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.

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Fate, Grief, Love, Uncategorized

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I wrote many poems when I was in college, handwritten in a journal or on the proverbial back of an envelope — or in one case, tucked into a piece of paper so tiny that keeping track of it was a long-term marvel. I had many ideas that could often tumble forth despite me. I was cautious in life but free and forward in these poems. Whereas the poems I wrote in high school were meant to impress writing instructors, the words of my college years were only for me. In one poem, I wrote, “I think the wind begins like love does” — both are just there. They needn’t build up from some nascent state, gaining skill. Both have no real demarcations, no moment available to discern: the before versus the now.

Even on a day that seems still and windless, when one stops to look at the tall branches of a tree, they are moving. The wind’s work, the many modest bobs and pitches, are persistent and unpredictable, and the factors numerous: length of branch, moment in time. The end result can be pleasing, the motion created like what a child might imitate with arms extended and hands loose: swaying.

Our lives too. The interveners are many. Our course is begun long before we arrive, by the bobs and pitches of other lives, the paths laid and the decisions, a reflex, a moment, then another. 

I have a thin notebook in which my father wrote only two diary entries, two years apart. The first, dated September 1, 1964, describes his arrival in Denver. Thirty two years old then, he had been a Redemptorist priest for five years and had received a new assignment after spending nearly all his life in Missouri. He was bound for St Joseph’s parish in Denver.

“It was Tuesday. Expected someone at station — no one. Came out by cab. Lady cab driver never heard of St Joseph’s.”

After a brief description of the house where he would reside, he laments: “The transition stage with so many changes is very confusing.”

A bob, a pitch: thus were set my Colorado roots, ten years before I was born, setting in place the more than four decades of my father’s life spent in Denver. 

My father fell in love with my mother, a young nun at the same parish. The circumstances of this most consequential gust were not discussed often by my parents as I grew up, they both turning taciturn whenever we brushed past the topic. The two of them first moved for several months to Salt Lake City, renting a modest apartment. My father did speak of being a day laborer there, even describing the day that his shoes were ruined by chemicals on the job. My parents’ furnishings in that first dwelling are captured in a few photos, my favorite being their cinder block and plywood “shelves” in their living room. In all these photos, they both look content, their smiles wide. The gust fell swooping in, their love already there, and then they chose the upstream route. They would be together.

They returned to Denver with their baby son, eventually settling in to a brick bungalow near a Catholic church. By the time I was born, they had bought a house in the western suburbs. My father never stopped writing love notes and love poems and painting sweet illustrations for my mother. They remained devoted to each other, chatting in the kitchen at dinner time most weeknights, attending a spirituality group together for two decades, fearlessly renting cars and driving around Europe after my father retired. My backdrop and foreground as I came of age were filtered through a prism of love most human. My mother, a French major, kept her copy of Blaise Pascal’s Pensées for years: le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point. The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.

My parents’ love story made me feel special as I grew, if not a bit embarrassed by the tale during my teen years. This spring, not long after my mother died less than 100 days after my father’s death, I wanted to return to Denver. I wanted to nest into the familiar places and cling on and touch, to hug the people whom the wind’s bobs and pitches had put into my parents’ lives and mine. The love was already there. I needed to visit people I had known for decades, those bobs and pitches having matched our lives together from streams that began in earlier lives and then endured. 

And so I went home to Denver. I rested in mornings and evenings on the shaded patio at the home where my elementary school friend grew up, hosted by her kind and soft-spoken mother, and enjoyed how loud the birdsong there could be. Another week, a friend I met at age 6 spent several minutes searching among her handmade quilts for one in blue — my mother’s favorite color — on which I could reverently rest the boxes of my parents’ ashes. Thirty six years after our first Brownie troop meeting, and there she was, tending to me in her search for the perfect quilt.

These welcome times continued, my claiming eagerly among these faces our shared memories both distant and recent. My mom’s longtime friend, her high school classmate and one time roommate, invited me and my children to join her family Sunday dinner one week. I liked when she called it “supper”, reminding me of my mother. Her backyard porch swing was perfection, smooth and steady like she, her manicured lawn and abundant flowers reminding me again of my mom’s similar joys. The breeze that blew there was a comfort, its love knowing no beginning and no end. 

And so my parents’ love story continues. Their twin declines and deaths have had an undeniable gravity that pulls, slow, on my heart, but the bobs and pitches of their lives were meant for synchrony. Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.

My father disembarked from a train on September 1, 1964, and I began to love. And so I would write this by hand as a young woman, both new to and seasoned in the navigation of heart as true north: “I think the wind begins like love does.” Both are just there, unbeginnable and without end.

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