It’s Wednesday of last week, and I’m writing this to you from a pool deck along the ocean in North Carolina. We’ve turned an idea to get away over Columbus Day weekend into a week-long stay in an oceanfront home in Corolla. We took the …
The kids have told me that my half-jokey-but-really-I-was-seriousness declaration of “Onward, with joy!” as our family motto is basically the un-coolest thing I have ever done in their entire lifetimes, so just imagine their (implied) glee when our friend David texted me the Latin translation …
It appears I’m in that stage of grieving wherein I wear all of my mother’s jewelry. (I think it’s Grief Level 6. We’re also moving into Grief Level 7, which is when we begin cleaning out her house and start co-opting pieces of her furniture for own homes. More on that later). You know that scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where Clark gets locked in the attic and ends up wearing all of his dead relative’s clothing? Level 6 is like that, but with yellow gold instead of terrycloth turbans.
As I type this, I’m wearing not one, but two pairs of my mother’s earrings. I’m also wearing a ring of hers–a simple gold band with teeny tiny diamonds–and a butterfly necklace she used to wear all the time when I was little. On my wrist is a gold(ish) bracelet my dad had purchased when he was stationed in Thailand. We buried her in her wedding band, but I’ve already worn her engagement ring. It just happens to fit perfectly on my right hand. It’s just…they’re talismans. I know it, I totally know it, and I’m okay with it right now.
I miss her. A lot.
We’ve already had her burial, the quick scheduling of which came as both a relief and a shock. Because she was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, we’d been told that we’d have to wait about six months to, er, get her in. We anticipated a cold, snowy January morning spent graveside, but at the night of her viewing, her funeral director greeted me with, “Hey! Good news! Arlington had an opening for next week!” (I wanted to reply, “It’s a cemetery: don’t they have lots of openings?” but felt like he might not laugh). So we spent Mom’s burial service sweltering behind our masks in the 86-degree sun (Real Feel: 104!). We held no reception afterward for the family: The Covid, you know. It’s messed with some things. A few of us straggled off to an Irish pub in Arlington and melted into the macadam outside with our slippery pints of Guinness in order to cobble together some semblance of a wake. The owner welcomed us and mentioned the skyrocketing cases of Covid-19 in the area. Sláinte, Mom.
Saoirse found me sitting crosslegged on the floor of my closet this evening, sobbing wet, feels-like-I-just-dove-into-the-ocean-why-is-the-inside-of-my-sinuses-salty tears. She’s been amazing these past few weeks, volunteering to go with me to my mom’s whenever I get brave enough to tackle a room in her house and start cleaning out her belongings. We’d met up with my Aunt Mary and Uncle Tim, and we’d started sorting through Mom’s clothes and shoes for donation (Mom had many, many shoes). She had dresses with tags still attached, broken-in sandals she’s packed for vacations with us, sweaters that had been worn to nice dinners, to Thanksgiving, to babysit the kids. I found one of her favorite necklaces, a Celtic cross we thought we’d lost at one of her radiation appointments, which a caregiver had probably found and placed away for safekeeping. I wore it home.
But back to the story at hand: I’d gone in to my own closet to hang up a shirt of my mom’s I can’t bear to part with just yet: a pink and blue plaid button-front, soft from wear and still smelling like her. That’s when Saoirse found me. It was the smell that got me.
So, you know, it’s going well.
When I’m busy, it’s more manageable, but to be honest, I often can’t face the busy. Some days it’s all I can do to face the dishes. Quinlan gently approached me one day–it was the first day I’d been to Mom’s to start cleaning stuff out, and I was wrecked when I got home and doing a poor job of hiding it. She hugged me, but added a little admonishment: “Mom, I know you’re sad, but Grammy’s happy now. She’s all better and happy and running with Luca [our beloved old dog], and soon–” Quinlan glanced at our ancient cat, who was staggering through the kitchen on her arthritis-ridden skeleton legs– “and soon she’ll be running with both Luca and Widget.”
So there you go.
I’ve received so many loving messages from many of you, and I thank you for them (and if I don’t reply right away? It’s because most days I just don’t feel like chatting, and on others, when I do scrape up the memory of what it’s like to be appropriately social, the only response to “How are you?” is “I’M WEARING ALL OF MY MOTHER’S JEWELRY.”). I know from experience that the swells of hurt will ebb so that the waves, eventually, won’t hit as often. But I also know from experience that once you’ve found yourself in this particular Grief Ocean, there’s no swimming to shore.
I’ve been in this ocean for twelve years now–I know how this goes. It’s just that now? My life raft has disappeared, too.
The bottom line of all of this is: I’m a ball of fun right now, and if you are throwing parties, you should totally invite me to all them. I have a couple of Mom-related things I want to post in the upcoming weeks, as I feel up to it, and, of course get back into some sort of Regular Programming (Quinlan has gently reminded me I have a manuscript to finish and to not “use time” on my “blogging“–I wish you could see the derision she has for us internet dinosaurs). I have lots of notes I want to write, too: you’ve been incredible friends and family and caregivers–so many of you–and I want to thank you for that. If I have been quiet, I’ll be in touch.
(It’s hard to write when I’m wearing all this jewelry.)
In the meantime, if you have questions for me about…well, about what these past months have really looked like, please email me through my contact page. I know a few of you reading this have family members walking the GBM road–we had so many questions about what to expect when it was Mom’s turn. If I can help in any way, please let me. If I don’t reach out to you first–or am slow to respond because I’m still at my mom’s cleaning closets (she also had many, many coats), get in touch. Please.
Grief is the pits. I told Saoirse today that I do believe this little bit of time we have on Earth is part of a greater continuum–and one that involves each other, somehow–but it just doesn’t reconcile the feeling of having somebody like my mom–and by extension, my dad all over again–get erased out of our daily life. Just…*poof*. Regardless of if you’re expecting it to happen or not, the disappearance is jarring beyond any comfort level. I still make a move toward my phone every evening around 5:30–it’s when I’d give her a last good-night call this past year or so. (Poof.) I have to remind myself that I’m still here and lucky to love my kids and David (who does do the dishes) and the relatives that text or call and the friends who still want to hang out with my weepy behind and the writing that wants to be done.
Poof. But right now we are here, and I will do all of the things I’m supposed to do (the cleaning out, the loving, even the dishes).
And while doing so I’ll be wearing the most fabulous hand-me-down Irish Catholic jewelry a girl could inherit.
David and I were talking about Luca, our 14-year-old husky, this morning. Luca’s age has finally caught up with our pup. The dog that used to make us laugh as he galloped around my parents’ huge yard now has legs that give out underneath him. His coat used to be a gorgeous gray-and-white that would make people stop in the street to comment, but now is faded to brown in spots, and is matted and falling out. He still follows the kids around as they play, corralling them, barking furiously if one of them steps out of (his) line–the fierce protector and playmate, always, always watching over us. We’re afraid it’s almost time. This week, I’m not doing so well with that.
It’s been seven years since Dad died. Seven years ago this week, we were holding vigil at the hospital, with David running back home a few times a day to let Luca out while the rest of us–Mom, my brother, two-month-old Saoirse and I–huddled in the waiting room, or gathered around Dad’s ICU bed, or listened to the nurses tell us again and again, “it’s time,” only to have our hearts seize up, waiting, and discover it wasn’t quite time yet. Seven years, and the children are finally starting to understand enough to talk about their grandad, have conversations, ask questions. I look at my kids–look at our family–and often think about my own dad, the child put into foster care, the kid that never got adopted out of the system. I see my children, with their warm home and organic applesauce and My Little Pony stuffed animals, and want them to know their roots. When the girls want to talk about smoking–it’s a hot topic these days–I talk about how easy it is to become addicted, how my dad finally quit when the doctor told him he had to quit, because once you start, it’s so hard to stop, and it’s really, really important that someone in your life tells you it’s not a good idea to start in the first place. When they ask why I stopped eating meat for a couple of decades, I tell them it’s because Granddad grew up working on the farms of his foster “families,” and I heard some stories that really made me want to stick to plants. When I draw pictures for Saoirse’s lunchbox, make pancakes with cherries in them, turn on a nature program about animals on the TV for them, it’s because Dad used to do it. When I dream about places I’d like to take the kids, I remember the wonder of hearing about the travels Dad had after he signed up with the Air Force. As kids Paul and I didn’t know the background behind those stories: we just heard about motorcycling through a desert, ordering sushi from a laminated picture card in a Japanese town, jumping from a high tower in the middle of the ocean. It sounded so wild. I didn’t know the loneliness behind those adventures. Not at first.
Here’s the thing about my dad: so much of his past was rooted in hurt. How I wish I was more careful of that when I interacted with him, but in the moment, you’re too busy reacting and aggravating than you are protecting that other person, as we all should, and I didn’t. I wasn’t protecting my dad’s heart, because my dad, with his need to make things just so, and his fierce rules, and his giant, impromptu bear hugs, was all about protection himself. As a teenager, I wasn’t so much of a fan of this trait. As an adult–an adult who understands the stories behind the stories she tells her children–I get it. I finally get it, Dad.
Luca was a shelter dog when we adopted him. His original name was Chaos. I’d wanted to take home a sad little red-haired mutt named Lady, but David took one look at this Chaos–he alway wanted a husky, because apparently David really likes to vacuum dog hair–and knew he was our dog. “Chaos,” who didn’t pay one bit of attention to us when they let him out of the cage to roam a little. Chaos, who trotted off along that shelter fence, strong and independent. His name was CHAOS, for Pete’s sake. Who adopts a dog named Chaos? We later figured was supposed to be a part of some breeding operation, and was given up because he wouldn’t cooperate. Chaos.
The dog that became Luca was one who wouldn’t sleep unless he was beside our bed. The one who jumped up on hind legs to give us hugs when we asked. The dog that allowed me to avoid being mugged at gunpoint one evening because he was at my heels. He, from the shady past, the one who was abandoned, is our protector yet, even in his last days. So much time has passed with him by our side.
Seven years. And so much time has passed without him.