Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Christmas List

By this time of the year, I usually have a ton of Christmas shopping done. Oh sure, I've picked up a couple of little things here and there but nothing close to the comfortable level I like to be at by now.

I have a place in my finished basement where I store all the gifts along with the materials I use to wrap them. When I was in the basement today going through paperwork for my dad's estate, I noticed just how empty the Christmas corner looked. 

My dad, who lost his reason for living when my mom died three years ago, was the main focus of most of my energy for the past three years until he died last month.

Since that day, I’ve been doing everything that I need to do for his estate, just like I did everything I needed for his care while he was alive. Handling finances, meeting with professionals, and doing the Australian crawl through the swimming pool of responsibility. 

I no longer visit the nursing home to spend time with him but everything else feels almost the same. Anxiety awakens me at night. Worried that I’ve forgotten something that needs to be done for him and then remembering he is gone. 

It’s easy to go from zero to sixty since we spend our lives reacting and pre-reacting for the next dropped shoe. But going from sixty to zero is harder. How do you turn off that switch that’s been stuck in the ON position for so long? 

I threw myself into work and volunteer responsibilities. Taking two business trips in three weeks and more or less allowing for no space in my brain for thoughts that would lead me to process the loss of my last parent. 

There is fear, yes. Fear that I will start to grieve and never stop. Fear that I’ll uncover some dark emotion or, worse, mistake. That I somehow didn’t do the care-taking “right.” I perhaps forgot to fully understand all the medical choices available. Or maybe I didn’t communicate his needs as well as I could have especially since his dementia kept him from doing that himself at the end. 

After getting the paperwork I needed for the estate attorney, I walk up the basement stairs and into my kitchen. I add the paperwork to the pile that sits at the end of my kitchen table awaiting some sort of action.

As I head back towards my home office, I notice my purse which sits on the counter. I stop, clench my fists at my sides, take a deep breath, and open the compartment in the front. I fumble around through the individually-wrapped life savers and the mai tai drink umbrellas that I save for my nephew until my fingers find the Christmas shopping list I started in September.

On it are a list of names with gift ideas next to each person. The first line reads “Dad - pajamas.”

Since his world was so small in September that he was no longer able to understand the history books he loved, and the house he adored was no longer there to putter around, I had no other ideas.

I struggle with what to do about that line on the list. I don’t know if crossing his name off is a sign of moving on or a sign of disrespect to his memory. I pick up a pen from the counter and take another deep breath. 

I smile at the word “Dad”. I remember how much my parents loved Christmas. And then I put pen to paper. 

I cross out the gift idea “pajamas” but can’t bring myself to cross out his name. I look at that line on the list again and smile.

In place of “pajamas” I write “Mom.” Then put a check mark next to his name.

And so the healing begins.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Post-mortem beginnings

Since two days before Thanksgiving, my emotions have mostly been full of anger, frustration, anxiety and sadness. When Dad died in October after a 2 1/2 year struggle to live without the one person who could keep him in one piece, it was the end of a very stressful journey for me as well.

The holidays are something I need to "get through" this year. I'm decorating the house and putting up a tree. But not sending cards or baking. It's not in me this year and, for once in my life, I'm taking a break from expectations that I put on myself.

Dad's final journey started over three years ago when my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It was a miracle that she lived 9 months with it before it finally took her. She gave it an amazing fight till the very end which was not easy for me to watch. I don't think she was ever ready to die and seemed to feel that by admitting "defeat" she would die quicker. 

One of the reasons she wanted to live was my father. She was supposed to take care of him when he was dying, not the other way around. And she knew how much he relied on her for his emotional wellbeing.

Dad had his demons. None of which were lost on the family. He worked hard and provided a comfortable home and life for his family. But he never could outrun his anxiety or the ways in which he tried to silence it. 

My relationship with my father was complicated as were all of his relationships. He pissed off more people than I can count. Some saw through his difficult personality and found the heart of gold that he had. To those friends and family members who hung in there with him, I have only the utmost respect and gratefulness for them.

There is much to write about my dad who was without a doubt the most influential person in my life. Even more than my mother whom I adored. 

And maybe that's why this Christmas I don't want to feel anything at all. It seems almost like the last 3 years didn't happen for me. Or that it happened to someone else. 

These feelings of unreality are my brain's way of keeping me safe. Of only allowing me to feel what I can without losing control of my emotions which has always been my biggest fear in life. I understand that and respect this natural process.

My father's PCP called me today. He wants to talk about the last few months of dad's life. Dad's care had been transitioned over to the nursing home doctor who was great. But dad was a patient of his PCP for 25 years and there were many times that I called him for help when dad was clearly unable to function any more. His grief was so great that he became lost in it. Incapable of sleeping, eating, conversing. And being so afraid of how deep the well was that he couldn't bring himself to accept help. And then the dementia took over.

I don't want to talk to dad's doctor today but know that I must. I'm surprised at how many details - details that I was so immersed in for years - I have forgotten. Another defense mechanism thanks to my brain, for sure. 

This is why I don't write in my blog much lately. It's hard for me to put my hands around what I'm feeling and I don't really want to remember the hell of the last three years. Especially since I took the majority of the anger from my dad since my mom died. I was to blame for everything that went wrong in his life - and a lot did. 

I don't normally write rambling, unstructured blog posts but this is where my head is right now. I don't have the neat little endings with lessons learned from it all like I always do. It's untidy and messy and might stay that way for a long time.

I will do my best to let the feelings and memories come and try not to fear them or hush them. Maybe then I can tidy up this cluttered brain.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A decade at our second home

First Parish Church,  Chelmsford
Ron and I read this chalice lighting (opening words at a UU service) today to mark our 10-year anniversary at First Parish Church in Chelmsford, MA. A very special place to us and a ray of hope in a world that needs it.


It was 10 years ago this week that we walked through those doors. We had stopped looking seriously for a religious home for a while. Kathy was drawn to First Parish for many reasons including a friend’s happy involvement in her Unitarian Universalist church and a deep need to just “be” once a week. So when Kathy decided to try First Parish one Sunday, I decided to come along.

We felt at home immediately here. Everyone was warm, welcoming, and very genuine. Ellen’s sermon was thoughtful and uplifting. We talked about our experience here all that first week and couldn’t wait to return the following Sunday.

We remember those first few weeks like they were yesterday. It felt like Christmas morning every Sunday with new gifts opening for us in every corner. 

It didn’t take long for us to jump into committee work. We easily found the right fits for us: Activities committee, membership, worship, house management. Our focus started with the “easy” stuff and eventually moved to places where we had to stretch ourselves. One of those places was small group ministry where we intentionally carved time out of our hectic schedules to talk about the important questions in life. 

We not only served on committees, but started to chair them. Then we accepted and chaired committees where we served in elected positions. A lot of hours and some stress but it was important work that we felt we should do for the church we loved so much.


We stretched ourselves in other areas after that. Namely, RE. Years ago we said we could never see a time where we would be involved with the kids because we just didn’t think that was our forte given we don’t have children.

That changed when we were asked to be mentors to high schoolers in Coming of Age. There we discovered a joy that we never thought would exist for us. My involvement with the high school group for the past few years of Sunday mornings is one of the greatest joys of my life. 

Our connection to individuals here grew along with our connection to the church. There are members here who have celebrated with us during happy times like our vow renewal service 5 years ago, birthday dance parties, and general silliness at social hour and times in between. These same people held us and mourned with us through job loss, family illnesses and deaths. And then there’s Ellen. Here for us as a steady and accepting presence that makes us feel like everything will be okay.

We don’t know how this story will end. How many more decade anniversaries we will celebrate in our life at First Parish. But we do know this: no matter what comes our way, we will continue to love and be loved here. Hold and be held. Laugh, cry, celebrate, ponder. 

And no matter what we face in life, we will face it as members of a community that understands its important place in the lives and hearts of its fellow members. 

We thank you ALL for a magical 10 years and light the chalice in your honor.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Happy dreaming

One of mom's pieces of china.
Nippon from the 1910s as near as I can tell.
Ever since I was a little girl I dreamed of having my own table to set. My own friends and family seated in my own home. When I was young, I stared into my mother's china cabinet all the time looking at her beautiful china and crystal. 

Mom wasn't into putting out the best china. We used everyday dishes all the time and, though I often prodded her, she would never reach into that cabinet and take out the shiny gems inside for us to use.

She told me some stories about where the magnificent (to me) pieces came from. Or at least what she she believed to be true about them. There were the colored Swedish crystal wine glasses, the dainty etched goblets, the gold-rimmed china. All passed down to her by her mother or mother-in-law.

My seat at the dining room tableused only on special holidays and occasions faced the dining room cabinet. I would find myself drawn to the beauty that it held. I always hoped that someday, when I was older, mom would pass down those things I loved to me. 

We talked about it once and she said that I could have them any time I wanted them. I told her that as long as she was on the planet, they were hers to do what she wished with them.

And then, two years ago, she died.

The chapter I am writing now in my life story is one of sifting through things of value. But not what the owners considered valuable. Just what I and my siblings do. It seems disrespectful. Throwing out and donating items that they kept. Not ones to keep much of anything, it speaks even louder for what they did save.

My parents' house should have a purchase and sales agreement signed on it in the next few days. It was time today to start taking the items home that I want to keep.

I'm not a particularly sentimental person around material things. People are surprised to learn that I don't find old pictures particularly valuable. Oh, I'll look at them and remember, but I find no need to keep them. My pictures are all in my head. Safe for as long as my memory lasts. 

Today when I was carefully packing the china and crystal I've admired for so long, I remembered all the times I dreamed of having them for my own. And later as I cleared out a space in my own small china cabinet to put these jewels, I was reminded of a scene from The Quiet Man.

John Wayne had just secured the money owed to his new wife played by Maureen O'Hara. Money held back out of spite by her pugnacious brother and ward. When Wayne returns triumphantly to tell her that he got the money, she asked about her "things" that were also part of her dowry. The spinet, the dining table, the pewter and glass. 

He didn't understand why it mattered to her. He'd buy her all new things. She responded in tears, "There's 300 years of happy dreaming in those things!"

Years of happy dreaming was what today was about. Not clearing out a house or grieving my mom. I look at those "things" now, shining in my cabinet, and I feel the force of the world turning. Year by year, generation by generation. I look forward to my little niece growing up asking about those same pieces of china that I love so much.

I'll tell her the stories my mother told me. I'll tell her that I dreamed of sharing a meal with family and friends with that china and crystaland my guestssparkling about me. 

When my years come to an end and it's time for the next generation to carry on the traditions, I will be part of the story that my niece tells when she's asked about the "things" in the china cabinet. And somewhere, four generations of happy dreamers will be smiling.

Monday, June 3, 2013

A kind and generous man

The world lost a kind heart last night. Paul Schmidt and I were on the founding board of directors for Springer Spaniel Rescue for years. We didn't always agree on direction but that was mainly because he wanted to save every dog and I knew that wasn't possible. He sure tried to talk me into it, though, God bless him.

Two years ago there was a tribute to him that I could not attend and I was asked to write a little something that would be shared with Paul during the event. In honor of Paul and the great work he did, I'd like to share it with you. 

God speed, Paul. And may you be covered in Springer kisses as I write this post.

When I think of Paul, I think of him with a Springer on his lap, one at his feet, and another having his belly rubbed. Paul's love for all animals shines through in every interaction where fur is involved.

All of the Springers rescued over the years are Paul's dogs. He makes no differentiation between those who live permanently in his home, and those whose homes were found through Rescue. I've seen his heart broken when one of the Springers he's worked so hard to help has passed. But I've also seen many times when his eyes light up like stars on a clear night when he talks about the ones that made it.

His devotion to NEESSR has been evident from the first board meeting we held in 2002. We were on our way to becoming an official non-profit and we were all so excited for the future. Paul stepped up to be an officer and continued to serve in whatever role the organization needed from that moment on.

Paul's enthusiasm for and dedication to the emotionally exhausting work that is Rescue extended beyond work with animals. Paul didn't just rescue dogs, he rescued people too. His unselfishness and generosity to help a long-time Rescue volunteer when she had nowhere else to turn was and is one of the greatest acts of kindness that he performed as part of Rescue.

Paul, I wish for you many more years of a happy and healthy life. You've earned every day of it. But when the time comes, as it does for us all, know that there will be a mob of wagging tails and smiling Springer faces to greet you at the bridge. And they will thank you, as I am now, for your work of love.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Memorial Day remembrance

When I was young, I used to go along with my mom to buy plants for the graves for Memorial Day. She’d pick up plants for everyone who couldn’t drive including her parents and her sister Muriel.

She’d drive all over the city of Lowell looking for just the right flowers. They were always geraniums. Always. She said that they were heartier than most flowers and didn’t need a lot of water.

We’d pick up my aunt and go to the Lowell Cemeteries where family was buried. I never understood how she remembered where all the graves were but she did. The three of us would get the flowers out of mom’s back seat and start our work.

First we would pull weeds around the graves whose markers lay flat in the ground. Their family never had the type of money to have the larger stones that stood upright. But they were a proud working-class Irish family nonetheless. It was important that the names on the grave markers be seen, though, since they were as important as anyone else in that cemetery.

We’d place the geraniums around the stones and stand back and look at our work. There were never tears. Not even once.

 “I’ll come back and get the geraniums in two weeks before the cemetery people remove them all,” Mom would say. “They should be okay without water for that long.”

One day when I was older I asked my mom why she went to so much trouble getting flowers for someone who wasn’t there to appreciate them.
“It’s a way of remembering them,” she said.
“Can’t you remember them at home?” I asked.
“It’s just not the same as coming here,” she replied.

I never really discussed it with her again. She continued to do the Memorial Day cemetery run up until about 3 years before her death. My aunt Muriel was gone at that point so my dad would go with her.

When mom was dying two years ago, she told me she wanted to be cremated and have her ashes spread with my dad’s when he was gone too.
“Where would you like them spread?” I asked her.
“Oh, I’ll leave that up to him. Just so long as we’re together,” she said, patting my hand.

So there’s no picking the right geranium for her now that she’s gone or driving all over the city of Lowell on Memorial Day weekend. Her ashes sit in my dad’s house, vacant now that he’s in a nursing home and we prepare to sell the house.

But I’ll remember her. Still. Without tears. And I’ll plant carefully-chosen geraniums this weekend in my yard as I’ve done for many years. I’ve always liked geraniums. They’re heartier than most flowers and don’t need a lot of water. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Honoring her spirit

Me and the Patty
Tomorrow is the 2nd anniversary of my mom's death. Great way to start a blog post, eh? I only mention it because tomorrow my husband and I leave on a trip to stay with friends in FL for a few days. 

I hadn't planned on hopping on a plane on May 9th because of this sad date. It just worked out that way with everyone's schedules at work and school. But I'm glad it did.

Last year I spent the day mostly with my dad. Taking him on a ride up the coast and out to lunch. Trying to just be there for him. I wasn't there for myself at all but that's rather typical Kathy behavior when it comes to my family's needs.

It was also typical mom behavior. She never ever focused on herself. Even when she was dying. I don't know that it's the best way to be but it certainly worked for her. 

The friends we're staying with are very fun and we expect to have a lot of laughs and hugs. Mom would have approved and, in fact, if she were able to communicate with me now, she would be applauding our trip on this date. I can just hear her, "Go live your lives! Remember me in the happy times!" 

In my mom's eulogy, I mentioned my friend Patty who my mom adored even though they really only interacted a few times in their lives. Patty is as full of life as my mom and an even bigger extrovert. She's also a great hugger. 

Some might think it's disrespectful of a loved one to go out and celebrate on the anniversary of their death. I beg to differ. I'm not forgetting her. I'm actually honoring her wishes to remember her when I'm smiling. I also went out on her birthday last year and danced my ass off with Ron and my friend Henry. Mom would have approved of that as well.

Tomorrow night when we are out to dinner with our dear friends, we will raise a glass to "the mumsie" and continue on with our fun and our hugs. Maybe mom had a hand in this after all.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston on my mind

Boylston Street in winter
I don't know how others process trauma, but I do it by writing. I need to get the horror out of my head by pulling it down through my fingers and out onto a keyboard. 

Last night, like a lot of people in Massachusetts and the rest of the country, I spent many hours in a daze watching the same scenes over and over again on the television. I don't know what I expected. Maybe that the result would be different every time they showed the pre-explosion scenes. Or that the killer would show his face. But probably more that it would become real to me. It isn't now. Still.

This was how I reacted to 9-11. Dazed and sick to my stomach for days. Watching the carnage and the panic-stricken faces breaks my heart. Seeing strangers run toward an explosion to help fills me with awe. Thank God for the strong and the selfless. 

But this time I wasn't able to go to work the next day. I'm home. On the same spot on the couch that I was last night. My grieving isn't just about the people this time. It's also about my beloved Boston. 

My NY cousins went through this too, I'm sure, when their city was terrorized that gorgeous September day. A day so much like yesterday.

The area of Boston that saw the bombs rip through flesh is my favorite part of town. I have spent some of the happiest times of my life hanging around there with my husband and our friends. Laughing while we walk, proud of "my" city for being so filled with history. 

I watched the marathon on Boylston four years ago after the Sox game I was attending with my brother spilled out onto the streets. Proud of my city again then too as it hosted so many people from around the world. 

Will I be able to go back to my favorite spots again without being sucked into the memory of yesterday? It feels like it does when I think about my mother now. It's impossible for me to think of the happy times without returning to the memory of her final days. That trauma for me has never subsided though it's been almost two years that she's been gone.

I wonder how many more good memories will be lost to the reality that there is an end to it all. My mother could keep the sad and unfair at bay. She told me once that she practically denied the sad times and thought only of the good. What a skill. One I wish I had at times like this.

Maybe the trick is to never forget that good can turn to bad in an instant. Temper my knee-jerk joy with thoughts of Patriots Day 2013. It's not who I want to be. But it might keep me off this corner of the couch and back out into the world sooner. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

A compassionate distance

I often get revelations about my life at odd times. Once while I was chopping vegetables I realized that the reason I love to cook is because I own the outcome. If it's great, I get the credit; if it's bad, I have no one to blame but myself. A true control freak if there ever was one.

Today I had an epiphany in a place where revelations should happen - Sunday service at my church. We had a guest minister who co-led worship with my minister and they knocked it out of the park.

There's a lot going on with folks in my church right now. It seems that bad luck comes in waves and there are many of us who are feeling an undertow. The service and the sermon were centered around holding each other in times of sadness. It was also about finding the greater truth in personal struggles, allowing ourselves to do a very human thing - fail.

At one point during the sermon, my mind wandered. Taking with it some spoken phrase or sentence and leading me to its logical but very personal conclusion. 

I'm one of those struggling in my church right now. There are others with much much greater sorrow than me but we've all got something weighing our hearts down. Mine is my dad and his current medical situation. 

Yesterday I had to tell dad that he is moving from the rehab section of the facility he is in over to the long-term nursing section. His very serious hip break coupled with his dementia have caused his rehab progress to plateau and the insurance company has stopped paying. He is not well enough to go home and we are at a crossroads.

He did not take the news well though I used everything I've learned in grief counselling to make it easier for him.

I've been overwhelmed with anxiety and sadness for months about dad. Thoughts of him consume me every day and night and I often feel that I will crack under the pressure. 

I'm a fixer by nature. Hate to not be in control. But this situation is not like cooking where it is all on me. I'm making it into that, but that's not right. I realized today that I never learned an important lesson from my mom's death two years ago. I tried to own that too. Coaching her to open up and share her feelings when that was clearly not what was right for her. Feeling like I failed because she died never really accepting - in a way that spoke to me - that she was at the end of her days.

How arrogant I was. And how arrogant I am still. 

My insight today during the service was about this arrogance. The only person whose dying I own is mine. I can walk with someone on their last journey but I can't carry them. 

Dad's story will unfold in his time and on his terms. The only thing I own emotionally is bearing witness to his story. Respecting that the universe has its own plans for him as it does for me. And being by his side when he needs a hand to hold.

I feel freer today than I have in years. Finally realizing that the paths we walk are paved with stones we've laid before us.