Dying, Grief, Love, Uncategorized


IIsaIt is Easter. My father’s funeral was one year ago. Two days ago, my neighbor Dagmar died.

This weekend I washed our wood floors. I’ve never been much of a housekeeper. There are permission slips on the end tables and one shoe, upturned, will disappear soon. Don’t look closely at the coffee table: green ink stain in a shape like a treble clef and a pinky-print of glue, ossified. Despite my chronic underattention to these imperfections, the floor-cleaning was therapy and slow and the air was mercifully cool.

The priest for my father’s funeral was the priest of my childhood. Father Bob. His voice was the same and his smile was the same as 1987. I chose all the music myself without asking anyone for input. We sang Be Not Afraid and The Prayer of St Francis and I whispered dumbly at one point: “I like all this music because I chose it myself.”

Everything else about last April I did not choose. I thought about my neighbor while washing the floor. She was neighborly. She was old-fashioned courteous and proper. Her voice was deep and Southern and hung in the air on the last legato. I admired her because she didn’t need me to admire her. She gave my children gifts, sometimes quirky old-lady gifts and sometimes stuff that made them coo: oh cool. She gave us chocolates and magazine subscriptions and it was all polite and kind.

While I cleaned the floor, my youngest daughter was busy on the rocking chair writing a birthday card for her friend. She chose a word for every letter of her friend’s name. Incredible. Stupendous. She started writing hearts, twelve to a row.

I thought about postponing my father’s funeral last April but not really. My mother lay dying while we were away listening to Father Bob. We understand, people told me. If you postpone, you could do a double funeral. But silly them — that couldn’t be my life. No one plans a funeral for her father and chooses all the music without any input from anyone and then postpones it to keep vigil for her dying mother. Do you all understand that I have chosen all the music on my own?

My father’s funeral reception was in the church basement and the funeral committee served fried chicken. I remember being in that basement as an elementary school-aged child for a Seder meal during Lent, not understanding why we Catholics were having a Seder meal during Lent. Bitter root and unleavened bread. Mass every weekend. The same pew every week. The same blessings.

I picked up the rugs and shook them onto the floor. The last time I talked to Dagmar, I had parked in her driveway. There were cars and people at my house for our home remodel and Dagmar’s driveway had more shade. There was also the fact that she spent her nights at an assisted living residence nearby and I hadn’t seen her car at the house for a long time. So I sat in my van in my neighbor’s driveway and savored a moment to myself. My phone rang. A man asked to speak to my mother.

My mother didn’t die while we were away for my father’s funeral. She survived for 13 more days. When I think of it all now, the dying and the death and the funeral and the dying and the death, I realize this all came with permanent changes to my cells. They became weary and triumphant, breathlessly aware of being loved. They became heartbroken and stuck. I learned two things: anything horrible can happen to anyone. I can fly.

When the phone rang, I offered up a prim “My mother is deceased,” and then I hung up and cried. Having no tissue, I wiped my nose on an upholstery sample I found tucked in the van door. And then, right then, Dagmar pulled up next to me.

Why, at that moment preposterous, was she there? I jumped out of the van to explain and she only looked at me politely. She looked at me as if I were waving from my porch, as if I had rung her doorbell a decade before when my babies were tiny. There was no “oh my,” no “you poor thing,” no annoyance. She didn’t let on whether she noticed my tear-stained eyes or my hastily wiped nose.

It was my most humble moment of the year, snot on my hands, forsaken directly by a God with wicked timing. There was Dagmar to bear witness to my dumb and brutal world, its whiplash. Yet all she did was be polite. She smiled at me and nodded and continued on into her house. In that, there was nothing to distinguish this day from all the others.

I think Jesus would serve fried chicken at a funeral. I think he would be on the funeral committee and show up with aluminum pans of chicken and salad and desserts on little plates. I think the whole point of the life of Jesus is to make us want to be on the funeral committee and let neighbors park in our driveway and write birthday cards like my daughter did — words and more words of love and devotion and at least seven rows of twelve hearts each.

And I think Jesus wants us to laugh at ourselves. When we have been thrown onto a pitiable, lonely surface, I think Jesus hands us an upholstery sample for our dripping noses because in eleven minutes, this scenario is going to be…kind of funny. It’s going to be kinda funny when your neighbor is at your side and you expect her to wail about your lonely lonely bell jar and she is instead as neighborly as she always was and smiles and goes on. That’s the point. Life must.

Life must. I am grateful for the lives of Raymond Stewart and Barbara Jean Tigges and for my neighbor Dagmar. One year ago yesterday, we marked a collective farewell and thank you to my dad. Today, again, it is Easter.

Dying, Fate, Grief, Love, Uncategorized

Three Funerals

img_3826This morning I decided to give my dog a bath. I have a hunch that other fluffy dogs around here get more frequent baths than my pooch, who gets only an occasional professional grooming with a bath added so he’ll smell good when he’s done. Lately Riffle hasn’t been smelling too fancy, and the kids are starting to make comments about our resident stink. So today I got bold, dug out the old shampoo bottle and into the tub he went.

He can be a pretty mellow little animal, so he tolerated that experience. The bathtub got dirty. I squeezed out his hair as much as I could when we were done and then set him free. Oops.

He went bolting outside, immediately began rubbing himself in our patchy lawn, went running toward the dirt of our perimeter landscaping and rolled there. Then he did a few freakout figure 8’s around the lawn, went careening into the house and slipped frantically on our wood floors, then darted into the master bedroom and did a strong ricochet off my bed and its white bedspread. More bolting back outside, and I finally closed the door behind him.

Wet, dirty smears were everywhere, a dripping dirty dog stood outside, and a newly christened-in-pawprints bedspread rested on the bed.

Mission accomplished! So it turns out that sometimes, life doesn’t go as planned. I feel like this is now the only counsel I want to offer my three children as they get closer to their college years. It’s going to be different than you think. Adapt. Brace against the weather that comes. Think it through. And when the time you spent bathing the dog not only doesn’t result in a clean dog, it creates a dirtier house along the way, come up with a better plan for next time and clean up the mess without lamenting how your vision of an adorable, hospital-clean fluffy dog who smells like lavender and daydreams did not become reality.

My parenting years and mid-life thus far haven’t matched my teenage vision. Oh for those halcyon 1990’s when the world was one big promise tinged with the buzz of meeting new people and experiencing life in ways that felt amusing and forward: Thai food! The lark of a group outing to an adult toy store! Europe on a youth rail pass! Season tickets to a Final Four college basketball team! A sweet 98% on a final exam right before winter break! 

My parents used to meet me at the gate when I flew home for school breaks, and I remember the time I told my mom about that 98% in the airport. I felt good. My mom flashed a high-energy wide smile when she was excited, and she would even add a little clap of her hands when she caught sight of me coming off an airplane. I was so valued and amazing and in fact a super hero then. 

This past summer, my son flew alone to join me and his younger sister on our sabbatical-from-life in my hometown after my parents both died in the first third of the year. Since my son was an unaccompanied minor, I was allowed to get a special pass to proceed through security to the gate to meet him. It had of course been many years since I’d experienced a reunion right upon disembarking. As we waited at the gate, I remembered those many ebullient greetings my mom gave me at airport gates: her eyes practically sending off sparks, my reaction more muted but still grinning. The wait for my son’s plane seemed long. I wanted to cry as I sat there, pretending I didn’t so as not to trouble my nine-year-old who waited with me. I turned away and widened my eyes; that only sort of works.

My mom would be wearing her big white thick coat for the winter break reunions. She never got rid of that coat herself. Midway through her Alzheimer’s disease, she wore that coat, along with hat and gloves, to view Christmas lights with me in San Diego. I remember wishing it were a colder night. I opened the car windows a bit to make it seem colder. It was still 61 degrees. Thick coat, knit hat, and gloves.

Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned. 

I don’t know how to take my own advice, to adapt and accept and move forward. My career isn’t much of a career, despite that 98% on that exam. My mom not only didn’t know my name when she died, she didn’t know her name. She didn’t know who I was anymore, except for the time when she saw me from her movement-restricting hospital chair in the psychiatric ward and raised her hands toward me like a child would do, just the shadow of the shadow of the joy and jazz at those airport gates. I have lost my super hero powers. I can see through nothing. 

I have cataloged 2016 as a Hard Year. It was the first year since my first child was born that I couldn’t write a Christmas letter. This year’s letter would be this: “Well. Fuck.” My mom wouldn’t approve of the profanity, so I skipped it. Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned.

The Hard Year is now finally near its end, and I have one more thing left to do. I have to go say goodbye to the year. I’d like to just let it leave, let it slam the door indignantly behind it. But I have to tell it goodbye. I’ve always been one to scurry to the window after the door slams, to murmur oh, to look at the closed door like my stinky dog would do and bite my bottom lip. I need to tell this year goodbye. 

My classmate Mollie just died, and her funeral mass will be at the same church as my two other funerals this year. I sat in that church of my childhood in April and again in June. I liked all the music for my dad’s funeral because I chose it all. There was no music for my mom’s funeral; I couldn’t bring myself to plan much when she died 13 days later. I’m going to go sit in that space again, a third funeral in a single year, and I’m going to tell the year goodbye. I’m going to tell it that it took my dad. And then my mom dropped out of the sky like a bird struck by pellet, gone and mute. She didn’t sleep for three straight days in the hospital. She wouldn’t stop. And then she stopped. I’m going to tell this year that I miss my mom. Her disease began when Mollie’s began. I’m going to tell 2016 that it took Mollie away. I met her at that very church. We sat on opposite sides of a table in a church classroom and learned about baptism and reconciliation and covenants. “I will go to your funeral one day,” I didn’t say across that table. “I’ll mourn you the same year I mourn my parents. It will be a hard year.” Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned.

My father used to comment often: “Another chapter for your book.” I would always nod when he said that, say something inconsequential like “yeah”. This chapter has made me cry. I’m on the last few paragraphs now. And as for life, there will be cracks. The lift over the horizon will rest at an angle that causes vertigo. This chapter, the chapter when so much did slip from my hands, will finally go, lost too, and there will be no funeral for it but the moving on. A page will turn; the next words will be new.

Dying, Grief

Picture Day



My daughter dressed herself for Picture Day this morning. When I went into her room to check on her, she was wearing the dress I’d bought her for my father’s funeral. She had worn it throughout the mid-April day of my father’s funeral mass, including the fried chicken lunch reception in the church basement. We flew home a couple of days later, I washed the dress and hung it back up in her closet, and she and I hadn’t considered it since. But there she was. She requested braids and help zipping up the back.

I said nothing about the dress. It’s sleeveless and pale blue, a reasonable choice for a warm late August day. It was perhaps an overdressed option for fourth grade Picture Day, but a part of me was just glad we hadn’t forgotten the occasion entirely. We likely would have spaced the whole thing if it weren’t for our carpool-kid neighbor arriving at our door with gelled hair and a polo shirt.

I could think of no reasonable objection that would be fair to a nine-year-old. Don’t wear that dress because it is imbued with my grief didn’t sound like it would do well paired with And find your PE shoes.

My parents died 97 days apart in the first four months of this year. I am often lonely in the wide gap the two of them left, despite being rarely alone. I realize now what a poor steward through grief I was for friends who endured losses before my own. Most of us are not eager to press into others’ grief — it feels messy, private, and, at its core, bereft of remedy. I had started a job three months before my father died. My new coworkers were distant around the time of his death, but seemed sympathetic enough. I told them I was glad to have something to focus on. When my mother also died three months after that, the company had no clue. A coworker commented on materials I had submitted twelve hours before my mother’s death, wondering why I had missed a requested minor change. It took some self-control to not respond just as coldly, to explain a possible cause to her. Reply to comment: “Maybe it’s because my mother was twelve hours from death.” My own mother. The woman who gave birth to me and cut my hair and gave me crooked bangs every single time, the one whose lullabies I mimicked with my own children, the one who sent me to writing camp and who researched every cough and rash I ever had. That woman.

That company let me go a month later, in what was likely the universe’s most urgent “blessing in disguise” possible. Despite being freed from that situation, there are some realities I am stuck with. I am spending these months as The Daughter Whose Parents Both Just Died. I field occasional calls from the hospice company that tended to my mother in her final three weeks. A counselor asks me how I’m doing with my loss. I feel compelled to remind him. “Oh. Um. You know my father died in January, so…” What I leave unsaid: so I’ve got a double. And they didn’t just drop dead. There were years — for my father, more than a decade — of decline. Of loss. Of loss after loss after loss. I can shake free from an ill-suited workplace, and by now I can whip on some sunglasses to shield tears that I often reject. But I can’t ever stop being the daughter whose parents both fell into heartbreaking dementia in their later years. I can’t ever remove the fact that despite being ten years apart in age, my parents died only fourteen weeks apart. And it will always be true that they both died frail and already-gone, the goodbyes to them both drawn out and never announced, their needs many in their final years, their eyes searching through their mutual confusion.

My daughter chose to wear the dress from my father’s funeral this morning. And there’s the thing about grief: we have to continue on in life. We have to remain our flawed selves with teeth to brush and household chores and children growing up. My son had a Boy Scout campout the day after my mother died, and I sent him with no money, no help in packing, no permission slip, and after not so much as opening the door for the family that drove him to the campground. But off he went. And I threw myself right back into life too, driving as planned to my college reunion that weekend, buying dinner for my longtime mentor and crying hardly at all throughout the weekend. And yet. I dropped off my son at an activity the next week, stopped my minivan in the parking lot, and sat there with tears dripping messily from my cheeks.

My brother and I waited two months to scatter our parents’ ashes, wanting to be together in our home state when we did so. The moment he began scattering into a creek not far from the house where we were raised, my phone fell down my pant leg. Right then. I picked it up and wondered what to do with it — I had no pocket, which is why it had dropped in the first place, and I didn’t feel like I should be crassly holding a phone at that moment, and yet I didn’t want to look away just then to put it in my backpack. This is what I was thinking as my brother began distributing all that remained of our parents’ physical bodies on earth, letting them fall into a pool and be picked up by the current.

And so it sometimes has to be. This is all part of this. I’m still here and sometimes I should’ve put my phone away earlier. My parents are gone. And now my daughter’s funeral dress has been reassigned. I have never used the word “battle” to describe a person’s experience with a fatal disease. My parents did not lose battles. Their dying was part of their living, as it will be for all of us. It’s clear that we do not get to choose the circumstances and timing of our births, whether we arrive in health and ease or whether we’re a hard-born baby. I think we expect control over our own deaths, but then life ends against script — someone far too young, or by suicide, or in my parents’ cases, after becoming so relentlessly humbled — and that control is more slippery. So the bravery might not be so much voiced in a contentious fit with a foe, but in recognizing that dying is part of life. We die. Just as our living is often unsteerable, defiant, different than we once predicted, so too is our dying, and it is all part of us.

I focused on my daughter’s braids. I’ve never been good with hair. Today I was happy with how it turned out. I decided to dart into the bathroom to get some hair spray. She looked cute in her braids and glasses and the blue dress. She brought home an essay last spring, handwritten in her 9-year-old scrawl. The topic was what she had done over Spring Break. She had attended her Papa’s funeral, she explained. “The next morning I went to a buatiful church for my papa it felt like you are sad and happy at the same time.” Our lives, our deaths, the moving on and the pushing forward, the looking back, the loss, the joy, the pain. It is all as my child understood Papa’s funeral. This is, all of this, both happy and sad at the same time.


God-Like Joy

Rachel Stewart Johnson's photo.

When Michael and I got married 16 years ago, our officiant, Father Kevin Novack, gave a memorable homily in which he reflected on the concept of “God-like joy.” We don’t hear much about God being happy, or joyful, or possessing other human emotions like pride. Yet we do impart negative emotions to God, a male figure who is occasionally angry, impatient or even vengeful. Why the lack of a happy God? Why doesn’t our understanding convey what we would probably enjoy having around: a playful figure, one who marvels at the greatness of creation, one with whom we can sit back and enjoy a lazy afternoon? Scriptures instead present God and Christ as a counselor, a source, one who can help us endure what comes. We are urged into patience, contemplation, and prayer. We are told to seek God’s help. God is not happy, but God is wise. So what then might “God-like joy” look like? I think the joy of God is in our learning. It is in the path. It is in the persisting despite trials. It is patience and quiet and chins turned finally up. The point of God is not to convince us that we ought to know only light hearts and dancing and leisure. It is to compel us to recognize the strength that exists within. God-like joy is to take what comes in life and recognize it as our own, as blemished and uncomfortable and unfair as it might seem. God-like joy might be to bear witness to the evidence that beauty is persistent. As my mother enters this denouement of her earthly life, brain and body both markedly diminished, she is at some level weak and pitiable, dependent on others, losing more every week. But she who gave much of her mind, heart, and treasure to God still folds her hands in response to prayer, still flutters dry and mute lips at the words. She has been given much in return. She was not made to avoid struggle, as has not a one of us, but I do not believe she is alone. God-like joy can be carried by even the most frail; in fact perhaps there it most meaningfully rests.