Tag Archives: grieving

Atoms of the Soul

Dad sleeping

I dug this little piece out for a friend who is beginning a writing project. Pick an image, I told her. This is one of the first bits I wrote almost year ago with that same prompt. For some reason, the piece ended up on the cutting room floor. Maybe I’ll bring it back:

I think I’m done actively grieving, and then I open my eyes. On top of my white king-sized pillow is a smaller one in a rose-colored pillowcase. When I open my eyes in the morning, lying on my side, it’s what I see first. A rose-colored world.

My husband says it barely qualifies as a pillow. It’s a suggestion, a flattened wisp. If I fluff it out and smooth it with my palm, it rises above the bed less than three inches. Strange when I see it that way. It almost looks normal, a utilitarian object that happens to be enclosed in a mismatched bed linen. Its wonder is its malleability. It can be curled into a ball, or laid softly across my chest like a cat.

I wonder if it began its pillow-life full of stuffing and somehow, as it was carried from one bed to the next, it lost a feather here, a feather there. If its diminishment fell beneath notice.

This is the pillow that cradled my father’s head when he died. I remember it from my mother and father’s house in Tacoma. I remember it – or one just like it – on my mother’s bed when she died. If it is the same pillow, I imagine it was encased, then, in a cover with yellow roses. My mother loved yellow. The pillow followed my father to his assisted living apartment in Seattle, then to my house. He tucked tissues under it each night. By morning, he had compacted it into a tight roll. Toward the end, when he was half-conscious in his recliner, I lifted his head and molded it around his neck.

I cannot let go of the pillow. A superstitious person might feel it is bad luck to keep something that came into such direct contact with death, that in those sloughed off skin cells, now reduced to dust, atoms of the soul remain. When I clutch it to my chest, I cradle the little bit of my father that remains.

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Dad Deconstructed

Dad comes to me in pieces.

As I approached what would have been his 97th birthday, it was his smile that came to me, the smile I felt he saved for me, the one I thought of as my smile.

This week, I’ve been thinking about his voice.

During the years when he was at the peak of his career in the Marine Corps, his voice was a primary instrument of his authority. Years of practice leading men in war and ceremonial parades at Marine Barracks afforded him the ability to issue a command like a rifle report. Without moving a muscle, he could expel a directive so that it burst out of him, sharp and clean. It was the voice that brought me to heel when I was out of line, that sliced up my spine and froze me in my tracks.

After Dad was forced into retirement following his heart attack, his command voice was repurposed for domestic use. It became a vehicle for entertainment. When family or friends lingered around Mom’s dinner table, Dad might without warning boom, “Speak!” Having gained the startled attention of the audience — for it was an audience then — Dad would continue, “Speak thou fearful guest, who, with thy hollow breast still in rude armor drest, comest to daunt me!” His voice would slip into a conversational “just between us” tone as he launched into Antony and Cleopatra, “The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne, burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold; purple, the sails, and so perfumed that the winds were love-sick with them.” Or he would channel Richard Burton, dropping his voice a register, intoning, slowly, “Alone, alone, all, all alone, alone on a wide wide sea! And never a saint took pity on my soul in agony.”

His Marine Colonel voice still made rare but memorable appearances. When my newborn son arrived home from the hospital with an inch and a half of black hair, standing on end, my five year old daughter approached her brother with a pair of scissors. Dad, reading the paper in our family room, suspected her plan was benign but as a father of five children knew something of the jealousies of older siblings. He ordered, “Stop! Put The Scissors DOWN!” For several seconds, she didn’t even expel a breath. Then she put the scissors down.

Dad’s voice continued to make an impression on my daughter, even though he never again raised it to her in anger, as far as I know. This week, I ran across a get well greeting in the form of a comic strip that my daughter created while in third grade to send Dad when he was hospitalized. The first frame was easy enough to understand: a drawing of a hand holding a balloon. The second frame stumped us for a bit. The hand held the balloon in front of a man labeled “you,” for my Dad. The speech bubble above him read, “tehupt!” In the third frame, the balloon appeared to be vibrating, rocked by Dad’s voice, and in the fourth, it had popped. Above the second frame, my daughter had drawn an arrow pointing to the speech bubble next to which she wrote, “My Dad said this is how you spell it.” She wanted to exonerate herself of any blame for the phonetic spelling of the call-to-attention drill command that Dad would demonstrate upon request.

Something happened to Dad’s voice over time. It dropped in pitch and took on a gravelly character. His voice, his calling card, led some people to falsely assume that he was a curmudgeon, or worse.

In 2003, after blowing out a tire on a new curb on a familiar side street in Tacoma, he decided to give up driving and moved to an assisted living community just two blocks from my brother Dean’s home. When I visited the first weekend after his move, I passed the front desk where I heard the staff member describing Dad at the request of a resident. “He’s very angry,” she said, “he might even be dangerous.” She had gone so far as to file an incident report with the nursing staff.

After a small stroke two years before he died, a speech therapist suggested we have an ENT physician examine his vocal chords with a scope, suspecting organic damage to the vocal chords. The physician found evidence that Dad had been experiencing acid reflux without knowing it. Although we tried a medication to control it, the damage was done.

In Dad’s last years, his voice was sometimes more breath than speech. He had to actively concentrate to gather his breath and push it through his vocal chords to produce sound. Reciting his favorite poetry required conscious effort to break the long passages into phrases supported by more frequent breaths.

Two nights before he died, when my husband came home from work, Dad was determined to greet the head of household, his host, properly.

“How was your day, sir?” he boomed, sharp and clean.

I hear it still.

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Loss and Its Companions: Love and Forgiveness

Eileen Driscoll Campbell

In grieving Dad, my mind has turned to my mother, who died in 1999. I love her for who she was and her many gifts to me, and I have long since forgiven her for the things that I once ached to receive from her.

If I want to, I can call to mind the feel of resting my head on her bosom, dozing on a long car trip, comfortably settled between Mom and Dad on the plastic-covered bench seat. I can’t exactly say that it’s a recollection. It’s more like a muscle memory, as if the tissues of my face can reconstruct the very feeling of her. She is soft and warm, a little damp with perspiration, and smells faintly of Shalimar talcum powder.

But I also remember Mom being perfunctory when I expressed feelings of hurt or sadness. Which seemed to happen often. “Stop crying like a fire engine,” she would tell me, exasperated. Her lips would compress above her strong jaw line.

A few years into my marriage, she bluntly told me that I would lose my husband if I continued my commitment to career. Prohibited from pursuing the career she had imagined in law, she found success in her role as wife. She believed I would succeed only by doing the same. Implied in her warning, I thought, was a threat that she would be on my husband’s side if I screwed things up.

This doesn’t seem like much of a homily to my mother. But I couldn’t have felt for her what I did by the time that she died if I hadn’t spent time pulling apart the threads of our relationship and reassembling them with the advantage of time, distance and age.

Several years before Mom passed away, when she slid more deeply into dementia, a blanket of sadness settled on my shoulders. I felt immobilized and I had no idea why.

This fits my pattern: having been well trained to ignore feelings of sadness, I don’t recognize them. They rise up. They demand my attention. When they are persistent enough, I attend to them.

Realizing that I was losing Mom made me examine our complicated relationship. I knew she loved me, sometimes with terms, but ultimately unconditionally, with fierceness and loyalty. I wasn’t like her. I would never be like her. But I knew she loved me.

By the time she developed lung cancer, I was at peace with my relationship with her. I forgave her for not always being able to give what I wanted from her. As cancer ate away at her personality and memory, love glowed in the gaze of her fading brown eyes.

Loss and forgiveness. They go together.

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Real-life Giving Trees

Camphor tree

On our daily walk down Berrendo Drive, Dad and I often stopped to appreciate this beautiful camphor tree in our neighbor’s yard. There’s something almost human about her – so much so that the female camphor tree branchespronoun is what springs to mind. Her muscular arms seem to embrace the Hall’s home while her graceful, leaf-laden branches stretch out in welcome. Trees can seem forbidding, or forlorn, or, like this lovely lady, friendly. Upon seeing her, my Dad expressed his admiration by reciting lines from a poem he learned in childhood:

I THINK that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,

         

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;…
— Joyce Kilmer

 

sunset by betsy campbell stoneDad had a friend in our backyard, too. As the evenings warmed, we barbequed and dined outside. Dad’s eyes glowed with emotion as he gazed upward at the young redwood tree next door (at left in this photo). I saw that look on Dad’s face many times: awe of creation in all its variety, love of nature. He would mark the tree’s growth, noting that while he could still see the tip from our position beneath the roof of the porch, he would soon have to crane his neck to see where it met the sky.

I’ve always had the feeling of being in a relationship with trees. When I was five, we moved from Honolulu to Seattle after a disastrous couple of years. The ground had faltered beneath me: Dad had nearly died from a massive heart attack, and we lost Nana, my maternal grandmother, the year prior. I often fled to a tree in Roanoke Park, where hours slipped by as I invisibly watched people walk through the park or I curled up and let my imagination loose in lengthy daydreams.

That tree was my refuge and my friend, even as the redwood tree and camphor tree became my father’s companions. They may not have said much, but their reassuring gentle presence was a gift.

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Everyday Moments

outside my bedroom this morning

Here’s what I didn’t do when I first awakened this morning: I didn’t wonder to myself if Dad was awake yet or whether this might be the morning that I found he had slipped away.

And last night, I didn’t begin my bedtime meditation asking for God to release Dad and take him home.

And at dinner time, as Todd and I dined outside for the first time with the arrival of balmy BBQ weather, I didn’t watch Dad’s eyes as he admired the growth of the redwood tree next door, or listen as he launched into, “Light thickens, and the crow makes wing to th’ rooky wood.”

Losing someone you love is a big change, even when it’s expected, but what I notice most are the small things – the everyday moments that have taken new shape.

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Finding Dad Among the Living

IMG_1407

In response to my Easter-inspired Sunday post, my friend Chris Balestreri shared this with me. I thought it was lovely:

“Every good person shapes the infinite life and compassion of God in a unique way.  When that person dies, we must seek him among the living.  Thus, if we want a loved one’s presence we must seek him out in what was most distinctively him, in terms of love, faith and virtue.  If your father, brother or friend had a gift for hospitality, you will meet him when you are hospitable; if he had a passion for justice, you will meet him when you give yourself over to the quest for justice; if he had a great zest for life, for meals with his family and for laughter in the house, you will meet him when you have a zest for life, eat with your family and have laughter in your house.”

– adapted from “The Holy Longing” by Ronald Rolheiser

Ronald Rolheiser

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The Voices in My Head

I’m hearing voices, but don’t worry about me. I’ve only been home three weekends since Dad died on January 12, and only this week has life begun to coalesce around a new normal. I’m back to my usual exercise schedule, working on a consulting project, and reconnecting with friends and colleagues.

But it’s quiet enough for me to recognize who’s missing. About a week ago, I learned of the unexpected death of a dear family friend, a woman I first met in 1981.

The first thing that came to mind was her voice: her rapid-fire, nearly breathless way of embracing one with her exclamations of appreciation. No one talked like Char.

Now, as I sit quietly in my living room – Todd’s out, Maddie’s on her own in her apartment, and Thom is almost 5,500 miles away as he begins his study abroad – it’s the voices of loved ones that echo in my head.

In the morning, I still half expect Dad to holler from his room, “Hey Bets, I’m up!” Gravelly and damaged by time, his speech was still arresting when he could summon the breath to support his vocalizations. Much farther back, I remember how badly he startled nearly-five-year-old Maddie when she tried to cut her newborn brothers’ spiky hair. In his best parade ground command voice, he exploded, “PUT. THE. SCISSORS. DOWN!”

And my other mother, Ann. I can still hear the remnants of her Floridian childhood in her soft, kind voice as she asked, “How is my other daughter Betsy?”

Farther back, I hear the bubbling-up belly laugh of our old family friend Patsy. She was so tickled when, for a summer job, I went door-to-door in Seattle explaining the merits of the city’s pilot recycling program. “You’re in gar-BAGE,” she would say in an intentionally affected accent, before unleashing a laugh that started as a chuckle, rumbled up and grew exponentially in volume until her whole body shook. It was infectious.

Certainly I remember their faces: Mom, Dad, my “other father” Terry, my “other mother” Ann, Patsy, and now Char. But what keeps them present in my mind and heart are their voices: their wonderful, distinct way of expressing their affection as only they could.

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