Tag Archives: memory

Summoning Angels

Perhaps the worst losses are the ones that we don’t expect: the children who die before their parents, the young mothers or fathers whose lives laid ahead of them, the mothers we expected to be in our lives for so much longer.

With these premature deaths, we wail with no less intensity than the mourners of ancient Rome, albeit through all the ways that we communicate now. Whether poured out in text messages, or emails, on Facebook or by telephone, it is awful to behold, and worse to feel.

With the loss of my “other mother” in October, I find myself compelled to unpack some Christmas decorations that I haven’t displayed in years: my mother’s angels. Back in the 50s and 60s, my mother collected small angel figurines that she displayed on a bed of “angel hair” (spun fiberglass) that glowed from the string of tiny white lights beneath. Each was lovely, but one in particular stood out: a small girl angel, clad in pink, rosy cheeked, curly haired, head bowed, hands clasped in prayer.

Angels weren’t just a symbol of Christ’s birth to my mother; she had her own little angel in heaven. Before I was born, my sister, Midge, died of leukemia at the age of four. I don’t remember seeing obvious signs of grief in my mother or father during my childhood. But much later, after my mother died in 1999, Dad poured out his heart to me. He repeatedly slapped his palm against his forehead as he described her calling out to him from her oxygen tent in the hospital, “Daddy, help me.” “I couldn’t do anything,” he said, “I went out of the room and pounded on the wall. I couldn’t do anything.”

In the past few weeks, I have borne witness to and experienced that stabbing kind of pain that comes with unexpected loss: the continuing fallout from the death of a young mother to alcoholism, the sudden loss of a joyous and loving young father, and my “other mother,” Miss Ann.

My other mother’s family gathered to make her favorite foods and set the table just as she would have, harvest colored candles arrayed on her heavy brass serving tray. My friend who lost her childhood buddy to addiction wrote a eulogy filled with beautiful stories of her wit and strength. My friend who lost her brother, the young father, raises beers to him to re-enact the fun times when they met at the Whole Foods Bier Garten. These moments were nothing like scenes from a TV drama in which survivors look beautiful while they delicately weep in their time of grief; they were – and are – red-eyed, snot-riddled affairs where people try to do something, anything, to make a terrible reality less terrible.

In reliving traditions – even privately – we summon the people we have lost, the people we feel we should not have lost. Are we hoping that their ghosts will be with us as we go through our rituals? Do we imagine that they will be near as angels, hovering over our lives? I think my mother imagined Midge as an angel, captured in the likeness of the little pink-clad figurine.

Caroline Kennedy, who knows a few things about grief, devoted a chapter to death and grief in her lovely collection of poetry, She Walks in Beauty (Hyperion, 2011). Among the poems was this excerpt from “To W.P.,” by George Santayana:

With you a part of me hath passed away;

For in the peopled forest of my mind

A tree made leafless by this wintry wind

Shall never don again its green array.

Chapel and fireside, country road and bay,

Have something of their friendliness resigned;

Another, if I would, I could not find,

And I am grown much older in a day.

But yet I treasure in my memory

Your gift of charity, and young heart’s ease,

And the dear honor of your amity;

For these once mine, my life is rich with these.

And I scarce know which part may greater be —

What I keep of you, or you rob from me.

Those who lose someone too soon know what it means to grow older in a day, and to feel robbed by the loss of someone who died before we were ready. As I pull out my mother’s angels, one by one, I call her: “Mom – whether you are angel or ghost – be with me.”

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Road Trip: The Hot Pavement of Memory Lane

Horseshoe Bend image/yakimamemory.org

Sun-drenched has always struck me as an oxymoron here in toasty Sacramento where people often say the old cliche, “it’s a dry heat,” with more than a little acid in their tone. Samuel Taylor Coleridge recognized the sun in a less friendly form in a favorite quote of my Dad’s from The Ancient Mariner: “All in a hot and copper sky,/The bloody Sun, at noon,/Right up above the mast did stand,/No bigger than the Moon.”

During a hot spell, old time Sacramentans would have opened their windows at dawn and shuttered them at 9 a.m. to keep in the cool. At night, they might have dragged their mattresses out into their one-car garage and slept under a wet sheet, hoping for the Delta breeze to come up. Damn the mosquitos.

Having spent most of my formative years in the cool Pacific Northwest, “hot” was reserved for road trips. Every so often, we drove over Chinook Pass and headed to Yakima to visit my grandmother and great aunt. The first part of the drive was spectacular, past sparkling streams of snow runoff, through fields of lupine and Indian paint brush. But then came the hellish drive on the winding canyon road that snaked beside the Yakima River, where no breeze penetrated, and where the sun was amplified by basalt ridges thinly felted with dead, brown grass.

When two of my three brothers were along, I rode pressed next to my father and mother on the bench seat in front. Where the fabric of my shorts left off, skin adhered to the plastic or leather upholstery. My mother, never modest, unrolled the window, unbuttoned her sleeveless blouse and let the breeze of the open window serve as fan. When it got to be too much, my mother advocated a stop to “hot our feet off,” often near Horseshoe Bend. Bliss, even if it was cut short by having to put our shoes back on and pile back into our then-hotter car.

Our summer drives often included a trip to Boise, where my mother grew up, or McCall, Idaho, where my mother’s uncle maintained a summer home. Driving to Idaho was a lot like driving to Yakima in our pre-air-conditioning-era car, but without the benefit of a river for relief.

Remembering those drives, I fully understand the meaning of the ad slogan, “the pause that refreshes.” Coca-Cola never tasted so good as when you were sweating profusely. I remember the excitement of pulling up to a gas pump in the Horse Heavens, past Rattlesnake Ridge, and being given a dime or a quarter. The gas station in my minds’ eye had an old fashioned (1950s) machine that looked like a big cooler or a small freezer. You reached in and pulled out one one of the frosty bottles, held by metal clamps that were released when you inserted your coin. Six ounces of caramel-colored, fizzy heaven.

I don’t remember those drives as especially comfortable, but I remember feeling secure between my Mom and Dad, with my brothers in the back seat, passing the time by playing “red car.” There’s something to be said about the days before air conditioning.

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My Dad wonders, “What’s the alternative?”

For Father’s Day, I’m putting together a digital scrapbook of sorts. I came across some notes I scribbled after talking with Dad in 2009. We had talked a little about the fact that he doesn’t live in the past despite some agonizingly painful memories, as when my sister died of leukemia at the age of four:

The past is over. And I can’t live in the future. So I live in the present. I have these distinct periods of my life. They’re almost separate lives. I wish your sister had lived. In my last memory of her she was in an oxygen tent, holding out her arms and saying, “Daddy help me.” I couldn’t do a thing.

It struck me that, as emotional as Dad is, he has been – and is – a very practical man.  He does what has to be done.  When memories are too painful, he doesn’t dwell on them.

A few days later, we talked a little more.

“I’m getting to be an old crock,” he said.  I commented, “You do so much better than most people your age – you’re hardly an old crock.”  Then he said, “I hope it doesn’t shock you, but I look forward to being with your mother again.”

Now, Dad and I had talked about his concept of faith and God many times in the past, and he had expressed regret that he couldn’t quite believe in God, much as he might want to.  Further, he found it unfair that my Mom, a woman of so much faith in God, would express fear of death when she was in the late stages of terminal lung cancer.  So I said, “I take it you do believe in an after-life.”  He replied:  “What’s the alternative?” I’ll take that as a yes.

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When nothing is something

One of the unexpected consequences of our Pilgrim upbringing is a tremendous emphasis on work as a moral virtue. Time we are sitting can seem like time we are wasting, or at the very least, remind us of our endless lists of uncompleted tasks.

When a parent is growing older but not really “up there,” it’s easy to find ways to brighten their days: lunch or dinner in a restaurant, an outing to the theater, a trip to see family. But as the burden of age sets in, making “play dates” with a parent can get hard on the caregiver and care recipient. It’s easy to revert to  the mode we grew accustomed to when our children were small.

A little while ago, I offered to take Dad out for his daily walk, and he said, “I don’t know what’s wrong but I really don’t feel up to it today.” So I heated up some leftovers for his lunch and started tidying up in the kitchen. And then I realized: this is it. Through shared meal times, I can give Dad some normalcy. So I sat down. Ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He read the paper. I read the paper.

These moments of nothing have the potential to be something. For the older person, perhaps having someone sit with you at the kitchen table mirrors the mundane (but missed) moments they may have had with their spouse. It’s quiet but companionable. For the adult child, these quiet moments say, “I’m willing to stop my life long enough to just be present with you.” Or, “I’m here if you have a memory that comes to mind.” Or, “I just like sitting with you.”

We don’t always have to do something to make the time pleasurable. Sometimes nothing is everything.

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Riding the waves of my Dad’s memories

You never know what’s going to trigger a memory.  For me this afternoon, it was strawberry ice cream.  Not just any ice cream, but my Grandmother’s strawberry ice cream.  I made a batch for our Norwegian cousins last week and finished it off today.  It took me right back to sharing Independence Day with the Lukens clan in Seattle, when we hand-cranked a behemoth ice cream freezer for the better part of a day.  (Of course, it’s a lot easier to make it with a little electric appliance I have now.)

It’s very frustrating for my Dad – any of us, really – not to be able to access memory on demand.  With my Dad, it’s usually not that the memory is gone, it’s just not within reach when he wants it.

Instead, his memories seem to float up out of the depths like flotsam, submerge again, only to return again the next day.  It’s as if a recirculating pump brings them back time and time again, until the pattern shifts and it’s a new set of memories that begins their rotation.

For the past month or so, Dad has been remembering me riding on his shoulders in the waves at Barber’s Point on Oahu.  Dad was stationed at CINCPac in Honolulu, and I was five.  I loved the water but I couldn’t swim, and Barber’s Point had a notorious riptide.  The moment he remembers may have been the day before, even the day of, his massive heart attack.  Back in the early 60s, no one knew if you would recover from a big cardiac event.  At some point, it dawned on him that he could just as easily have had that heart attack while jouncing me in the waves.  Perhaps that’s why that particular day is so firmly etched in his mind.

Sometimes I think his memories are things he’s trying to work through.  He often asks me, “Do we have any business left?”  It’s his way of asking if his affairs are in order, recognizing that he doesn’t have forever.

Not long after my mother died in 1999, he perserverated on the memory of my sister’s death from leukemia.  He remembered her calling out to him, “Daddy, help me,” and his deep feeling of helplessness.  During another period, it was the bloody beach on Iwo Jima.  In recent months, many memories were of his father, with whom he did not have a warm relationship.  He wonders why his father didn’t take him fishing or have the interest in him that my father had in his sons.

Listening to some of his memories breaks my heart.  Others give me comfort, because I know that they bring him comfort.  Like today, when he remembered my brother older Dean at about age five, hands on hips, waiting for him in the driveway when he came home from work.  Dean was such a little man, even at that age.  Dad smiled.  And so did I.

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