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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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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Uncategorized

There is no memory of love

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Soo and I met during our first year in college. We were dorm neighbors in that time most memorable: the first months away from home. I was barely 18, toggling between life stages, both kid and adult. My dorm room attested to this: on one wall, I pinned a koala poster; next to that, a print advertising an art show.

Soo was sweet and kind. She laughed well and often.  I admired her artistic talents, her effortless abilities with diverse media. A gifted potter, she made me a tea cup.

As often happens, time passed and we lost touch. When we reconnected, I was happy to see her side by side with Scott. His smile, frozen in a photo, matched Soo’s. The two were devoted parents to their two babies, a big sister and little brother.

I sent my daughter to spend a morning at Soo’s house early last summer, my not-quite-teenager needing some company for a few hours during her travels. My daughter taught the children a game she made up not long before: deciding if a described person was “real or fake”. Soo’s children jumped right in. Soo texted me a photo of her six year old’s handwritten scrawl: REAL OR FAKE?

Just over a month after that, Soo’s husband died suddenly.

An earlier traumatic brain injury had left him vulnerable to seizures, and one struck while Scott was swimming on a family vacation.

As another summer approaches, Soo and Scott would have celebrated sixteen years of marriage. Instead it has been almost a year now of soul-work of the most acute sort, the unquantifiable and unquenchable wrench of grief. Of loss.

Of the memory of love. Except that there is no memory of love. It knows no past tense. Their love was, and it is.

My parents, now 83 and 73 years old, both have dementia. Their common disability means that their interactions with each other are now addled by their confusion. Neither could report the season, much less the day. On a recent visit to their apartment where they live under my brother’s care, they both spent the entire time standing, shifting, pacing, as they together tried to decide when to leave for “home”. My father’s use of his same long-ago phrasing in his same long-ago inflection was striking. “I want you to be free to be who you are,” he told my mom, and then he shuffled, his steps slowed by the fact that he had removed his own shoelace entirely — and wrapped the lace around the locked front gate outside. I have been told that dementia patients are often looking for something — they just don’t know what. My father lamented, as he readied for this trip “home,” that he didn’t have his keys. My mother stared with little purpose or direction, just a sort of little-animal fright. “You’re the world to me,” he later told her, and she looked away, still searching.

This could be the sad, even pitiful exchange of two people who have lost themselves, two diseased individuals only lightly reminiscent of the thoughtful, well-read, well-liked people they once were. Or this could be all the truth that there ever needed to be in all the world.

In the earlier stages of her brain disease, my mother was at first like a trapped bird, wings flailing, pecking at the snare. Now she is past the battle, that storm quieted. This has all evolved with my father at her side, he too unable to reflect upon their situation, too distant to remember a detail of anything, too far into the pathology to generate my name. Yet he still knows that he is the love of her life, and she of his. He has forgotten what a remote control is for, but he knows that she is his center.

So while I might weep over the cruelty of a particularly trying disease, or steel myself against the declines that only continue, I might also be grateful that there is no memory of love. There is only love. And so for Soo as this most bittersweet of anniversaries passes, there is love. And in my parents’ side-by-side trials, their dual journeys most vulnerable, there is yet love. One can lose one’s understanding, one’s perspective on place and time, one’s stride or even one’s very life, but there is, assuredly, still love.

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