Dying, Grief, Love, Uncategorized

Easter

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.

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Grief, Love, Uncategorized

Requiem for the year

Today the sky here is gray. There has been no sun. Although I grimace when the forecast calls for soaring high temperatures, I am a Colorado girl and expect my sunshine. But clouds always do make me think, as if they alone can ease the pace of a day. The verb here is beautiful: slow.

This is a year I will always remember. It is pinned: orphan. But it is also pinned: care. I have seen more friends and family in this most memorable year than I have for a long time. I have enjoyed the company of cousins, of childhood playmates I’ve known my entire life, of my godparents and my brother and dear friends from all eras. I’ve been warmly welcomed into backyards, shared meals, received kind messages and laughed. Even this last week of the year, I have been lavished with time with friends, and this morning a truck arrived to deliver a bouquet of flowers from two friends I have known since elementary school.

Two weeks ago in Denver I stood alone on a hill beside my beloved natural history museum. My parents took me to that museum often. We went to the big traveling Ramses exhibit and to planetarium shows and stood in a tedious long line to see gem carvings one year. I volunteered there as a teenager and wrote about my experiences on college application essays. My mom and I took my two eldest children there when they were wee people with chirpy high voices, and we stood chatting as my babies pretended to be astronauts.

When I was a child the museum had a sculpture of the head of a saber tooth tiger, mouth wide open, where one could drop a coin and make the tiger growl. I was a little afraid of dropping a coin in, just like I was a little afraid of the creepy elevators amid the animal dioramas, but I could do it. I was brave enough to make a saber tooth tiger growl.

The museum still has that saber tooth tiger. I walked into the lobby this month and I could hear that sound again, imprinted as it is, as if it came from some stalwart neuron devoted to only it. There must have been an eager child that December day with a cupped hand full of coins, because the growls continued. I took it all in, slow that day too, playing another track in my life’s soundtrack. Then I walked outside to the old familiar hill.

There are always geese in Denver’s City Park. My mother loved birds. On my wall, I display one of my father’s paintings, depicting the ash tree in their backyard of 33 years. Within the tree is a birdhouse I decorated for my mom one year: “Barb’s Birds.”

The sound of my mom’s longtime friend drawing a bath for her granddaughter in July was a visceral and sensory reminder of my mom doing the same for my child ten years earlier. The way my college friend’s husband spoke for a puppet in December was gut-punch similar to what my dad would do. So I stood outside that museum in City Park, the saber tooth growl renewed in mind, and I forgave the wild geese I found there.

I forgave them for giving and then for taking away. I forgave them for the goodbyes after the goodbyes, the many reminders, the over and over work it takes to let go.

They are sorry, the wild geese. And I’m sorry too. I am not without gratitude: thank you to Mother Earth and to God and chance and the wild geese for conspiring to give me this life that I wanted more of. Thank you for my belief that it wasn’t enough time.

The year is over. When I look up from it I realize that I am within a circle of my parents’ making. I turn, and turn, and turn, and the circle is unbroken. It was both the year of orphanhood and the year of the most abundant and tender care.

I was too young for this. I wasn’t ready. But standing in my parents’ circle, the year they died now ending, I am certain of something only the snow in City Park knew before me: I am brave enough for forward. I am brave enough to make a saber tooth tiger growl. I am encircled by mighty things.

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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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Grief, Racism, Uncategorized

High elopement risk

IMG_2880.JPGMy mother spent the better part of March of this year living on the geriatric psychiatry floor of a hospital near my home. To get into this wing, I had to pick up a phone, sign in and surrender my purse. Signs at the doors warned of “high elopement risk.”

Elopement: leaving a safe space.

My mother was the most ill patient in the psychiatry ward. She did not speak coherently, her only words short riffs of old phrases thrown together. She made no connections with her fellow patients and she never slept. My visits were spent in the common area of the wing. This space brought together a small crowd of regulars, folks whose faces became familiar to me. There was Mary, lucid enough to once say “I haven’t seen you here before,” but always disheveled and melancholy. I noticed an inscrutable woman who played cards without playing cards, deploying all the motions and none of the method of a card game. And then there was Ethel, loud and urgent, yelping “Heeeelp!” but sometimes losing interest before anyone came to her aid. She was my favorite, full of drama in a pink nightgown.

It seemed like a tough gig, working behind those locked doors. Decisions requiring a certain nuance would arise in chronic rhythm. Ignore the latest wail from Ethel or go to her?

Elopement: leaving a safe space.

Among the staff members dressed in scrubs was a young African American man. He was a bright eyed twentysomething with a ready grin, his hair long and in dreadlocks. He was friendly, freely commenting to me about the newspaper I could no longer share meaningfully with my mom. He filled me in on her preceding hours, which generally consisted of my terminally ill mom refusing and struggling. He betrayed not a moment’s frustration with her. In fact, the two of them always managed it all, making it through my mom’s showers, her garment changes and her meals.

Research in social psychology has long provided insight into the impact of bias. We’re biased to favor our own viewpoints. The “false consensus effect” is a classic observation, in which we believe our knowledge and beliefs are shared by a majority of others.

A related phenomenon is known as naive realism. This is the belief that one’s private experience, which is inherently subjective, is a universal reality. A clever way of demonstrating this, first undertaken by a psychology graduate student in the 1990’s, is to ask individuals to tap out a song on a table. While a tune in your head might seem well conveyed via those taps, the tempo and melody both clear, the effect tends to sound like just so many random knocks to a listener. Still, subjects overestimate the likelihood of a partner’s success in discerning the tune.

So we tend to think that our views and our experiences are shared by others. And we are inclined to think that our own ways of being are objective, unvarnished and universal.

Elopement: leaving a safe space.

I liked my mother’s young care provider and admired his ease. There were things to be done, and he did them. I would have had a harder time in his role, even with my own mother — or perhaps especially with my own mother. I might stop to lament, or I might hesitate, or I might impatiently murmur why can’t you. My frail, confused mother moaned and groused her way through the acts of caregiving this man provided, and she was met with only his gentle face and firm instruction.

Now that months have passed and my mother has died, I still think about that man. I’m aware that although I found all the staff members’ jobs intriguing, my attention was so focused on him because he did not fit my stereotype of a professional in geriatric medicine. I couldn’t help but wonder why a young black man would choose a position of caring for elderly, mostly white individuals with serious psychiatric illnesses. Moments of connection would be less than in other medical specialties, the tasks of caregiving especially fraught with awkwardness for those of us observing. Moreover, patients with psychiatric illness — like my own mother — can be noncompliant at best and aggressive at worst. And I feared what I knew was possible: this man’s own patients could very well be biased against him. So why choose them?

Elopement: leaving a safe space.

I know that I made certain predictions about my mother’s care provider based on his appearance: his long hair, his thin frame, his young age, and, I don’t doubt, the color of his skin.

Even if my predictions were as benign as expecting him to like hip-hop, they could have impact. We are all repeatedly generating, and repeatedly subjected to, biases. For me, a middle aged white woman who drives an old minivan and could stand to lose a few pounds, these biases may often be favorable or at least neutral: I probably have children, or am friendly toward kids. I probably speak English fluently. I probably enjoy the company of other women my age, am not filthy rich, am not a marathoner, and am trustworthy.

That last one is a big one. Does my mother’s care provider enjoy the same assumption in his favor? Mike Ditka, former NFL coach, commented in response to the recent silent protests of professional and amateur athletes that, “I just don’t see the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on.” Lacking particular insight or empathy, Ditka and those with similar attitudes remain naive realists. A masculine white man in a male-dominated high-income career like Ditka’s may be relatively unlikely to encounter biases against him that undercut his sense of freedom, that question his dignity, or that impede his progress. Ditka’s movement through the world is his perceived reality, which he — like all of us — mistakes for an objective truth. Lifting oneself out of one’s own veil requires effort. It requires pause. It may represent an elopement of sorts: a willful movement out of a safe space. Most of us, most of the time, choose the well-greased path instead and allow our own perspectives to dominate our beliefs about and responses to others.

My mother had a career as a school librarian. She was a skilled researcher, adept at connecting with both students and faculty. She was well liked and well informed. At the end of her life, she had lost virtually everything: profoundly disabled, she required nearly constant care to make it through the day. It was an elopement of body and brain away from the safe spaces of ability and achievement to the modest floor of pronounced, unremitting need. Once pushed away from her safe spaces, she was tended to by a man whose place at her side may have represented a further elopement, his own: defying the likeliest expectations of him, despite challenges both shared by others in that role and unique to him, there he was.

For the sake of both of them, the dying white woman and the young black man, may we all elope more. May we accept that there is no one reality apart from each of our minds, and that the fears, beliefs, and even the joys of others ought not be dismissed simply because they are not our own.

My mother was fortunate in her final weeks to have that gentleman at her side. I wish now that I had learned his name. There they were, at that moment in time, existing within a practical safe space but both far from anything so describable. Life crosses paths of souls, and we are all at turns both powerful and at each other’s mercy. Let us all elope together.

View story at Medium.com

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Fate, Grief, Love, Uncategorized

Navigation

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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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Dying, Grief

Picture Day

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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.

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