Posts Tagged With: loss

Honoring a Parent

Late last week I ran into a friend at Starbucks — she and her husband, along with another couple I know, recently traveled to Turkey and Greece, and I couldn’t wait to hear all about her trip.  Our conversation soon changed, though, taking a turn that brought so much back to me.  

We’d talked in the past about traveling, about literature, about our favorite places and places we’d like to go.  We’d also shared our experiences with caring for aging parents.  Before she and her husband and our other friends had made this trip, we’d met for coffee and talked about Athens in particular.  

Their trip had been wonderful — Istanbul, other sites in Turkey, a cruise, and then Athens.  While they were on the Acropolis, though, she received a phone call from her brother.  Their mother was dying.  Within hours, and with the help of the travel agent they’d used, she was on a plane back to Lake ‘Charles.  

The flight back, she related, had been a challenge.  Was her mother still living?  Would she get back in time to say goodbye?

Finally, she had to find out.  Telling her story to a flight attendant led to the flight attendant finding an in-flight telephone for her to use, even using her own credit card when my friend’s cards wouldn’t work.  The brief conversation with a sibling reassured her that their mother was still hanging in.  Returning to her seat, she soon found that the other attendants also knew the story, sending her food and treating her with immense kindness.

Once she’d returned to Lake Charles, she was able to do what we all need to do — hold her mother’s hand, tell her that she loved her, and that it was alright for her to go.  Being able to do so, reassuring her mother that they’d all be okay, had been her goal, and she’d achieved it.

One more goal remained:  speaking at her mother’s service.  She had, she told me, been inspired by a friend of hers who’d given a lovely tribute to her own mother at her service.  As she told me this, about writing and delivering her own eulogy for her mother, I found my eyes filling in sympathy, as indeed they’d done on and off throughout the time she was telling me all about this.

What a wonderful thing to do — and to manage it without crying!  Though I’d thought of giving such a eulogy at my father’s funeral service in 2012, I’d not done so, partly because I feared that I’d never be able to complete it without totally breaking down, but also because it seemed so out of the norm for anything our family had ever done.

What I did, though, was write the obituary for him.  Writing — that’s something I can do, and tears over the laptop during the drafting of the obituary didn’t bother anyone.  I could (and did) sob and break into tears, when to lose control at the service, in front of everyone, was simply not acceptable.  Years ago, I remember, at my uncle’s funeral, my dad had reminded us that Wares mourned with dignity.  Tears in a total loss of control?  Not done.

I wish I’d managed to do what my friend did, but I couldn’t.  I admire her, and her strength.  

When my dad died,  unable to rely on my control over my tears in public if I tried to give a eulogy, I fell back on my own strengths — words and writing.  

I was there for my sister, my aunt, my cousins, our extended family and friends.  Kay and I shared decisions, but I knew that Dad would expect me to set the tone and to make things as easy as possible for everyone.  It was important for me to honor Dad in a manner that he would have expected.  

As we sat there at Starbucks, I listed to Sharon relate what she’d gone through, and what she’d done.  It was fortunate that there were napkins around, because I needed them to blot my eyes, a number of times.

No matter how distant in time loss is, it’s as recent as someone else’s loss, close enough to the surface to break through, to overtake you.  

Listening to my friend Sharon talk, I was so happy that she’d been there for her mother.  It’s important, It think, to be there, to hold a hand, kiss, and say that you love someone, and that it’s alright to let go, that you’ll be alright.  I firmly believe that our loved ones hear us, somehow, in those moments.  Perhaps, too, it’s important for us to verbalize those thoughts not just for them, but for ourselves as well.

Sharon, you’re a great daughter.  What a wonderful gift to your mother and your family, and what a comfort to you yourself.  Not everyone manages what you did.

Here’s to all the daughters and sons who find their own ways to honor their mothers and fathers in the difficult times of loss.  

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Sense and Sensibility

In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwood sisters embody two opposing world views.  Elinor, the level-headed older daughter, is the reserved sister whose sense marks her as the responsible sibling who puts others ahead of herself.  Marianne, her younger sister, is all passion and feeling, all sensibility.  Elinor’s reserved demeanor is deceptive, for her repression of her true, deep and deeply felt emotions burst out of her, surprising others who have failed to see the depths beneath her surface control.  Even Marianne fails to recognize her sister’s emotional turmoil.

Though I prefer Pride and Prejudice (it’s one of the novels that I reread yearly), Sense and Sensibility reminds me of myself and Kay.  I’ve always felt close to Elinor.  I am the eldest and have had a similar sense of responsibility for others — for most of my life, indeed, I have had responsibilities that many people my age didn’t have to cope with.  As a teenager, I was wildly emotional — over Viet Nam, over imagined ills, over the kind of mother-daughter clashes common to adolescent girls.  My temper usually got the better of me.  I had to learn to control it, to subdue it.  By the time I was in my 30s, I think I was, for the most part, more like Elinor Dashwood.  Calm, thoughtful, sensible and practical.  I could be counted upon to plan and follow through.  I was, quite simply, an almost overly responsible member of the family.  Actually, I had been abnormally responsible as a kid — I mean even at 4 and 5.  Circumstances sort of demanded it.  And that continued.

Kay has always been the more fragile of us, more easily hurt and prone to hide in her room.  She’s the youngest, and inherently shy.  I think she came into the world with an inferiority complex.  She’s much more confident now, and continues to work on that.  But she’s still outwardly more Marianne Dashwood.  Her feelings are paramount — they are all on the surface.  They control her at times.

My feelings are there too — but my Elinor side seems to balance them.  At times, perhaps, to suppress them until I am alone and can deal with them alone.

Perhaps this difference has been most evident since Dad died.  I had been with Dad a lot more than Kay had, not because she didn’t want to be there, but because she is still working.  Weekends were her time.  And he was in the nursing home for a couple of months, too, so we visited him rather than lived with him.  During the weeks he was there, I supervised the house renovations.  I handled other issues.  I also got the irritated Dad more, I think.

But after we brought him home, it was intense, 24/7.  Kay had the first weekend by herself.  I had the two weeks.  I had the minute-by-minute nursing and caregiving.  I made phone calls to arrange ambulance transportation to dialysis.  She came for the second weekend and didn’t leave because Dad’s condition rapidly declined; I was supposed to go to Lake Charles, but didn’t because I was exhausted.  That was fortunate, since we took him to the ER on Friday night and ended up getting hospice on Sunday.  On Monday, hospice was there all morning, and he was in great pain.  Kay and Billie went to Lake Charles, doing some shopping and dropping a check from me off at my house for the repairman who was going to be there on Tuesday to fix my air conditioner; my friend Patty was to be there for the work.

Kay came back to a Dad who was basically asleep — after hours of my conferring with the hospice nurse and administering more and more morphine.  I still dream about those hours before she came back.

But when he died,  I did what I do best — crisis mode.  I do that by long experience.  Kay did well too, but there were moments for her when she broke down, when she said she wasn’t ready to let him go yet.  And that was after the funeral, too.  The many details of arranging a funeral kept us occupied.  But afterwards?

Reality had set in for her.  He was gone, but as she said, she wasn’t ready to let him go yet.  t think it had hit me much earlier.  My predominant feeling after his death:  one of relief, relief that he was now no longer in pain.

She is grieving now — emotions much more on the surface, much more in control of her.  Marianne, again.

Me?  I think I have been grieving for a year.  I saw Dad slip away in pieces.  Right now, there are times where I can feel the tears are there, and beneath the tears a gaping hole that is ready to suck me through.  It will hit me, I know, but right now there are other things I must do, business issues to take care of, and family problems to help with.  My emotions are private things, and I try not to let them out in public, which is another part of why I feel more like Elinor.  Her emotions are deep and when they are unleashed/released, they threaten to overwhelm her, and they surprise her as much as anyone.

Unlike Elinor, I know only too well how deep my emotions run.  I also know that I will let them loose sometime.  Just not now, when the practical Cheryl has her list of what must be done.   There will be times, in my house or my apartment — or my car — when I let them out and bawl like a baby, sobbing with my loss.  But that’s not for public display.

Even at the funeral, when I felt that void start to open and the sob caught my throat, I gulped, grabbed some TicTacs and started munching.  At times, I was afraid that the sound of pouring out TicTacs was audible and might disturb the service, but I kept chomping away so that I didn’t just lose it and really distract everyone.  That would be unacceptable.  I kept remembering what Dad told me at his brother’s funeral, years before, as I started to sob — “Wares don’t lose control in public”.  There’s the key:  in public.  Emotions are private, and to be released when appropriate.  So I channeled Dad’s voice telling me that even while I was at his service, looking at his casket.  Closed, might I add.  Funerals are difficult enough, and an open casket makes them even more difficult.

At the funeral, I kept worrying about my sister, about my Aunt Mildred (Dad’s sister), and my Aunt Jean (his sister-in-law).  Dad would be proud, I hope, that we all were teary-eyed but not out of control.  That would be horrible.

And now, almost three weeks afterwards, I work my way through the lists of to-dos.  I’ve seen a lawyer.  I’m getting repairs on the house before we put it on the market; I’m waiting for the appraiser’s report.  Kay and I are working this coming weekend on the hundreds of tools that are neatly housed in the double-garage.  They will get boxed and moved into storage.  I hope to go to the bank to the safety deposit box.

There’s so much to do.

Kay is working through this, trying to find her way through the changes that include Dad’s death and how we shape our lives without him.   We talk daily, often several times a day.  We talk about our own plans to rebuild at my beach lot in Crystal Beach — and I think it’s important for us. This is our family house that we’re building, our future.  We’ll create our own memories there, but we’ll carry others with us.  The new house will be furnished in part with things from Egan.  We probably won’t need anything at all for the kitchen.  We’ve got chests of drawers.  We need to buy new chairs for the table that Phil found and refurbishes.  We’ll need a new sofa (one that is a sleeper).  I want a new rocker for the living room.  We’ve got televisions and a stereo.  Our grandmother’s stereo cabinet from the 1940s will become the DVD storage, placed beneath the living room television.  It may also be the bar, something Kay and I find appropriate. We’ll have 3 bedrooms, one for me, one for Kay, one for Rachel, my niece.  One bathroom.

Channeling my Elinor, I keep going as I work through the list.  I help Kay as she occasionally breaks into her Marianne side.  At home, I let my own emotions out at times, but so far, nothing of epic magnitude has emerged. At times, though, I admit to feeling overwhelmed — not by Dad’s loss as much as by the sheer number of chores that await me.  Panic attacks threaten, but I’ve avoided them with deep breathing and grounding techniques.

Emily Dickinson speaks to me at this time as much as Jane Austen does:  in one poem, Emily D says

I CAN wade grief,
Whole pools of it,—
I ’m used to that.
But the least push of joy
Breaks up my feet,         5
And I tip—drunken.
Let no pebble smile,
’T was the new liquor,—
That was all!
Power is only pain,         10
Stranded, through discipline,
Till weights will hang.
Give balm to giants,
And they ’ll wilt, like men.
Give Himmaleh,—         15
They ’ll carry him!

I taught that poem for years, and it speaks to me constantly of how I myself feel.  I’m so used to grief that I can wade it easily.  But comfort — “balm” — that and joy are less well-known to me and threaten to make me slip.  Yes, Emily, yes.  I agree.

Sense — me — and Sensibility — Kay:  We manage.  And that’s positive, good, desirable.  We work together.  Day by day, step by step.  I count our successes.  They make the troubles– the griefs that threaten, the new crises that crop up– survivable.

Not that we don’t bicker.  We do.  Don’t get me wrong — our essential sibling relationship remains.  But both of us are conscious that Dad, our mediator, is gone, and it’s up to us to find our way together.

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Details, details

Two sayings come to mind:  “God is in the details”  and “The Devil’s in the details.”  Why am I not surprised that such polar opposites describe the reality of details?

Right now it’s the details that keep me heading for the notebook that goes with me everywhere — notes about things to follow up on, to call about, to find out about.  I knew something about what I’d be facing once Dad died, in terms of the business of an executor or trustee.  But I’m still discovering some.

For example, sometime in the last three weeks I’ve managed to misplace a keyring — and it’s the one with the key to Dad’s safety deposit box.  My signature is on the box, so that’s not a problem.  But if I can’t find the key, I have to pay $180 to get it drilled.  But I can manage it.

I’ve found the insurance papers that I know of, but suspect there’s another one.  I’ve contacted one company that turns out to have gone into receivership, but managed to get the right people to help.  Now I’m waiting for those papers to come in.  The big insurance/annuity policy has been taken to the funeral director, who has taken care of that and once the bill there is paid, Kay and I will get what’s left.  I’ve called the larger annuity that was about to have to be rolled out because Dad was turning 90.  Kay and I have been to the bank.  The officer there has set in motion to have his social security check returned.  I still have to contact Dad’s former employer to stop pension checks.  Of course, now I have to wait for the certified death certificates so that I can complete paperwork.

Kay and I will sell the house, and Dad knew that.  I’ve contacted an appraiser and we’re going to meet soon.

In preparation for that, I’ve rented a 10×15 storage unit for furniture and anything else we’re keeping.  I’ve got most of the books boxed, but more to work on.

But lord, the garage!  I don’t think my dad ever threw anything out — just the opposite.  He collected things.  “Oh, I can fix that.”  “That engine is still good; I can use it for. . . .”  You get the picture.  Dad and his siblings were products of the Great Depression and lived accordingly.  He had his own tools.  He had the tools from my mother’s stepfather.  He had tools he’d acquired for all of us.  Some of it is neatly tucked away in cabinets.  Some of it.  But the rest?  Let’s put it this way:  there’s a double garage with no room for any cars.  Come to think of it, I don’t think there was ever room for cars.  We’ve never actually used the garage for that purpose.  That’s why there is a carport.  There is a shed in the back of the yard.  In that is the 1977 or 1978 Blazer that Dad and Phil used for hunting and fishing.  There’s a boat and trailer.  And the riding lawnmower.  And probably more tools.

Once the house itself is empty of the life that it held for decades, of the family that no longer lives there, it’s really just a shell.  I have fond memories of the house in Egan– but it’s not something I’ll pine for.  I was 16 when we moved into this house, and it was the 7th house I lived in, so it isn’t the only home I’ve ever known.  In fact, I’ve lived in this house in Lake Charles longer than I have lived anywhere else.  The constant home in my life?  That would be the farm, I guess.  And oddly enough, the house that I dream about most is the house in Beaumont where my maternal grandmother lived.  And at times, I dream about the oilfield camp in Egan, that I’m moving back there into one of the houses, but the house is different.  And there’s a swimming pool.  Of course, someone else owns the land and has built a large home there.  But dreams don’t rely on reality.  For me, houses have purpose and life, but they’re only things.  It’s the memories I cherish, though the house may have some sentimental connection.

Having grown up on the Gulf Coast, I’ve seen houses destroyed by hurricanes.  I’ve lost a house — my beach house in Crystal Beach, Texas — to Hurricane Ike.  Other than the cracked slab and a few stray, random items, nothing was left after Ike hit Ground Zero not far from my house there.  What survived?  A few blue glass things I’d tiled a cabinet top with.  A Christmas ornament that I left out on a cabinet — a blue angel, now with a chipped wing.  I call her the Beach Angel.  Everything else washed away, piled up on Oak Island or Goat Island or dragged back to to sink beneath the gray-green waters of the Gulf.  It wasn’t my primary home, but I loved it.  And I have survived that loss.  I once left this house, though, for a Category 5 hurricane that was supposed to rip through Lake Charles, Hurricane Lily, I think.  I drove off with my car packed full with pets and computer and photograph albums and music, knowing I might never see the house again.  That’s when I realized I could live without the house itself.  And when I drove off with the car packed similarly for Hurricane Rita, I didn’t look back.  Everything I needed was with me.  If I had pets and cameras and computer and photos and music, and I knew family and friends were safe, that’s all I really needed.  Clothes?  I just needed enough to get by with.  After all, there’s always a Walmart somewhere.

So the house in Egan?  We’ll sell.  I’m not as attached to it as Kay is — she was only 8 or so when we moved in, and she is more sentimental about it than I am.

After all, we’ll still go back to Egan — we have friends who are family now, and I’ve told Billie she has to have room for us when we visit. It’s the house we’re selling, not our connection to Egan.

My notebook sits beside me here on the table now, and I see a few phone calls I can make today.  And I’m sure I’ll think of other things I need to make notes about — things to check on, people to call, things to get when I go to Egan next time.

So whether it’s God or the devil in the details, it doesn’t really matter.  Perhaps one choice indicates a more positive spin and the other a negative one. Regardless, it’s  the details come to drive us, I think, in the aftermath of a death.  They keep us going. Grief and mourning take so many different forms and differ from person to person.  I know from experience that years after, when you’re calm and think you’re beyond it, something will trigger grief so sharp and fresh that it’s a gut-kick back to the past, to the rawness of loss.

Right now, I’m pacing myself through the details.  And daily trying to gather the threads of my life back together, to find my way back to living by myself, in my house, in the town I’ve been in this time since 1981 (and add the 3 1/2 years of college for a total of 34 1/2 years I’ve lived in Lake Charles).

I’m weary, even bone-tired.  And weary with the weight of the last months, where  I’ve been too busy to let myself go too much.  I’ve cried at times, but had to pull myself back together and keep going.  I don’t know if I’ll ever feel as though I’ve gotten enough sleep again.  I’m sure at some point I’ll actually sleep through the night without waking up to check on Dad.  Crying jags will surprise me at some point, I’m sure.

I find myself reading at night, and in the daytime I start a project, a box to fill, or a shelf to clear.  Work, as Dad always showed me, was a way to deal with stress.  If your hands were busy, he’d say, your mind couldn’t be too.  If you tired the body out, you could get rest, and you’d feel productive.

It’s true.  So today I’m clearing out the front room with my friend Patty, and putting some things into my storage unit, making that room for a work area for my jewelry and for my office for writing.

My house is taking on life again, shaping itself around my needs now in retirement, and that’s a wonderful thing.  I’m finding my way back, even while I make lists of details about closing the past.

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