Tag Archive | death

This Is Not a Tribute

Graveyard15

This is not a tribute post.

This is not a post about the string of glowy, happy memories we had together.  I have memories, sure, but do you really want to hear about the time I met her at Starbucks after her “bad” oncology visit? We sat outside. She drank one of those Naked fresh fruit juices and nibbled on melon slices. She told me how she rescued her dog and how she survived her childhood. I listened, hoping my presence helped her bear the outrage and indignity of the disease’s intrusion into her body and medical establishment’s constant misspelling of her last name.  “Those motherfuckers.”

Before I could claim her as my own, half my friends had already tagged her.  The stories I heard.  She strong-armed D. into on-line dating by getting her professional portraits and writing her profile.  Naturally, D met her husband in less than two weeks, whereupon she was assisted in planning a Hawaiian destination wedding with the help of none other.  You know who.  She of the Channel bags and the Four Seasons suites.  She played mother-of-the-bride, wedding coordinator, travel agent and matron of honor.

I didn’t know her then.

Not all the stories I heard were Mother Hen cum hero tales.  Some of them–  most?– included phantasmagorical viciousness.  She uninvited D. to her own wedding day-of because she didn’t want any “drama.”  She cut people out of her life, was known to accuse friend’s boyfriends of defrauding investors, and became famous in my circle for a steadfast refusal to take care of anyone’s feelings.

By the time I was face-to-face with her, she’d already been sick for two years.  She liked to joke that the cancer made her a shadow of her former “raging bitch self.”  Honestly, I wanted to see her slicing and dicing (so long as it wasn’t my flesh or vital organs).  I saw glimpses, mostly when she’d rail against the incompetence of the doctors involved in her early diagnosis or her mother’s shitty habit of hanging her every disappointment on her.

I guess when you’re fighting for your life and engaged in such tasks as “managing pain with morphine” there’s not much energy left over to get your bitch on.

This morning the texts were ominous.  We’re going to say our goodbyes.  By this afternoon, they were worse.  Putting her in twilight.  I comforted myself by assuring myself we were hardly more than acquaintances.  I was a blip on the radar of her life.  “She was really more of a friend of a friend,” I told a co-worker this morning as I tried to sort myself out for a day of productivity in the shadow of those texts.

I didn’t think about the time she came with me and Sadie to get a manicure, though I almost blurted out at dinner with my children, “Mommy’s friend– the one from the manicure, remember?– is dying tonight.”  I berated myself for borrowing someone else’s sorrows and claiming them as my own.

I decided it would be my job to console my friends who were closer to her.  Sending supportive texts like “Are you okay?” to shaken friends returning from hospital visits.   I sent one to B. who saw her this afternoon. His response betrayed his panic– run-on sentences, frantic fragments about her skeletal appearance, her joy that he’d come.

“Her cousin asked me if I was the writer,” B. reported.  “It appears she told her family about you.”

Me? B’s wrong. That can’t be right. She must know other writers, right?  I rack my brain.  I have no fucking idea what other writers she knows.  B. thought she was talking about me.

Maybe she was.

Maybe this is a tribute post.

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When Your Therapist’s Mother Dies, Send Flowers and Shut Up

image credit: NPR.org

image credit: NPR.org

 

I have a theory.

When an adult loses a parent, what follows from that loss is a transformation– where once the surviving child was blocked, she now soars towards freedom; somehow invisible forces that kept the child locked in old patterns evaporate.  It’s as if the parent’s death allows the child to live in ways that simply weren’t possible while the parent was still drawing breath.  I’m not only talking about strained parent-child relationships; my theory covers all kinds of parent-child relationships.

I saw it happen when Elizabeth’s mom died in 2004– she started dating for the first time ever.  Then when Laney’s dad died in 2007, she moved out of her dysfunctional living situation and bought a gorgeous one-bedroom apartment.  When Jay’s dad passed unexpectedly in 2010, he re-evaluated everything, ended up quitting his law job to go back to school to get his teaching degree.

Just the other night, someone told me that the very first time he went out after his father passed, BOOM!, he met his wife at a bar.

See?

Don’t ask me about my sample size.  I’ll admit it’s small.  I’m not a social scientist, nor I have I tested this theory on myself (and hope I don’t have to for decades).  But I still believe it.  I’ve watched friends face grief head-on and then find themselves for the first time ever in long-term relationships, new jobs, cross-country moves, creative successes.

I don’t go around whispering in grieving people’s ears, “Hey, something really big is going to shift now that your parent has passed.  Think plate tectonics.  The loss sucks, but trust me, something big is coming your way.”  I don’t even hint at it while tears are flowing and the pain is still raw.  Grieving people need casseroles, help picking up dry cleaning, and someone to sit next to them while they watch Sanford & Sons re-runs.  They don’t need my theories.

I’ll be testing this theory for the next few months, thanks to the email I got last week that my therapist was cancelling sessions because his mother had died

I’m already anticipating his Great Shift.   I can see it now: he’ll tap into his deep-but-repressed-all-these-years passion for parasailing, and he’ll close up his practice to live near the ocean.  Maybe he’ll decide to buy a villa in Italy and work three months per year, asking us to Skype in when he’s abroad.  My fantasies about what his loss will unleash in his work life vary wildly: one second I imagine him growing ever more Zen, quoting ancient philosophers and encouraging me to let go of suffering or to light more candles.  Then, I imagine him engaging in brand-new ways of being– like screaming or singing or pounding a drum–  embolden by his new status as a motherless child.  Maybe he’ll recommit to his practice (read me) and stop taking twelve weeks of vacation every damn year.

I wonder if I’ll tell him my theory and if he’ll see me watching him for signs that my hypothesis is solid.  Like science.

Mostly, I wonder if I’m right, and whether I should keep my mouth shut and just send flowers.

Quick! Someone Sing The Circle of Life– My Kid’s Asking About Death

Image credit: blogonair.org

Image credit: blogonair.org

For the life of me, I can’t remember when I first contemplated death.  When my grandfather died when I was in third grade, I remember crying and feeling sad for weeks.  By then, I understood something of the permanence of death.  I was eight, and I was a fairly morbid and sensitive kid, who, in her spare time prayed for the stigmata just like St. Teresa of Avila. 

My daughter, at half that age, has started asking questions about death and from her questions, it seems like she sees it everywhere.

It started when our nanny Sandra came to work one morning with a blotchy face and a runny nose.  In front of my daughter, I asked her if she was OK.  Her face crumpled in grief and she explained that her beloved uncle had died and that she wouldn’t be able to make it home for the funeral.  I comforted her and asked her a few questions after offering to give her the day off to mourn her loss.  Before my conversation with her was over, I felt my daughter tugging at my shirt.  “What are you talking about, Mommy? Where is the uncle now?”

I took a deep breath and stared at Sandra.  We both realized that we had to offer an explanation because my daughter had heard too much.  Sandra offered, “My uncle had a bad boo boo, and I won’t be able to see him for a while.”  Unfortunately, my daughter wasn’t accepting that because she’s got a finely tuned BS detector.  She looked at me as if to say, “Come on. What’s really going on here?”

Naturally, I stalled, stammered and evaded.  I sing a few bars of that song from The Lion King about the circle of life, but all that came out was a something closer to Goodbye, Norma Jean.

That whole conversation sparked something in my daughter.  Now, when we listen to her favorite CD and the song Found A Peanut comes on, she asks me why the singer died from eating a rotten peanut.  Then she asks me where bugs go when she smashes them with her foot.  She wants to know if she will die someday too.  

I’ve had to ban NPR in her presence because the last thing she needs to hear is about death tolls from forest fires, Syrian rebels or gun violence right in our own city. I’ve curtailed any flip sayings like “I’d rather die than pick up the mess in this house,” or “I’d kill for a Dove bar right now.”  It’s not appropriate now, and it probably never was.

People have recommended age-appropriate books about death to read with my kids.  I am only mildly consoled that lots of kids start asking these questions at her age.  But I still hate it.  I hate that I have to look into her eyes and tell her that death is a long goodbye.  I prefer to deny both the fact that she’s asking about it and the fact that the answers she seeks are pretty grim.

It’s in these moments when parenting wrenches my heart the most.  She deserves clear answers from me, and it’s my job to give them to her no matter how hard it is for me to talk about it.  Parenting means talking with my kids about all parts of life, not just the simple joyful ones that are easy to talk about.  Parenting also means keeping it simple, direct, and honest.  Even when it comes to death.

 

Dustin Hoffman and Healing Faith Chunks

Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate

Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate

I’ve been clawing my way back to a sense of faith since I first started losing it in chunks, like hair falling out after a chemo round.  The first chunk was my introduction to death when my beloved grandfather passed away in third grade.  Picture day.  I didn’t skip school that morning, even though Grandaddy had died and it was the first time I’d seen my Daddy cry.  I kept my head down when he took the call from Grandma with the news.  I watched my Alpha-bits floating in milk, too scared to turn around and watch my Mom hug my Dad, while assuring him that Granddaddy “had a long and happy life.”  In my school picture that year my eyes are more mournful than normal and my smile looks tentative, like I’m not quite sure that the command to smile is the right one to obey.

There were other chunks.  Being kicked out of the popular circle in fifth grade, forever closing the curtain on my chances to get Jolly Ranchers that Anna L.’s mom packed for her “and her friends” to enjoy. 

Then, there were more deaths– waters I swam in stole the life of man who was in charge of us that day. One minute full of life and the next minute gone.  I had to watch his daughter and son pump the ocean out of their father.  Biggest chunk to date.

A whole bouquet of chunks disintegrated in my hands as my heart was broken by boyfriends showing up with hickeys I didn’t give them, and still others boys-who-were-almost-men who were tender, brilliant, and read Ezra Pound recreationally, but still I wasn’t ready and had to let them go on without me.

For a whole semester I studied World War II– Fussell’s books on combat, Marcel Ophuls’ movies, Weinberg’s A World At Arms.  More chunks.  One leaden chunk labeled Holocaust broke off while I stood in a museum full of hair and shoes and skeletons in faded striped suits staring back from behind a barbed wire fence.

Chunks. Chunks. Chunks.

But, believe me when I say that I want to believe.  Because there were also moments where faith came rushing back to me, filling in the holes were the chunks had broken away.  Faith like spackle was filling the fissures.   There was recovery from bulimia.  There was my first sponsor Teddie who saved my life by telling me to eat breakfast and get out of my head.  There were books and education and opportunity and friends who helped stem the tide of the falling chunks.  There was standing next to my younger sister when she got married, and there was holding my best friend’s left leg as she gave birth to her second son, both of which led me to my own marriage and motherhood. 

There were countless moments of healing that rushed in to heat, heal, and implore me to have faith. 

This was supposed to be a post about Dustin Hoffman and the video that no less than 3 bazillion people have shared on Facebook.  You know the one where he talks working on Tootsie and wanting to be a “beautiful” woman, but the make-up team said, “Sorry, Charlie, we made you as pretty as we could.”  You’ve probably seen it– he gets choked up and starts talking about all the women he missed getting to know because he judged them by their looks. 

I never click on those videos on Facebook, but something made me click on Dustin Hoffman’s.  Maybe because I loved him in The Graduate or because I have a thing for Jewish guys or all those exhortations that I MUST WATCH THIS just wore me down. 

I watched it.  Then, I tossed and turned all night trying to decide whether it was genuine.

Twelve hours later, I am still obsessing about whether the whole thing is a bunch of malarkey.  He’s an actor! Of course he can cry on command!  I won’t let myself just lean into it and enjoy it like every other person on Facebook.  Here’s my chance, right? A chance to have some faith rush in and fill that chunk that fell away when I learned about the impossible beauty standards that I would be subject to for the rest of my life, while the men in my life were free to eat a footlong sub and forego basic hygiene at will.

Why can’t or won’t I just take this chance to believe?

The Homosexual Union Conversation Went So Much Better Than The Dead Dog One

Remember when I bragged about my parenting skills last week?

Oh, Internet, look at me! My kid is so saturated in tolerance and love that she cares more about squirrels than my explanation of why Gus has two mommies.

Well, I can’t win them all.  Our friend Gus, of the two-mommy fame, is someone we visited last Labor Day weekend.  Much about Gus and his family impressed my children, including his vast array of Sesame Street toys, his indoor trampoline, and his two large dogs.  The dogs scared the piss out of my children, who had yet to acquire a love and appreciation of our canine friends.  Over Labor Day, the kids slowly came to tolerate the presence of big furry animals lurking around them at the dinner table.

Turns out, however, that the current dog count at Gus’ house is now one, because one of them passed away recently.  And, I’ve got a little math wizard on my hands who has figured out that one is less than two and she wants to know what’s up.

So, Sadie wants to know where Gus’ other dog went.  Oh, how I love a curious mind. Except I wasn’t prepared for the circle of life talk.  I hemmed and hawed and eventually punted, saying, “Why don’t you ask Gus’ mommy (either one, just stop asking your mommy)?”  (If in doubt, punt to someone else who can parent your child.)  While I was stalling (“Sadie! Look at that squirrel! Hey, is that Cookie Monster standing in front of that Seventh Day Adventist Church!”), Jeff Googled “how to tell your young child about death– the pet edition,” but Google failed us by only offering links to Black Friday deals on crematoria for pets.  Thanks, Mark Zuckerberg, or whoever runs Google. Jeff Bezos? No? Well, who the fuck ever.

But, Sadie wasn’t up for delayed gratification.  She wanted to know where the damn dog went. Poor Jeff who isn’t quite the skilled liar that I am tried to give an honest answer, when he told Sadie that the dog “got really tired, and when things get really tired they have to go away.”  He gets a high score on the honesty factor, but he gets very low points because he scared Sadie witless, because now she thinks that if she gets too tired, she will “have to go away too.”

I actually  have no idea what she thinks happened to Gus’ other dog, but it’s safe to say that we inadvertently stumbled on a great way to get her to nap or go to bed early.  “Sadie…do you know what will happen if you get too tired?”

It’s cruel and it’s wrong, but if it works you will be so jealous.

Internet, Am I Old?

Gray hairs– I got ’em.  I find them amusing and hope they will come in wiry so my hair will finally have a little bounce to it.  They don’t make me feel old; they make me feel transformed.

An aching back– I have that too.  It’s way less charming than my 4 gray hairs, but it makes me think of loving those fat-ass children of mine who love to be held and carried.

Failing hearing– Eh? What did you say?  Oh, you said you love my blog and want to offer me a book deal?  No? You just want me to shut up? Ok.  Sometimes it bugs me that I can’t hear very well, but it’s probably less about getting old than it is about listening to my headphones entirely too loud during some angsty times (say, that decade between ages 23-33).

Children I used to babysit are old enough to be physicists and prisoners.  My former teachers have passed to the Great Beyond. But none of this made me feel old.  It took a 1998 Illinois court case to make me feel every inch my age.

Have you heard of Greenlaw v. Dept. of Employment Security, 299 Ill.App.3d 44, 1st Dist., 1998?  I bet any of my vital organs you haven’t heard of it, because it’s not ground-breaking in any way.  In fact, it’s a wholly unexceptional employment case where an insubordinate employee ultimately loses her eligibility for unemployment benefits because of her outburst in her supervisor’s office.

What did she say?

In the white-hot heat of the moment, she told her supervisor, “You can kiss my grits.”

That’s all you need to know about this case to understand my subsequent existential crisis.  In a public setting today, I was discussing this case with some adults.  We were having a lively legal debate about old Ms. Greenlaw and her “abusive” language.  Offhandedly, I said to my interlocutors, “of course, we all know where Ms. Greenlaw got this insult, right?”

* crickets *

* blank stares *

Hello? This was back when TV offered quality gems like this. (photo credit: www.tvtropes.org)

Hello? Remember these people? This was back when TV offered quality gems like this. (photo credit: http://www.tvtropes.org)

Maybe they didn’t hear me.  “Remember, Flo and her contentious relationship with Mel? How hot was their sexual tension?  The precursor to Bruce Willis and Cybil Shephard in Moonligting and Sam & Diane in Cheers!”

* more crickets*

Not one of the nine people to whom I was conversing had ever heard of Alice, the 70’s sitcom featuring the one and only Linda Lavin.

Can I really be standing before almost a dozen people who have no idea what TV show I am talking about?

The answer is yes.  They had never heard of Alice, or Mel, or dizzy Vera.  I feel really sorry for them.  No wonder their generation is so self-obsessed– they have never seen realistic depictions of what it’s like for a single mother to raise her teen-aged son in the big city while waitressing for a tyrant: those sexist pink uniforms, those little cows they had to pour the cream into, the lack of customers.  Those were hard times! It was hard to watch, but I did because this was before moms had to entertain their children 24/7 with organic snacks and environmentally friendly hide-and-seek games.

I toyed with asking them if the names “Mork” and “Mindy” meant anything to them, but I was too depressed.  As the conversation broke up (probably because I was sobbing about my impending death because I am so old), I dismissed them all, but just under my breath I was humming, “There’s a new girl in town, ’cause I’m feeling good!  Got a smile, got a song for the neighborhood.”

But, I was singing to myself, because none of them knew the inspiring anthem that was the theme song to Alice.

And I may be old, but I have memories of great TV.  What do they have– besides youth, Mad Men, and Apple products to stave off the fear of death?