Tag Archives: loss

Break In

Theft

One kick to the door was all it took. My first thought when I saw the splintered door frame was: thank God my son wasn’t home; he would have slept through the noise. The CSI detective showed me how they entered by shining her light down the surface of the front door: the clear print of a boot. Waffle stompers we called them in college. “That’s exactly where you kick,” she said.

The thieves who came in the night took their time, dumping drawers, opening cabinets and sorting through my jewel boxes. Things were strewn throughout the house. A Mexican five peso bill from my husband’s bathroom drawer was next to the dining room curtain. A stained pillow was lying next to it.

I thought (with some satisfaction) that it couldn’t have been a very gratifying haul for them. I keep the little good jewelry I have in a safety deposit box. The burglars went to the trouble of removing two wall-hung TVs. The TVs were eight years old and worthless. They took a huge silver plate serving tray that I’ve never used; new “princess” trays sell online for about $75.00. No prints, the detective said, they even used a new kind of glove that left no smudges. They were pros.

I thought (with some relief) that they didn’t break anything. The old Chinese tea caddy that I use for a jewel box was on the floor, drawers emptied but undamaged. They could have vandalized things just for the hell of it, dumped condiments from the refrigerator, graffitied the walls.

I thought (with effort) that it was just stuff. While rushing home, my friend called with the news that her husband had just passed away. I had been with her most of the week while he lay “actively dying.” For eight days, he had been unable to take in liquids. For seven days, he had been in a hospital bed, lying in that state that hospice calls “transition.” I remember “transition” from giving birth; with this version there’s no happy ending.

After CSI left, I went to see my friend, then came home and fell asleep. I awakened some time later. I thought I heard a thump through my husband’s open window. Had someone hopped the fence? I listened, willed myself awake. No sound, not even crickets. Had the crickets been startled into silence?

I drifted. The image of my grandmother’s pendant watch floated before me. My mother’s mother – I called her Nana — died when I was five. I entered her bedroom after my afternoon nap, expecting to find her resting, too. I couldn’t awaken her. My mother hurried me out of her room while she called our neighbor the doctor. Nana had always been a gentle presence. I remember her softly curled gray hair. Her soft lap. Everything about her was soft. The edges of her frameless glasses caught the light and sparkled around her eyes. I have two things that were hers. Correction: had. I unconsciously looked toward my dresser for one when I approached my bedroom after the break in: my grandmother’s jar of potpourri. It was untouched — a white porcelain jar painted with a delicate pink chrysanthemum, a red-and-white morning glory and a tuxedoed magpie. I lifted the lid and inhaled. The scent of summer roses wafted across sixty years. I didn’t think about her watch then, the round ball with tiny face. It was enameled with tiny pink flowers against a turquoise background. Throughout my childhood, when I stood by my mother as she chose accessories for an evening out, I took it out of her jewel box and let the links trickle into my hand before I dropped the cool globe into my palm. When my daughter was young, she would hold it and ask me to tell her about my Nana. The watch would have gone to her.

My nights are still like this: I fall asleep reading and rouse with the memory of something I will miss. A sterling spoon engraved “Ella’s baby.” That was my Nana. The gold butterfly necklace my father gave me. My mother’s silver earrings with the dangling bells that tinkled when she moved her head. The things that connected me to those who came before.

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How Dad Survived

Dad holding Midge's hand 1953

Dad holding Midge’s hand 1953

I have often wondered how my father survived a dysfunctional family, the horrors of the war, the loss of his nearly four-year-old daughter to leukemia, the sudden end of his career for medical reasons, and finally the loss of his wife after 58 years of marriage. Any one of those experiences would have damaged most people.

But Dad wasn’t most people. Perhaps my vision is clouded as his youngest, his only surviving daughter and, for seven years, his caregiver. Maybe the magnetic attraction I feel to ponder his bigger-than-life story is a father-daughter thing. Whatever it is, I’ll take it. Dad has been gone for 14 months and I still learn from him every day.

I was there when Mom died, at the moment her heart finally gave out at the end of a three-and-a-half month struggle with late stage lung cancer. He was steadfast at her bedside, holding and stroking her hand, looking in to her eyes and telling her he loved her and would see her again. She died connected to him.

In the hours and days after that loss, Dad felt that severance as an open wound. He did not know how he would survive it. We all knew the survival statistics for men who suffer the loss of a life-long mate.

As he reflected out loud about their life together, he asked, “How can I live without her?” Over time, within weeks, that rhetorical question subtly changed. It became, “How can I live without her?” And then, “How will I live without her?”

In his questions are clues to Dad’s survival strategy.

With the first question, he assessed brutal reality. Can I survive this? Do I want to? Can I imagine life without Eileen?

Slowly, the “how” came into his inner dialogue. Dad the planner began to emerge. He began to focus on what lay ahead even if it was as simple as assembling the groceries for the four meals he said he knew how to make. He was a realist, and not an escapist. He began to imagine making it, in a world without Mom, day by day. His image of himself was eminently practical: a guy who would rise around seven, make coffee, feed the dog, read the paper, prepare some oatmeal, do some chores, go for a walk, have lunch, take a nap, read a book, make dinner and retire at ten after a few TV shows. Thrown in there somewhere was the endless maintenance of his collection of hunting guns, and perhaps a few calls to line up skeet shooting or fishing junkets with one of his sons or his friend, Bob.

After the massive heart attack that forced his retirement from the Marine Corps, I imagine that Dad’s view of his future self changed radically. He was in his mid-40s, a guy being watched for higher command, a Colonel with all the right prior postings. That guiding occupational dream drove him.

After finding himself out on the curb, his motivation changed. Everything, everything in him aimed at the seemingly insurmountable task of recreating a professional career that could support his wife and four children, none of whom had yet completed college.

“Be clear about your objective” was more than a military tenet. To Dad, it was a commandment. After keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table, his number one goal to secure our education.

Pursuing his objective left little time for leisure. What time he had went to connecting with the outdoors, a source of succor throughout his life. Wading the banks of a promising trout stream or crunching through the stubble of a shorn, frozen wheat field in search of pheasants was his idea of a vacation. Whenever possible, he would share that transporting experience with his children.

Although his dream had been sacrificed, Dad never expressed bitterness. Mom wasn’t above assuming a little high dudgeon about what would have happened if Dad had been able to continue his career, but her comments were never a complaint or rebuke. Dad could easily have looked at his abrupt departure from the Marines as a failure, but I never sensed such a deflation in his self-esteem. A door closed, another had to open. Had to, to educate his children. His sense of self worth was tied up in taking care of us, not stroking his own ego.

A recent Scientific American Mind article described the work of psychologist Shalom H. Schwartz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which sought to identify universal values that might guide one’s life. Constructing them as a compass:

At the north is a universalistic orientation, which includes tolerance… and self-directed thought. To the east are hedonism… and personal achievement in the eyes of others…..Moving southeast, one can find dominance…. To the south is a believe in the importance of security and safety…., and to the west are humility and caring….  

A related study by Ravenna M. Helson, Ph.D., of UC Berkeley divided women into four groups over the course of their lives: seekers, conservers, achievers and “depleteds.” “Conservers valued tradition, family, security and hard work (the south of the compass). The achievers wanted both personal growth and the ability to excel at what they did (covering an area along Schwartz’s compass from the north to the east),” Scientific American Mind reported.

Those who identified as “conservers” were the most content.

Dad knew who he was, even as he worked through jarring crises. He knew what he wanted, even as his goals changed. He did not waste time longing for things outside of his practical reach. And he knew what he wanted to leave behind.

He never talked about his legacy, but if he had, it would have been for the four of us to have satisfying lives with children or people we love, acting with integrity and ready make a difference – however small – in the lives of those around us. Nothing grandiose. Nothing impractical. Just an immutable sense of self in service to others.

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Holding Hands

Holding on to love

The first thing my estranged cousin did when I met her was ask to see my hands.

Elizabeth took my hand in hers and looked at my finger tips. “They’re like mine,” she said.

I had never met Elizabeth. I didn’t even know she existed until she or her brother — I don’t remember which — wrote Dad a note after my mother’s obituary was published in the Yakima paper. You may not know us, the note said, but we are the children of your brother, Ed.

The year after Mom died, I took Dad to Yakima – a last chance, I thought, for him to see the old family home, connect with a few childhood friends before they were gone, and meet his niece and nephew.

Inspecting her fingers next to mine I saw no resemblance. Her fingers were delicate and tapered, capped by long nails that extended in white tips. Mine were of a sturdier sort, not ugly, but not something I would ever show with pride. I smiled and said nothing.

Elizabeth was looking for a connection, physical reassurance that she was a Campbell, like us.

My father had no doubts about her parentage. He accepted that Elizabeth and her brother were his niece and nephew. Family resemblance shone in their features. Though he loved his brother, who had so tenderly overseen the medical care of my sister Midge as she struggled with childhood leukemia, he could not understand how Ed could deny paternity. That rejection — the events leading up to it and following it — were part of the heritage of dysfunction that stemmed from their father.

I imagine that I am holding my father’s hand. Though he complained that they showed his age, I found them handsome. While Elizabeth’s fingers were thin and tapered, his were straight and square. His nails were near-perfect rectangles, the white base of his nail beds almost a straight line. The tips were filed to conform to the shape of his finger tips: neatly squared.

Mom and Dad often held hands. Especially when traveling in the car, he would reach over and clasp her hand. Her hand would linger in his.

As a teenager or young adult in the car with Dad, he would occasionally do the same with me. My hand would lay encased in the warmth of his. And it made me acutely uncomfortable. I had gotten to that age when physical affection, for more than brief moments, was awkward. If I snatched it away quickly, would it signal that I didn’t reciprocate his affection? What was the soonest I could gently withdraw my hand without seeming ungrateful?

By the time Dad moved here, Mom was gone. His primary physical connection was severed. Once Mom died, almost no one held him, rested their arm around his shoulder, reached over for the familiar three pats on the knee. Dad always said that we are a three pat family. Not one, or two, but three.

I had a special privilege as a daughter. Though my brothers hugged my Dad, and might rest their hand on his shoulder, they faced the added limitation of male-to-male contact. Or so I guess.

As I drove between my Dad’s assisted living community and my home, I often reached over and clasped his hand in mine. We would drive that way for a few miles, separating when I might need both hands to navigate an intersection. I no longer squirmed. I would feel the warmth of our hands together and think of the love that flowed between us.

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The Year-Agos

Figgy Pudding 2012

I started writing this post yesterday, and then I received an email from my brother Bruce about how he was brought up short when he reviewed his holiday card database and realized he would not be sending a card to Dad this year.

Little static-electricity jolts triggered by seemingly meaningless moments constantly zap you the first year after losing someone. Last year, addressing holiday cards was a necessary but unremarkable task. This year, it’s a reminder.

A year ago Friday night, December 6, I dined with two girlfriends friends in Seattle and strolled the Figgy Pudding outdoor caroling event snugly bundled up in matching winter white hats, mufflers and gloves. I felt full of holiday spirit, braced by the cold air, a little buzzed from the cocktails we shared over dinner. I never suspected that Dad’s decline had already begun.

My brother Scott, who was caring for Dad at my house, called the next morning to say that Dad was unable to urinate and in extreme pain. What should he do? At the doctor’s urging, he took Dad to urgent care where they removed over one liter of urine.

When I returned to Sacramento that afternoon, Dad was significantly weaker. He’d had a recent bout of extreme shortness of breath and then pulled a muscle. With the bladder problem, there was no question of him returning back to his assisted living community. By Tuesday, he was in extreme pain again, unable to urinate. He was sent home from the ER with a catheter that we hoped would come out after a week.

I was frantic. The catheter gave him a sensation that felt like urinary urgency, so he tried to rise every 15 minutes or so. If he was not watched at night, he would attempt to get up for the bathroom and fall. 

Ten days later, he stopped being able to walk.

My world had transformed from light to dark. From an evening lit by sparkling decorations, cheeks blushing pink from the cold, lilting carols soaring in harmony, I sat by my father’s bedside, worrying.

Instead of making me sad, that turning point reminds me that a year ago, Dad was still here. A year ago, I had every reason to expect he would recover from this latest health setback. A year ago, I knew Dad would feel better when the winter lifted and spring bloomed again.

Today I leave Seattle, headed for home again. The house is already decorated. Dad’s room will be orderly and quiet. When I walk in the house, I will remember that it was the beginning of Dad’s final decline. The hard part is over. He is worth remembering, worth loving and worth every moment spent comforting him.

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Gratuituous Grace On Thanksgiving

candle

Eighteen days ago, one of my oldest friends was suddenly ripped away from all of us who love her. Five days later, her husband asked me contact a couple of her friends, friends that dated back to our college days. He closed our phone conversation with, “I love you.”

That wasn’t something he normally would have said to me. But a terrible loss like this one is a reminder of how dear people are to us, and how quickly things can change. We are shaken by the shoulders and reminded to notice things that hover just beyond our attention, people for whom we are grateful. Now.

I’ve been re-reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek this week. Yesterday I recorded this quote, “Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it.”

As Thanksgiving approaches, I look around me and see so much beauty. I see you, husband, my personal Mighty Mouse who continually saves (my) day by being so utterly reliable and unfailingly loving and who puts up with my Gemini self. I see you, daughter, not only for your talent, but your wisdom in being able to sense when people are going through difficult periods and your ability to be ready to support them even when they are not yet ready to accept help or support. I see you, son, your burgeoning talents, authenticity, sense of wonder and openness to all kinds of people.

I see you brothers, through our differences, for the loving, honorable and enduring presence that you are in my life. I see you, beloved nieces, nephews, and even great nephews, for the light in your eyes when we meet, which is nowhere near as often as I would wish. I see you, in-laws, for the umbrella of security and acceptance that you have created for my family, and for me. I see you, family who are more than family, Lynn, Louise and Mary, who always seem to reach out at just the right moment.

And I see you, friends. I’ve talked most about my female friends, who have been my pillars, but my guy friends have always been stalwart supports in my life. I see you, Howie, Bill, Pete, Jim and Mario.

And, yes, you female friends who always stand by: Ellen, Sandy, Lisa, Tammy, Cheryl, Collette, Wendi, Tracy, Sharon, Debbie O, Linda, Nancy, Judee, “Babes” (you know who you are) and probably more who I have inadvertently left off.

There is one name missing from that inventory of people I hold dear today, one who is gone from this world but smiling from the next. It is you, Deb, who is reminding me from afar to pay attention. I did not hold you close as I could have — should have — in recent years. Sure, I have decent excuses, but none of them seem good enough right now. I list you last, but not least.

Dillard wrote:

“Unless all ages and races of men have been deluded by the same mass hypnotist (who?), there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous… (B)eauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

I am trying to be there and notice you all, you who I love.

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Insomnia

Screen Shot 2013-11-20 at 4.29.34 AM

I might as well get up.

The last few nights I’ve awakened around 3 a.m., my thoughts flying to my friend who died suddenly on November 8 at 57 years old.

I recognize this, this peculiar alarm clock that rings in the deep night to remind me that something is wrong.

In the days after my mother died in 1999, and my Dad died this past January, I awakened with a racing heartbeat, momentarily panicked, feeling that there was something I should do. This is different.

I awoke with her face floating gently in front of me, smiling. My awareness grew to include the percussion of the long-awaited rain tapping lightly and steadily in the metal gutter just outside my bedroom window. Rain reminds me of home.

In my adolescence in Tacoma, rain was often the last sound I heard before dropping into dreams and the first when I awakened. It surrounded me, drops splashing on the rear concrete patio to my left and rivulets sluicing off the sloped path behind me at window height, inches from my headboard. Periodically the white noise of the mammoth furnace would overtake it, but even that was a comforting sound. Above me, I heard the occasional creak of my father’s bedsprings as he adjusted his position in sleep.

The cat is concerned, padding over the papers on my desk to approach me at keyboard height, his tawny eyes observant. When I lean forward, he abrades my face with his rough tongue, scouring me with affection. I pick him up for the moment he will tolerate being cradled in my arms, and he purrs. For him to turn on his motor is a rarity, a sign of affection he seldom confers.

I don’t know what I’m doing up either. I know if I post this that friends will worry how I’m handling my friend’s loss, but to awaken and think of her is not a sign of distress. It’s more like communing with someone dear, someone worth missing.

Here comes the rain again. Shakespeare springs to mind,

“The quality of mercy is not strained./It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/ Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:/ It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

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Dreaming, Again

Pt. White sunset by Betsy C Stone

I dreamt of water again.

Friday afternoon I received the unbelievable news that one of my oldest friends died suddenly; a freak, bolt-of-lightning, one-in-a-million medical event tore her away from us, and in the process, ripped a hole in the universe.

The hours between 3:30 in the afternoon, when I received the call, and 12:30 a.m., when I collapsed in a hotel bed, felt numberless.

I awakened early with the fragmentary memory of floating on water. How did I get there? Slowly I followed bread-crumbs of crazy images backward as far as I could.

I was in the attic of a four-story ramshackle Victorian. Around me were strange but genial characters who resembled figures out of stories: a giant, an old man with a long beard, and a curly-headed individual who resembled Merry Brandybuck but initially seemed neither male nor female.

I was happy to see “Merry” in my dream. As I hugged her in reunion – by then this character was a she — it had the feeling of simultaneous greeting and farewell.

Then the house collapsed. It had been unstable to begin with, with floors no longer square above the other, the attic teetering on top, off balance. We had already taken note of a gash in the wooden floorboards, below which we could see sky.

The attic suddenly gave way, but rather than crashing to earth as we expected, the room transformed into an aircraft. A fuselage of patched boards took shape and the walls tore away, revealing long extensions on both sides: wings.

Immediately, the house-turned-plane dived downward, out of control. Though shocked, Merry and I weren’t afraid. I looked at Merry, smiling and sending a silent message that said, “I love you… I’m grateful you were in my life… we’ll be together again.”

Just before the moment of impact, our craft stabilized into a glide, inches above the water. We floated above a gently meandering river, safe. Then as we rounded a bend, tall trees on both sides sheared off the wings. Now, surely, we would die.

A plume sprayed up on both sides. Miraculously, our craft held. The convex hull buoyed us on the water. We were safe.

After Dad died, I hoped that I would be sent the kind of dream that comforted me after the death of my mother: a vision of her happy and whole, sitting at the kitchen table in her favorite pink satin bathrobe. Instead, I had water dreams. In the first, I heroically forded a cold river to rescue a boat that was to be used in a race. In the second, I returned home to find the ferryman Charon, replete with black swim cap, seated in my living room, waiting to help Dad cross over.

I dreamt of water again. This time, I got to say goodbye and tell her we would meet again.

Source of all blessings, you bless us with dreams-dreams while we sleep and dreams in our most wakeful moments. May I be responsive to both forms of dreams and pass these blessings on by living a life that is faithful to their guidance. — Brother David Steindl-Rast

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