Tag Archives: grief

The Circle

White board

The PICC line kept bothering him. That was what prompted me to move a chair right next to my father-in-law’s bed in the ICU. Relieving my husband after the long hospital night, I hoped to reassure Ray, to keep him from fiddling with the port that gave nurses immediate access to a vein just above his left elbow. He was tired, finally, but couldn’t quite settle.

The night before he’d been in rare form. When the night nurse asked him how he wanted to fill in the field on the white board for “what should you know about me,” he answered, “I am very attractive to women.” She wrote, “I am very attractive and funny.” He should have been exhausted after the heart attack that brought him in. Instead, he’d been euphoric, joyful, perhaps, to be on the other side of the pain that had seemed an insurmountable wall.

“4512,” he said. Then, “4512 McDonald Drive.”

The house where my husband and I lived while our house was being built. We rented it from my mother-in-law, whose mother still lived there when we were first engaged. My memories of it have gone syrupy. Nights walking my infant daughter from room to room, trying to soothe her, humming lullabies, willing her to sleep, desperate for it myself.

“Do you live there,” Ray asked.

“No,” I answered. “We haven’t lived there for a long time.”

I gave simple answers, hoping to satisfy him so he could rest.

“Who owns it now?”

I didn’t know and told him that my brother-in-law and his wife moved in after we left, but they hadn’t lived there in a long time either.

On his forehead, a thin white scar, shaped like an upside down Y, nested in the V that emerged between his eyebrows. He was worrying.

The pillows I’d tucked behind his back helped him maintain his position on his side but discomfort still needled him after too many hours in the hospital bed. He pulled himself toward the rail. With my left hand, I stroked the fine white scar. With my other arm, I leaned on the hospital rail. I felt it then, Ray’s hand gently holding on to my upper arm.

“The principal,” Ray said. His eyes were half closed. “Do they need me to sign a paper?”

I didn’t know what he was talking about. “The principal is handled,” I said.

“Mike should get the principal. I need to sign the paper.”

Finally, I understood. Real estate was always top of mind to this self-made man. Out of all the properties he could resurrect, he landed on one that had been out of the family for almost 20 years.

“Mike got the principal. He bought the house from Mary Lou, and then sold it. It’s all handled. You don’t need to worry.”

That seemed to do it. He closed his eyes and rested. He seemed to be beating the odds. He’d made it through the night.

With my left hand, I stroked his forehead. With his left hand, he held my arm. We’d made a circle.

Two hours later, he was gone. But I feel it still, that embrace.

Ray Stone, Jr.: March 15, 1932 — December 31, 2016

Ray Stone, Jr. March 15, 1932-December 31, 2016

 

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Visitations

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 9.14.42 AM

This week, I’ve had two vivid dreams about loved ones I’ve lost.

The first was Monday night. I startled awake at 12:30 a.m. and had no idea why. I ticked through what might have disturbed me: not the cat, who was locked in the laundry room; not my son, who recently moved out. Once I was certain the house was secure, I gathered the cottony threads of an image: my father swinging his glasses. The black frames dated back 40 years or more. “A man should always have glasses,” he was saying. In the dream, Dad performed his old routine. He pushed his glasses down his nose and eyed me until I squirmed. Then he removed his glasses and reversed them, jabbing the stems to make a point. Finally he leaned back and began swinging them from the ear piece while smiling a lopsided smile. “You see? I don’t have to say a word.”

In last night’s dream, my family was boarding a plane to… the outer planets. I carried a tray of unbaked spinach lasagna and asked one of the flight attendants if I might be able to cook it in a microwave later. Sure, she said, but first find your seat. The plane was huge, Donald Trump huge.

Looking for 37B, I soon found that the rows and seats weren’t arranged in a comprehensible order: I saw 36, then 38. Later I found row 37, but not seat B. Finally, finally, when it seemed everyone was seated and we were beginning our takeoff, I found 37B. Just then, a few rows over, I spotted my friend’s mother. “Did you see Deb?” she asked. I thought Deb had died several years ago, but the rules on this aircraft were obviously different. “She went running,” she said, flicking her head in the direction of the plane’s bow.

As soon as passengers began to mill about, I jumped out of my seat and began running in the general direction Deb’s mother had indicated. Deb was a runner and it made sense to me that she would take advantage of the plane’s gigantic size. The plane morphed into a long narrow island with cottage-lined lanes. No cars, of course. Passengers who’d booked cottages for passage had pulled out lawn chairs to watch the walkers and runners stream by. After I’d been running for about 90 minutes, I thought my legs would fall off. I didn’t think I could go much farther, but I was nearing the tip of the island/aircraft. As I ran, I kept my eyes on the stream of runners returning on an adjacent lane. Just then, I saw a woman in yellow shorts passing. Her short hair, her fit physique — I thought for sure it was her. I started screaming my friend’s name. When she turned, she was a stranger. I described my friend and asked if she’d seen her.

“She’s getting an iced tea,” she told me, pointing at a cafe rest stop. The cafe was so crowded that patrons’ bodies and cheeks were pressed against the windows, steaming them up. I opened the door and yelled. In the back of the shop, my friend stood. She threaded through the people until she reached me.

I dropped to my knees and sobbed, clinging to the the edge of her shirt and saying her name over and over. She lifted me by the elbows and said, “Why are you crying? I’m right here.”

When someone I love dies, I pray they will visit my dreams. What I really want is an on-demand dream. I just want to see them again, just once. It never works that way, of course. My unconscious follows its own muse. This week’s double feature was a rare gift. My father reminding me he doesn’t have to say a word, my friend telling me she’s right here.

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The Sunset Years

Eileen reach for Henry at a family wedding in 1996

Reaching for Henry at a family wedding in 1996

A little heartbreaker on my way back from workout this morning. A familiar elfin woman strolled down the street, her hands clasped behind her back. Should I ask her? Until a few weeks ago, she’d always been with her husband. The two looked like the movie trope about the sunset years, in which the elderly couple walks hand in hand, smiling. And something about her reminded me of my mother. They were a neighborhood fixture, along with the woman who walks her two horses, the young parents with the double-wide stroller and two wiemaraners, and the walking-talking lawyer, always on a moving conference call. But the couple was my favorite. I imagined my mother and father into their shoes, living their last years together.

I decided to ask.

She shook her head and said, “He passed away.”

I didn’t know what to say. I mumbled that I’d always enjoyed seeing them out together and had noticed his absence. I felt it now, and was sorry for her loss.

“He was brave to the end,” she said, with her faint German accent. Her smile was still there, politely friendly to this inquiring stranger. Her eyes watered.

I remembered sitting with my father on the couch in my parents’ living room the day after my mother died. My mother was everywhere and nowhere. The living room had been redecorated with the help of an interior designer, but the scheme was all her. She chose light gold for the walls, carpet and drapes to compensate for the days the clouds hid the mountains and the landscape turned gray. She hated the dark. Of course there were pops of red, her signature color: true-red cherry blossoms on the Japanese screen, pink-red cranberry glass on the window sill, wine-red velvet on my grandmother’s chair. Next to the couch were the leather-topped end tables for which she constantly admonished us to use a coaster; one had a cigarette burn. I couldn’t imagine her having caused it, even after a glass of wine. She gave up smoking a few times but never kicked the habit. In fourth grade, I conducted my first communications campaign, barraging her with block-lettered “ads” bearing the P.S., “I don’t want you to die!” In the end, smoking killed her, but dementia robbed us of her before that.

I didn’t know how my father would live without her. They were one until death split them asunder.

But in grief there was still memory. At least he still had her image, the moments bad and good. Toward the end, my father said he could no longer remember my mother’s face. That struck me as cruel on God’s part. How could she go missing?

The old couple, walking down the street, always holding hands, allowed me to construct an image of my parents together. A pretend game that gave them back to me, just for a minute. The couple never knew. I never said a word until today. When the woman turned to me, inside the protection of my car, her grief was naked. I hope I let her know that it mattered, that a stranger noticed her beautiful partner was missing. I hope his memory never will be.

Writer’s note: I’ve been silent while working hard on manuscripts for my Bennington College Master’s in Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction. Graduation in June 2016, fingers crossed! Most of what I’m writing doesn’t quite fit the voice of “The Henry Chronicles” but periodically you’ll find me back here! It’s now been two-and-a-half years since my father died. Sometimes it seems longer ago, and sometimes like a few weeks ago. I continue to learn from him even now.

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The Empty Place

My father Christmas 2012

On my son’s last night in the country before moving to Japan, I served cake at the kitchen table.

“That’s weird,” my son said.

I looked at him for explanation.

“It doesn’t seem right to serve food at that place.”

I followed his gaze to the slice on the far side of the table. It took me a beat or two to understand. My father’s place.

The far side of the table gave my father the best vantage point on the household comings and goings, and the brightest natural light. My children sat across from him; my husband to his left. I sat at his right hand.

He is there even when he isn’t.

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Imagined Righteousness

The man who sat next to me at a dinner last night said he’d never had a massage. We’re in Napa, and the conversation had turned to what people did during the five-hour break in the meeting schedule. One of our company had immersed herself in the cocooning heat of a mud bath, followed by a wrap and massage.

Oh my god, I thought, someone who’s never had a massage! Why it’s un-Californian!

I swooped in.

“Why not?”

“I just don’t want to,” he said.

“Todd used to feel that way,” I told him, nodding my head at my husband, who was seated on my other side. “But he fell in love with it after I booked one for him.”

I smiled smugly, the efficient wife.

Todd piped up. “A good masseuse can really get in there and get rid of knots in my neck and shoulders. And it’s a great stress reliever.”

The man next to me said nothing.

“And,” I said, taking a different tact, “it’s one of the few alternative therapies that is actually efficacious. That and guided imagery.” (I thought the interjection of a big word like efficacious might sound kind of authoritative.)

He looked unmoved, but must have felt compelled to respond.

“Man or woman, I just don’t want a stranger touching me,” he said.

At about this moment I started to get a grip on myself. Who declared me Head Marketer of Massage? Why was I evangelizing for Deep Tissue?

When I turned in a couple of hours later, I returned to reading Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye. I was about a third of the way in and feeling vaguely skeptical. Why I was I not enraputured by her memoir, the story of her mother’s two year losing battle with colon cancer? Her sentences are gorgeous, after all, and her story telling effective.

Something about her premise, early on, bothered me:

Nothing prepared me for the loss of my mother. Even knowing that she would die did not prepare me… Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky: unimaginable. And because my mother was relatively young — fifty-five — I feel robbed of twenty years with her I’d always imagined having. I know this may sound melodramatic.

Yes, I thought when I read those sentences, it does.

She continued a page later:

In the months that followed my mother’s death, I managed to look like a normal person. I walked down the street; I answered my phone; I brushed my teeth, most of the time. But I was not OK. I was in grief.

She was selling grief. I wasn’t buying. No, I was judging.

This morning I remembered the instructions I gave my husband a month or two before my father died. I don’t know how I’ll feel, I told him, but I don’t want to be rushed to “closure.” I have a friend who has a pretty specific idea about how long it is permissible to grieve before wrapping things up. I told my husband to keep that friend away from me. I didn’t want to hear it.

I now realize that I had — have — a construct for the right way to grieve. One should not rush to closure, but should also avoid melodrama. Having built this model for myself, I seemed to be imposing it on others… exactly like the friend who advocates for swift closure.

Leave the man alone, I finally said to myself last night. It’s his business, not mine.

 

 

 

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What We Remember

peanut butter and knife

I’m having a hard time finding enough sympathy cards this month, so many beloved mothers and fathers and husbands have succumbed to time and health challenges. Perhaps it’s the sheer quantity of losses, but I finally noticed: what funny, seemingly unimportant moments become the stuff of stories.

One lovely woman, my neighbor’s mother, was remembered from the pulpit by her four grandchildren. The one who is my son’s age said he remembered three things about “Grandy.” I’ve forgotten what one was but I remember the other two: peanut butter and a knife.

He listed the objects first. Then he started talking about what he remembered from his visits to see his grandmother. He said he’d never forget how she let him eat peanut butter out of a jar with a knife.

It conjures up a perfect moment, doesn’t it? This go-ahead-help-yourself-when-you’re-here-dear approach to visiting? There’s a grandmother who knew enjoying time together was more important than rules. She knew, literally, the sweet spot of her grandchildren, and in small indulgences, showed how well she understood them.

Sometimes it’s the smallest things we remember. The little rituals that stick.

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Egg Beater Drawers

 

egg beater drawers

There it was this morning, my mother’s voice. In my head, of course, since it’s been 15 years and counting since she passed away. But I heard it, clear as her prized Waterford crystal: “Dammit, Betsy, my drawer looks like you’ve gone through it with an egg beater!”

She was right. Her underwear drawer did look a mess after I got through with it. My mother wasn’t particularly neat — she considered piles a perfectly appropriate organizational system in the kitchen — but her drawers were another matter. That woman knew how to fold. And the neatest drawer of all was her underwear drawer. I know because I raided it every time I needed a half slip.

Her underwear was practical but silky with bits of lace on the bras and panties, camisoles and slips. All of it was folded into neat squares — the slips set toward the back, the underwear and bras toward the front. Bras were folded in half and stacked on top of one another, a miniature mountain in a landscape of lingerie.

Some people hear their mother’s voice critically — there she is again, bitching at me from the grave — but (thankfully) that’s not what I heard. She sounded exasperated, to be sure, but loving. As if wondering how she was going to survive my teenage hood while in her mid 50s. And just that phrase — her distinctive “dammit!” — was like having her back again, if only for a minute.

I never did master underwear folding, and my underwear drawer does look like it’s been mixed with an egg beater. But at least I stowed my stuff, Mom, so it doesn’t look like it’s been spread from “hell to breakfast.” And, by the way, Merry Christmas… and I miss you. Thanks for stopping by.

 

 

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