. When I was up at my parents (see last week’s blog) one of the things I did was help my Mother send sympathy cards. Her brother’s father-in-law passed, not unexpectedly. Thing is my parents actually had a relationship with the in-laws and my Mom still hasn’t quite reconciled with being unable to physically show up when these things happen. And of course, given the age group, they happen with some regularity.
The other passing that warranted a response from her was the second husband and truly life partner of an old friend. Again, this was not an unexpected death. All the same it’s the first time I’ve ever heard my Mother admit, “I don’t know what to say.” The reason she doesn’t know is because she’s not there. My Mother always made a point to BE THERE for the people she cares about.
Last week another friend, my age, died suddenly and unexpectedly. This has left many people in my community reeling. I’m doing what I can to show up.
There have been plenty of times in my life when I couldn’t show up. Sometimes I’ve been physically unable to. I have lost friends because I didn’t show up when they needed me. My physical limitations (up to and including being in the hospital) apparently were not an adequate salve for the feeling of betrayal.
Occasionally I haven’t been able to show up because some obligations trump others. I’ve always been proactive about trying to make sure that there is either notice or some kind of substitute in place. I’m sorry, sick kids and other family needs have to come first. Everyone who knows me well has heard me bemoan being unable to hold a “real job” because I am on call to Orion’s medical needs. Still they are surprised and hurt when that same issue comes up and impacts “sure I’ll help you with that project”.
The thing about showing up for other people is that when you do what you can, when you can sometimes you get lucky. Grief is an odd thing, and it doesn’t just stop. Sometimes that card that gets sent months later comes in at exactly the right time. Sometimes the phone call, “I can’t be there because my own life is falling apart.” provides some distance, or perspective or just an opportunity for a friend to get out of their own head. Sometimes not being there in the moment has made me available for the long haul.
Last week my women’s group did an honoring of Frieda Kahlo on the anniversary of her death. That was 64 years ago and people are still being impacted. People still show up when they can. I believe it still makes a difference.
The temperatures are dropping and the wind is gusting. The cold and damp are fitting for the season, they set the mood. There are ghosts walking.
I am at that age where parents die in clusters. This is the way of things, of course, but that doesn’t make it easy. I worry about my own parents as they approach their “end years”. I see that gradual decline isn’t so gradual any more. It’s getting harder for them to keep up, to get by, to get things done.
This year in particular I find myself trying to offer comfort to friends whose loss simply can not be consoled. Grief comes in waves, it takes its own time. Those “stages” are neither sequential nor independent. They can come in any order, repeatedly and sometimes all at once. And I take those phone calls. I listen. I witness. Sometimes that’s enough.
I’m looking for comfort too. I want to escape in a good book. I want a fire in the fireplace. I want a pot of soup on the stove. For my ancestors those things were just part of the days. Now I can go to the grocery store and buy mirepoix, precut and measured. (I didn’t, but I can.) Bone broth is on the shelf in boxes because much of our meat is already removed from the bones. Soup is no longer the ever present cauldron, but a can in the pantry.
Baking is part of that comfort factor as well. A good bread, warm from the oven, and I can feel myself relax into the smell. Pop-up biscuits from the refrigerator case do not elicit the same affect.
There is no time for this kind of comfort in most of our lives. We rush through our days, rush through our meals, rush through our grieving and just “get on”. Perhaps the most important part of this season is to make a point and take some time. In most of the U.S. we have an extra hour coming to us this coming Sunday. How are you going to use it?
It’s been a challenging week. I took on the role of being a supportive friend. This week my community lost an old friend of mine to metastatic pancreatic cancer. He went quickly, having just announced his diagnosis a month ago.
Many people in my circles were still coming to terms with his diagnosis when he passed away. There is a lot of shock, and grief. There is also a coming together of kindness and support as stories, memories, are shared.
This community pulled together to support my friend in his passing and to provide him with the send off he desired. There is documentation and journaling and a promise of a resource guide. Those who participated in that process are all posting “I want to go like this” on their Facebook pages.
I have stayed in the background, offering quiet support to those I am closer to. I have mostly listened and acknowledged that this man’s passing is a great loss to the community at large. I have encouraged people to check in on each other. I have passed on the news to folks who knew this man, but are outside of our community.
I have another friend who is building a career as an entertainer. She had a set at a comedy club as part of a contest. So I went to the club to be supportive. She didn’t move ahead in the contest, but I had a great time.
Laughter is often the best medicine when dealing with stress, grief, anger and other difficult emotions. Our bodies need the release, and so do our souls. It seemed odd being at a comedy club when so many of my friends were looking to join in toasting the life of this man. Still, for me, it was the better choice.
I got to support another friend. I got a night out (which my regular readers know is a big treat). I got to laugh, which was good for me.
There isn’t a gentle way to say that our cat Gandalf passed away last week. We knew it was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier. The house is empty, and more poignantly so is my lap. He was at least 15 years old (I can’t keep track) and stayed with us through two other cats, a dog, a marriage and a divorce. . . We got the cat from a friend who has a farm. He was a “special needs” kitten. He was the only one of the litter who survived. Mom cat was a little too genetically close to the father. He was polydactylic, but none of his feet matched in numbers of toes. .
His rear legs were sensitive, his kneecaps floated leaving the nerves exposed. His hips were displaced and he walked with an odd gate. We called him a Cabbit because he would hop like a rabbit to get around. . . He was going to be Orion’s cat and so on the way to get him I asked Orion if he’d thought about names. Orion announced the cat’s name would be Gandalf. I thought maybe he’d want to see the cat first, get to know him a little. No. As always Orion was sure, and right.
. Although he was careful about letting people pick him up, Gandalf was a social cat. He was always interested in visitors and willing to make friends. Because of his disability he wasn’t likely to jump into a lap without an invitation, but he was happy to cuddle up and get some attention.
Births and deaths. It seems the older I get the more these things mark the passages of my life. The graduations and weddings come in clusters and I’m at an ebb for those. Births and deaths on the other hand seem constant, a little here a little there but always something to count on in the course of a year. This last week there were, of course, several of these that touched my life briefly. Two, however, make a personal impact.
David Groska was the tech director for the theater department when I was in high school. He was barely older than us students and we loved him for that, his talent, and his sense of humor. He also had an explosive temper, which we found amusing as well. In retrospect I don’t think I would have appreciated being stapled to the set either.
He dated one of my classmates and they married shortly after. Not because they had to, but because they were meant to be together. So why wait? Teresa is now his widow and grateful for every moment they had together.
It wasn’t easy for them. They started out young and poor. Their eldest son had CP and some mobility issues. Their second added all the complications of a sibling to a child with special needs. Familiar as I am with this dynamic I can say Teresa and David handled it brilliantly.
The boys enjoyed being outdoors with their Dad. They built forts and camped out and hunted. Even though those boys are well on their way to being independent productive adults they’ll never stop missing their Dad.
David had been fighting with cancer for several years. Teresa and the boys were by his side every step of the way. The disease finally caught up with him. He’s free of pain and we are all left with memories.
On the other side of things my nephew Zac and his partner Darcy had their new baby on Friday: Emmaline Rae McMahon. This is their third, and the first girl. Adian is older, the High School boyfriend’s son. He’s such a proud big brother – as long as he doesn’t have to share his room with the babies. Babies is plural because Charles is just a year and a half old. He’s not quite sure what to make of the new baby, but we know he’ll be great too.
Andrea, my sister, is glowing. She’s been driving back and forth from her house in Northern Minnesota to the kids in Mankato in crazy weather and nasty traffic conditions. We placed bets on whether she’d make it to Thanksgiving dinner. In my household the money was on her sitting down to eat and the call coming in. Finally the wait is over.
Karina texted me, “The pic of Andrea and Emmaline makes me want to have a baby for you.” Me too, but I told her not to rush on my account. I’ve been ready to be a Grandma for years, I can wait a few more. My “little” sister’s been a Grandma for 4 years now. Owen got to go meet his cousin over the weekend and he was enchanted. Orion and I will probably hold out until the family gets together for the holidays. You may get another post about Emmaline yet….
The world turns in circles: wins and losses, plusses and minuses, births and deaths and the turn of the seasons. It’s hard to find gratitude with some of those turns, and much easier with others. I keep looking for it in small ways even when I can’t find it in the larger more obvious places.
Here’s hoping your life changes this week are slightly distant (it’s easier that it’s neither my husband nor my grandchild) or at least not quite so dramatic as life and death.
I’m very fortunate in that most of my experiences with death have come with enough time to at least attempt to resolve tensions in the relationship. When my Grandfather was dying I was a sophomore in college. I was still young enough that my family tried to protect me from the inevitable. The hospice my Grandfather was in was fortunately walking distance from campus. I’d sneak in while the crew on “vigil” was off on a coffee break. We got to talk about how angry I was that he was going away when I was finally old enough to get to know him as a person. We got to talk about how he felt about dying and leaving his family behind.
I had a high school friend who committed suicide the same month my Grandfather passed. We also had long telephone conversations about his depression. I told him that I felt like suicide wasn’t helpful because I believed in reincarnation. If he had those issues to work out, and didn’t, they’d still be with him next time around. He felt that suicide was an opportunity to “reboot”. It was too painful to stay and he needed a way out. He planned carefully, researched insurance policies and their suicide clauses, said his goodbye’s in his own way. He even knew who he wanted to find him and when. It’s hard to lose a peer, especially so young. But I never doubted the clarity of his choice.
My best friend died of HIV Kaposi Sarcoma. That’s what killed Tom Hank’s character in Philadelphia. We had lots of opportunities for conversations about love and family. We talked about what he thought was ahead for him and what he was sad to miss. I knew how important it was to him that his sister be able to have the baby she’d always wanted. I knew that he felt his mother had made a “deal with God” to take her, with her recurrence of breast cancer, so that her son could have a few extra years. (He was right, I had the chance to talk with her before she passed as well.) We got to tell each other how much we loved each other and appreciated the opportunity to share part of this life. I made him read the eulogy I wrote for him before he passed.
I had another very good friend who passed suddenly. He had severe asthma. We’d been talking for a week before he went, trying to find a time to connect. He’d say, “I really need to see you.” I’d say, “I really need to see you.” but the stars and schedules never aligned. It felt like he knew it was coming and he wanted one last chance to say goodbye. I wished I’d been able to give that to him, but I knew and so did he, there wasn’t anything either of us could have changed. Just knowing that he’d tried was enough.
There is nothing more devastating than losing a child. I have a cousin who recently lost one to suicide. I have another cousin whose son was killed in a car accident his senior year of high school. My sister has lost two babies. The grief the parents feel is untouchable. For the rest of us, the grief is as much or more for the parents as it is for the child. Unless you’re an everyday part of a child’s life it’s hard to say you knew them. But the parents, they hurt and you hurt for them and there is nothing that will make it better, ever.
Unresolved issues are similar that way. I’ve been very close to people who’ve suffered losses before relationships could be healed. My Grandmother told my mother, “If you’re not going to come home and take care of me I might as well die.” and she did. It took my mother a long time. 40 years later I think she still feels some guilt. My niece and nephew lost their father in a freak logging accident. My sister had just ended their 18 year marriage. She wasn’t willing to live with his 20-year-old girlfriend. They were still sorting through custody and visitation and financial issues and he’d announced his engagement to the younger woman. We all grieved, but his family shut us all out from the funeral process. Even the kids, teenagers, were not fully included because they came with their mother. We were actually asked to leave the cemetery at the internment.
My aunt died last week. She’s been fighting with lupus and Parkinson’s disease for 27 years. She’s stayed active and alert and always been interested in friends and family. She and my father had a difficult relationship. When she went into hospice he finally started talking to her when Mom would call to check in. They were still merciless with each other, teasing always with an edge. In an off-handed comment to my sister at the funeral Dad said, “I’ve been waiting for this day since I was 10 months old.” Think there are any unresolved issues there?
The people we live with, the loved ones we take for granted, these too are our ancestors and descendents. Take some time to say, “I love you.” Be courageous enough to admit, “I was wrong, I’m sorry.” Have coffee and agree to disagree about how you see whatever issue is keeping you apart. The seasons turn and our time here is fleeting.
Thank you for following my blog. Many of you have become very dear to me. Your encouragement and support means more than you can know.