Tag Archives: grief

Grandmaman

It’s been almost two months. Her number is still on a Post-it note beside my computer monitor. I can’t bring myself to take it down yet.

Some days I drive home and wonder how she’s doing. I forget she’s gone, just for a moment, just long enough for it to ache when I remember. In every conversation with Mom, there’s a vacuum where the update should be. The argument with the nurse over how sandwiches aren’t a real lunch. The hunt for the earrings she hadn’t seen in years but wanted to wear tomorrow. The whole lobster she ate when they took her out to dinner. How tired she was. How her blood pressure danced up and down and made her dizzy. How she spent the entire day in her comfy chair because walking was getting too exhausting.

Maybe I should have called more often. Her deafness frustrated us both and left us having parallel conversations with one side yelling to be understood and the other too proud to admit not understanding. But once she knew it was me, once I’d yelled my name three times with emphasis on different syllables in hopes one version would click, her voice would light up. I was her doll, her poupée, her first grandchild. It got harder to call, as her voice got weaker. It was frustrating. It was too hard to hear her talk about being tired, about how she thought she wouldn’t be here for Easter, or for Christmas, or for my next visit. It was so difficult to be reminded that she was 99 and each conversation might be our last. I didn’t call enough. I was selfish and scared and not ready.

I’m grateful that we did get a last conversation, and that I wasn’t left with the pain and guilt of not having said goodbye. When Mom told me she was letting go, I called her room and her little sister, my great-aunt, answered. Her voice was so small and so sad. At 87, she was sitting next to her big sister’s hospital bed, holding her hand and singing to comfort her. She sobbed and apologized and couldn’t put the phone to Grandmaman’s ear for me. She can’t understand, she said. She’s too far gone and she wouldn’t hear me. I told her I understood. I thanked her. I hung up. I cried. When Mom got there, I tried again. She told her “C’est Jennifer,” and held the phone to her ear so I could tell her I loved her. I tried so hard to pour 34 years of love and memories and gratitude into those few seconds. She tried to respond but didn’t have the strength. But I imagined her hand, and I squeezed it in my mind. I’ve decided to believe that when she realized it was me, she squeezed back, 500 miles away, to say she loved me too.

I can’t find the words, yet, to tell all the stories. There are so many stories. Both hers and ours. Her life; my memories.

Driving us back from dinner during the break between the afternoon and evening viewings at the funeral parlor, my cousin turned down a side street and stopped the car in the middle of the road. It was dark and we were alone. The clicking of the hazard lights was the only sound as heavy snowflakes fell all around us. My brother, my cousin and I all looked up at Grandmaman’s old house for a silent minute. “It looks so small now,” one of us said. Fifteen years since she’d lived there, but it was still Grandmaman’s house to us. Home to memories of Christmases and card games and hide & seek and macrame lampshades.

All of us in that car were adults, and yet we felt that we were sitting at the kids’ table. Until that week we were still the grandkids, still the younger generation. With Grandmaman’s passing, our parents suddenly seemed so much older. And that made us older, too. We weren’t ready. But I guess you never are.

I’ll miss her so much.

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Octobers

In October of 2012, I lost two people I loved very much. One was my grandmother, who lived a fierce and fascinating life. One was a baby whose heart never had a chance to beat. I remember the news and the numbness. I was sure that I would run out of tears, that I would shut down. I was sure that the world would end. It didn’t, of course. The world always turns and we’re carried through another day whether or not we’re ready. I wasn’t. But I was swept along, with everyone else, into November, December, and a new year.

In October of 2013, after a hormonal assault on my ovaries and my pride, a little seed of hope was planted inside me. A fragile, beautiful ball of cells. October 2013 was anticipation and anxiety. It was joy tempered with caution. I didn’t dare imagine what might be. It’s hard to hold love in your heart when it’s a love that’s hurt you before. But there was room for the love, in between the pain and the guilt and the worry. There was room, and I held that love tight.

In October of 2014, I hold my son in my arms. He squirms against me, trying to burrow through my shoulder with his drool-soaked chin. He chatters and smiles and pulls on my shirt. This is love. This is more love than I deserve. I’m filled with wonder and gratitude. I inhale and take in his sweet baby scent. He smells like diapers and milk. He smells like Dave and me. He smells like home.

October is coming

October is coming. It used to be my favorite month, but after last year, my mind will always associate it with grief and loss. I expect it to be a difficult month, and I’ve tried to do all I can to build up strength to face it. I’ve heard that gratitude is a good defense against depression, so I’m going to try a little exercise here.

A friend started a Twitter game last week, called #inever, in which we confessed to little things we’ve never done. Inconsequential things, like never watching The Godfather, or never getting detention in school. Things that we felt a little silly about having missed out on, because it seemed like everyone else in the world had been there and done that. After an hour’s worth of responses, the game became something else for me. As we connected over the experiences we’d missed, I started to think about how wonderful and uplifting the opposite game would be.

If I look at my life from the perspective of all the little things I have done, it’s such a beautiful picture.

I’ve earned a gold medal raising money for MS research in a Read-a-Thon. I’ve been featured in my local newspaper (I placed 5th in a province-wide art competition). I have been a teacher’s pet. I have been an elementary school valedictorian. I’ve worn out a VHS tape and a pause button trying to transcribe all the dialogue from The Return of the Jedi. I’ve lost my voice at Backstreet Boys concerts. Plural. I have tried out for sports teams and played badminton and thrown javelin with much more heart than skill. I have gotten a tattoo. I have helped to put together a high school yearbook, and I have had angsty poetry published in my university newsletter. I have traveled miles to surprise friends who went away to college.

I have withdrawn from university, signed back up, and graduated. And been back again for more. I’ve saved lives in the lab. I’ve given blood and I’ve taken it from veins. I’ve learned to give myself injections. I’ve asked for a raise. I’ve quit. I’ve fought for change. I’ve started a blog and used it to promote what I do and what I love.

I’ve made pasta from scratch. I’ve dyed eggs and carved pumpkins and thrown a dried-out Christmas tree from a balcony. I have let babies grip my pinky in their tiny hands. I have hugged family more often than I can count.  I’ve started my own holiday traditions. I’ve made Thanksgiving dinner all by myself. I have moved to a whole new country on faith that the relationship was worth it. I’ve installed a light fixture, assembled bookcases, bought a car, bought a home. I’ve rung in the new year with those I love, and I’ve whispered Happy New Year to myself while driving home alone, watching fireworks in my mirrors.

I’ve had lunch in the crater of Mt Saint Helens, and I’ve tasted the salt of both the Atlantic and Pacific. I have volunteered and I have voted. I’ve been caught in the rain and I’ve been caught in the sun. I’ve been caught singing in my car. I’ve walked in the Blue Ridge, the Adirondacks, the Alps and the Rockies. I’ve seen the Eiffel tower sparkling at night. I’ve seen Salzburg at daybreak and Prague at dusk. I’ve eaten croissants in Paris and gelato in Rome. I’ve been in the same room as a Pope, and I’ve been shushed under the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I’ve snorkeled with turtles on Valentine’s Day, holding my husband’s hand underwater. I’ve ridden a camel, watched whales, and hugged a dolphin. I’ve seen eclipses and transits and Mars landings, and I’ve stood in the cold night to watch the Space Station race across the sky. I’ve been on a giant boat with a thousand friends and I’ve become part of a wonderful community.

I’ve talked people out of suicide. I’ve talked myself out of it, too. I’ve learned when to ask for help. I’ve learned when to fight, when to refuse to accept “no.” I’ve smiled when I was expected to, even when I was sure I didn’t have it in me. I have grown. I have changed. I have survived and accomplished and flourished, and I will continue to do so, whatever may come.

MS

Multiple sclerosis is a terrible way to die.

Sonya was Dad’s second wife. They married a couple of years after my parents’ divorce. I can’t say that we were very close, really, because of the nature of that relationship and the fact that I moved away soon after they were married. But I never had any reason not to like her. She was loud and silly and kind. To my eyes (and ears) she was the stereotypical Southern American, and I couldn’t help but poke fun at her American flag quilts, gun-totin’ relatives, collectible figurines, and Arkansas accent. She didn’t mind, and sometimes even cranked her drawl up a notch just for me. She seemed to make Dad happy. I’m pretty sure she was the one picking out Christmas presents for me and my siblings the whole time she and Dad were together, and she always chose better than Dad would have on his own.

I never knew her without her wheelchair. Her MS had already knocked her off her feet by the time we met, but she was tough and optimistic and open to new treatments. She made appointments with the best specialists at the Montreal Neurological Institute. She tried pills and injections, and clinical trials for new experimental medications. Both she and Dad kept up on the latest research online so they could point at a new study and ask the doctors if there was any hope there. I saw Sonya puff up from steroid treatments, and then shrink away as eating became difficult. She started visiting the hospital more often as her condition worsened. Despite regular physical therapy, her body got weaker and weaker, until even a wheelchair was too much for her. She spent days and nights in a hospital bed in her living room, watching TV with a pile of cats on her legs. Eventually, she deteriorated enough to need full-time care, and so Dad reluctantly found her a spot in a long-term-care facility.

She died yesterday.

I got to visit her a few weeks before the end. Her pillow, embroidered with “An American Princess Sleeps Here,” was carefully propped up to keep her head from dropping to the sides. She wore new PJs, and hugged a plush cat doll to her side. That is, Dad had placed the cat by her hip and put her arm over it – she no longer had any control of her limbs. She smiled when she saw me, and opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. Just a hint of breath. It was heartbreaking to see her reduced to a smile and a whisper.

Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system, and the central nervous system controls everything. That makes MS a progressive, debilitating disease of the whole body.

Your nerve cells need a protective layer around the long axons they use like telephone wires to get messages to their neighbors. MS eats away at that layer, leaving the lines weak, frayed, and full of static. Depending on where the damage begins, your disease may manifest itself in blurred or double vision. You may stumble as you lose your sense of balance and develop involuntary spasms in your legs. You may feel numbness in your hands, and find yourself dropping things as you lose your dexterity. Maybe you need a cane at first, but over the years you may move to a walker as your legs get weaker. Then a wheelchair when they stop working entirely. You might lose conscious control of your bodily functions, depending on a caregiver to keep you comfortable with diapers and catheters. Solid food can become a choking hazard as your throat muscles stop receiving commands, so you may need a liquid diet or a feeding tube. Your voice becomes a whisper as your vocal cords shut down. You’re trapped in a body that can’t hear your brain.

They’re not sure what causes it, or why some people progress so much more rapidly than others. There isn’t a cure yet, and most of the treatments only offer short-term relief of some of the symptoms. MS is a mystery, and it’s terrifying.

As I sit around today, waiting for news about funeral arrangements for Sonya and consoling Dad over the phone, I’m making a donation to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in Sonya’s memory. I can’t stop MS from squeezing the life out of people. But someone out there will find a way someday, and I want to help them get there.

A Light Inside

I went to church today.

I made a quick left turn through a gap in the rush-hour traffic and pulled into the parking lot at Saint Patrick’s. I hushed the radio, switched off the engine, and sat in the quiet of my car for a minute before taking a breath and stepping out.

A small sign among the early daffodil greens in the front garden said “The Light is On For You,” but when I pulled open the front door, the church was dark inside. The space was silent and empty, and I was alone. I paused at the entrance. Dipped my fingers into the small bowl of holy water by the door, a tiny golden bird-bath. Made the sign of the cross, out of habit, without thinking. I used my left hand, the wrong hand, because I still held my car keys in my right.

I walked up the center aisle towards the altar, relieved to be wearing quiet shoes, because even the rustling of my purse against my coat seemed loud and rude. I had come to find the small altar, off in a corner, where rows of flickering candles hold the pains and hopes of the people who set them alight.

The church had small dim alcoves off to either side of the main altar. Each housed a statue and a table holding four short rows of votives. I intended to light a candle beside Our Lady, because it’s what my mother does. What all the women in my family do. Tradition and heritage, to ground me. To bring comfort. Not, for me, from faith or from prayer, but from ritual and familiarity. When someone needs help, members of my family light candles for them. When someone needs extra help, we light candles in a church. But there were no familiar saints with compassionate faces to greet me at Saint Patrick’s. Only ghosts. I had forgotten that it was the Lenten season, and that some churches shroud the holy figures in purple in the weeks before Easter. I was alone except for faceless human forms wrapped as though for burial.

 

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I chose the altar on the left side, not knowing which figure was standing over me, who would watch over the tiny flames I would leave behind. I folded up a bill for the thin slot marked “offerings” and smiled to myself at how pagan and out-of-place that word seemed in a church. I set my purse down and struck a match against the side of the matchbox, wincing at the abrasive sound. I touched the match to the end of a long wooden skewer, which crackled into flame. Slowly, carefully, I touched the flame to the wick of three candles, side by side, in the front row. One for me, and two for dear friends who are hurting. All of the votives were new, white, silent. Mine were the only ones dancing.

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The small padded kneeler creaked as I knelt in front of the shrouded saint. I found myself mouthing dimly-remembered parts of the prayer of Saint Francis. The cadence of my words matched the tune of the hymn from my childhood. Music strengthens memory.

Make me an instrument of peace. Grant that I may never seek so much to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved, as to love with all my soul. 

I left the candles, sat at the end of one of the pews, and looked up. The vaulted wooden ceiling stretched up forever. The only light in the church besides my candles came in through the beautiful abstract stained glass windows on all sides of me. It was late afternoon, and the sun was low enough in the sky to drag the colors into the church and paint the floor with them.

Despite the comfort I find in ritual, I don’t believe in a divine plan. Catholicism lost all credibility for me long ago, through inconsistency, intolerance, and the sins of the church. There is no Fate. Life isn’t fair, or unfair. Bad things happen to good people, and I can’t accept that there is a deity up there rolling dice to decide who deserves to suffer. There is only life, and what you can make of it, which makes it that much more important.

Rush hour continued just beyond the colored glass. Birds chirped in the garden. The sun was setting, and would rise again in the morning. Tears came to my eyes. I let them fall, finding comfort in the knowledge that the world is so very much bigger than me.