Finally Free

Continued from Escape Route

“Every woman that finally figured out her worth, has picked up her suitcases of pride and boarded a flight to freedom, which landed in the valley of change.” ~ Shannon L. Alder

Our aunt returned to Granddad’s house after mom’s funeral to find him in disarray. It appeared that he had had a stroke while everyone was away as his language was garbled and he was looping his thoughts. He refused to go to a doctor, though. She was going to stay with him for a week or so and stay in touch. So many things happening all at once in one family. He lost his wife of 66 years and a daughter within a week of one another and now, he was disoriented and unable to be understood.

I had been appointed his executrix, much to the chagrin of one of my Aunts who had taken my appointment as a slight to her position as the oldest child. As it turned out, it was a blessing. Who would have thought there would be so much grief all at once? A family can only take so much. He lived three hours away from me and as a single mom – for all intents and purposes – it wasn’t an easy feat to get a whole day free from immediate responsibility but my amazing support system was cooperating fully and so, I took the time.

It was heartbreaking to see this person who had been a strong, virile, Marlboro’esque man trying to communicate in loopy garble. He became extremely frustrated when we didn’t understand him and I’m sure he realized that he wasn’t making sense. He did allow me to help him pay bills and go through the mail, managing to communicate to me where things were and that it would fall into my hands soon enough. I drove up there every other week and each time, he was a bit worse but still refused medical care.

On June 1st, Mom’s birthday, we five siblings again gathered to honor her by committing her remains forever in Arlington National Cemetery. As a Veteran, she qualified for burial there and so we went to Washington, D.C. and for another segment of time, managed to act as if we were collectively united in our grief. I don’t specifically recall making eye contact with Abee but I remember not wanting to. It was specifically my love and respect for mom that kept me there in the presence of a sister who was emotionally dead to me.

The last couple of months had put the proverbial nail in the coffin for me. Hubby and I sat down with the girls while he told them that he was in love with their Aunt, and asked them if they would try and accept his decision. None of them reacted well, and for a time, they chose to avoid him altogether. Eventually, they established strong boundaries stating that they loved him but they weren’t willing to be tolerant of his choice in partners. They begged him to move on to Jane Doe or Mary Smith, anyone but a family member; their plea fell on deaf ears. Consequently, they stood strong on the line that said we accept a relationship with you, and you alone. It was a compromise that was exceptionally difficult for them and while I was remorseful that the kinship I had imagined between my children and their father would never exist – I was fundamentally proud of them for honoring their hearts.

Our divorce agreement was effective on that same day. While we memorialized Mom that day, Hubby was moving out of our home. I had signed all the paperwork a couple of days prior after negotiating final details that make it possible for the girls and me to stay in the house until our youngest graduated from high school; seven years into the future. It was unusual and I believe, highly opposed by Hubby’s attorney but I held out and refused to sign away my half of the company until conditions that guaranteed the girls best interest and comfort, were in writing and indisputable. I was rather unrelenting and in the end, Hubby wanted what was best for the girls to… at least in terms of their comfort and home life.

It was a bittersweet transition as I left the cemetery knowing that I was going home to the official ‘death’ of my marriage. On the way home from Washington, I stopped at the hardware store and bought new door locks. I knew that as soon as I got home, my priority would be to reprogram the garage doors and change the hardware on the front and back door. It was MY house now and Hubby wasn’t invited. It took a long, long time but I was free.

I wasn’t home long enough to unpack the bags before the phone rang to tell me that Grandad had passed away. Within three months, one-half of my mom’s family had died. Six had become three. The magnitude of their loss was overwhelming for my two Aunts and an Uncle, life is just completely unfair at times. There was still more sadness to get through and we were all – over it. We all needed a break from the deep, dark, drama that had overshadowed our lives for such a long period of time. It was simply… too much and I was surprised that none of us had ‘officially’ lost our mind.

It was the last time that I was in the same company as Abee. She came to Grandad’s funeral with Emma and they interacted some with other family members but left right after the service. I was too wrapped up in executrix duties and warding off the negative energy building among other family members to be too focused on my old baggage. We were barely tolerant of one another. I knew I just needed to move on. It was sad, though – all those years of ‘family’ down the drain. It was too easy to remember her as a little girl curled up in my lap reading, or the times I would help her with homework and school projects, the times she did the same with and for my children and then the adult relationship that we had enjoyed… twenty-five years of family – gone because she and Hubby wouldn’t deny themselves some kind of convoluted ‘love’ they claimed to have.

I’m not sure I believe that we are supposed to act upon all the feelings we have.  There are times I’m so angry that all I want to do is spit (the most disgusting and awful thing I can think of to do to someone) but that doesn’t mean I do it.  I’ve felt attracted to friend’s husbands but I would never act on that attraction. I’ve wanted to do lots of things that either weren’t socially or morally acceptable and so, I didn’t do them. Isn’t that what we teach our children?? Isn’t that what we expect from society at large? I suppose that somewhere in the principle I am describing is a line that each of us draws and it is obviously different for each of us. I clearly didn’t understand how or why people I loved drew a line in an area so obviously contrasted to where I would have drawn it… apparently, we weren’t like-minded at all.

Settling Granddad’s estate meant disposing of a herd of cows, a couple of horses, barns full of equipment and tools, as well as sixty plus years of marital accumulations. We found love letters that have the potential to be an entirely new book, utility bills from the 1960’s and photographs that were meant to be private. We were closing an era and the eccentricity of personalities that defined my mom’s siblings made it challenging from time to time but ultimately, considering they had lost exactly half of their family, it was all good. We got through it.

As a student of psychology, it was fascinating to experience, to watch. I observed extreme grief reactions inside a family dynamic that challenged everything I knew about bereavement and it formed the foundation for the rest of my academic work.

Armoured Up

Continued from Another Goodbye

“For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.”  ~ Kahil Gibran

It is difficult to describe the sensation, the emotions, of walking out of a hospital or facility with only a bag of personal effects. I’m not sure we are ever prepared to walk out of a building as a person so different than the one who walked in. I had done this twice now, first my husband and now my mother and while death is a part of life, how can we ever be ready to lose either? It doesn’t matter how old you are – we only ever get one mother and now mine was gone.

We all – including Abee – went back to the condo that I had rented for the week we were there. It was a surreal time for us as siblings too. The one thing that had bonded us at all through the debacle of my marital drama was mom. Now that she was gone, what would be the motivation for us to ever stay connected? I was hopeful that we could start over here – allow the bonds of family to be stronger than betrayal or deceit and reconnect. We sat together and cried when the feeling overcame us but mostly spoke about the woman that we all loved. We shared funny stories and discussed quirks that we admired. We eulogized her with our hearts that night in a way that would have had her blushing but feeling proud that her intent had been accomplished. There was no doubt that regardless of the differences we had as adults, this woman had five children who revered their mother passionately. I hoped to be so lucky.

The emotional roller coaster I rode while in San Diego was exhausting. There were times I took a break from being in the room to walk outside to enjoy the California sunshine. My instinct was to talk with Hubby because other than my siblings who were here with me, he was the next closest confidant – or had been. Because it was an ingrained habit, I called him to vent my sadness and heartache over the impending and eventual loss of mom. I must have talked to him two or three times a day just because it had been the pattern over that last fifteen years of my life. There was a strange sense of comfort in talking to him, perhaps the familiarity, perhaps the memories of a better time for us… I’m not sure exactly but my instinct dialed the phone and I felt better afterward so it kept happening.

The truly crazy part of this whole thing was that I wasn’t the only one… Abee apparently was doing the same thing. There were times that I would be talking to him and call waiting would beep in to let him know that she was also calling to talk. That week, it was somehow tolerable or perhaps it was that my brain couldn’t process more than one loss at a time, or that the idea of losing mom far exceeded the idea of losing Hubby. As I sit here and recall those moments of recognition that we were each using the same man for emotional support – in the same way – the absurdity of it is staggering to my brain, but that’s what we did. The three of us formed an interactive triangle that would have made the Kardashians raise their eyebrows.

Abee and our brother had early flights but the rest of us were on a red-eye and had the whole day to get through. We had a memorial lunch overlooking the Pacific in honor of mom and probably drank too many mimosa’s in her honor before we bought a dozen yellow roses (her favorite) to throw into the sea at the point in La Jolla. Just standing there, listening to the surf hit the rocks forged memories of mom onto our hearts as the ocean was one of her most identifying interests. She loved, loved the ocean. She was known to wrap herself in a blanket or two as to ward off a fifty-degree wind so she could sit on the Kitty Hawk dunes and read. It never mattered to her how cold or hot it was as long as there was an ocean breeze and she could hear the waves crashing against the sand. We stood there, three of her daughters in solidarity, celebrating not only the woman that birthed us but the woman that had championed for us more often than not, for most of our lives. Even in her faults, she was Mom and we were going to desperately miss her.

Concurrently with our experience, Grandad and mom’s own siblings were making funeral arrangements for Grandmom. The service was scheduled for the day we arrived back on the East Coast and there just wasn’t any way for us to arrive on the red-eye and then – in our own severe grief – make it to her service. The flight home was emotionally arduous as we considered the extent of our family’s losses. It was barely believable that within eight days of one another, they had both simply ceased to exist in live form. Upon landing, I picked up the car and drove us all home; dropping Emma off at mom’s house so she could be with her twin who had gotten back late – the night before. I walked into the house where my family was still sleeping and went into the basement bedroom where Hubby was bunking, took off all my clothes, and got into bed with him.

In that moment, the only thing I needed was comfort and in some undeniably disturbed way, he was the source of that solace. For just a while, the ugly distorted reality that existed in the space between us melted away and we came together one last time. Grief disrupts emotional reason. It didn’t last long however and after a brief nap, I returned to my senses. I unpacked my resistance and reaffirmed my destiny to personal dignity by talking with E. She offered to come rescue me from myself but I was pledging sanity and knew that my extended family was about to transition from one grief to another, which would be chaotic at best. It was better for her to reserve time and energy for when the bubble eventually broke and my reserve was again tested.

The armor I embraced was iron clad. I drove over to Mom’s house – now Abee’s – where people had begun to assemble and sat there deep in an easy chair with a blanket over my lap as I watched a parade of well-wishers and allies move in and out of the room. It was another one of those times, etched securely onto a memory plate, where pragmatism prevailed and reality emerged only superficially. No matter the intensity of emotions only months ago, it was shelved – set aside – with the most interesting intention – so that we could work together and plan what was to happen next.

Hubby came over once to bring our children and the amplitude of awkwardness was immeasurable. We all felt it – he felt it. He didn’t come back. I’m pretty sure that if he had, my brother would have lost his mind and so it was good that he had the kids to keep him busy. We planned a funeral, held in an old Victorian mansion (another love of hers) and made a photo video that brought most family members to immediate tears as they visualized many of the amazing memories they had shared. I was barely cognizant through her service as the grief drowned me but with the love of so many people who together – embodied her, we got through. As we always do.

When everyone had left and gone back to whence they came, I knew Abee would be alone. Of all of us, this was going to hit her the hardest. She was the only one of us without an immediate family to lift her up. I called – believing that we could start over – and invited her to the house or stated that I would go there to be with her.  “Thanks, ” she said, “I just need to be alone”.

I wasn’t yet understanding how self-destructive expectations can be.

Another Goodbye

Continued from No Such Thing as Perfect

“A daughter without her mother is a woman broken. It is a loss that turns to arthritis and settles deep into her bones. ”  ~ Kristin Hannah

My aunt was rather frantic about not being able to get ahold of mom but after explaining she was in Mexico, she agreed to call and talk with Abee who would know how to get through to mom. Not long after that first conversation, she called back to tell me that she had just learned that mom was in the hospital in Cabo. Wait, what?

Why hadn’t someone called? What was wrong? She gave me the phone number that Abee had given her and I proceeded to call myself. It took a few hours until the phone I was calling to get answered and the woman who said hello resembled an extremely weakened version of my mother.

It seems that she had come down with what she thought was the flu. She had believed that if she just rested, she would feel better and two weeks went by before she realized that she was in trouble. By then, she was so weak that she couldn’t take herself to the bathroom and her cousin insisted that she be taken to the hospital. Upon arriving, they realized that her blood disease had escalated, it had spontaneously transitioned into secondary acute leukemia. Mom explained that they wouldn’t let her fly but that her cousin was attempting to get a helicopter to transport her to the closest US city – San Diego. She was simultaneously attempting to cope with the grief from losing her mother who had been a guiding force in her life while feeling crappy and worrying about being in a foreign country. Sometimes, life sent the sourest lemons.

I discovered that Abee was communicating with the cousin in order to meet mom’s transport in California. Within a couple of days, they were both in San Diego and I was speaking directly with the doctor who was caring for mom. It wasn’t good. Her white blood count was in the hundreds of thousands and clogging her organs. He explained that this was a result of the radioactive treatments she had had after her diagnosis of Polycythemia Vera several decades ago; it had just been a matter of time.

I immediately began researching doctors who were experimenting with this problem and found one at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia who agreed to see her immediately if we could get her back to the East Coast. The West Coasts doctors explained that it would be challenging due to the condition of her lungs but that they were making every effort possible. We were waiting with bated breath.

A couple of more days went by and by then, my other two sisters were at my house, thinking that mom was going to be arriving in Philadelphia any day. After a couple more conversations with the physicians caring for her, it was obvious that her condition was far graver than we had hoped. We collectively decided that we would go to San Diego as well. We, three girls, booked flights out of Philly and our brother arranged to meet us there. It was rather hectic getting everything organized and choreographed for an immediate departure but we did it even though I have a distinct memory of arriving at the airport late, running through security by begging people to let us advance crying ‘our mother is dying, we have to make our flight’… two of us got to the gate in advance and made quite the scene as we waited for our other sister to get there; she has a physical impairment that made running impossible.

We made the flight.

So, there we were, all five of us at the hospital, camped outside of mom’s room, realizing that we hadn’t all been together in years now. In fact, I hadn’t talked to Abee in almost a dozen or more months and there were varying degrees of relational disturbance between each sibling combination. We put our personal differences aside and sat outside the room as the children of the woman within. An outsider would never have known how much dysfunction existed in-between us.

Mom was in pretty good spirits but the mere presence of every one of her children was suspect for a good outcome. She realized how sick she was and the doctors were not holding back at this point. Her goal was simply getting strong enough so that she could fly home and die there. She didn’t want to leave the world from the berth of a hospital room. We took turns staying with her, making sure to get at least some sleep every few hours. It was apparent after only a day that this was our time with her. Even though they were running her blood through a machine to separate out white blood cells, her body was making them faster than it would filter. As her body became overloaded, the kidneys couldn’t function properly and she settled into renal failure.

During one awake period when I alone, was sitting with her she beckoned me up on the bed. I scooted up along the side of her, resting my head in the crook of her arm just as I had done a gazillion times. It didn’t matter that I was a forty-something-year-old woman with children of my own. I was struggling to be courageous, to hold in the deluge of emotion that had been damned so haphazardly over the last ten days but I could not. Tears silently unloaded themselves across my cheeks and onto her shoulder as she said: “it looks like I’m not going to make it out of this one”.

“Oh mama”, I cried. Unleashing sorrow beyond comprehension.

This woman, in all her contradiction, was my post, the anchor, the nucleus of everything that I knew to be. She had left, come back, diverged, and suffered a devastating splintering of familial dreams over and over… she was also tired and sought relief. We chatted a bit, reminisced, and tried to laugh about things that were completely inconsequential and then she offered some final thoughts. “You are strong enough to live without Hubby” and paused, “Abee isn’t,” she said… “but if you want him, go get him”.

 

By morning, she was delirious as the organic poisons took over her body. She lost consciousness soon after and we moved her into a Hospice facility that sat high up on a hill so that the entire city of San Diego was visible. Her room overlooked – way in the distance – the Pacific Ocean and if she had been awake, she would have been completely satisfied with the view from her bed. For the second time since the turn of the century, we were navigating the experience of end of life care for a parent and we were crushed with the reality.  Just days ago, her own mother had left this earth as if mom needed an escort into the beyond. We would be mourning two of the family’s most treasured souls.

She slipped away before all the paperwork could be completed, before all of us settled into her space and we stood there – all five of us – not believing that this day had come, wanting it to be undone, wishing that life worked differently.

I was officially an orphan.

Beautiful Death

“Love your family. Spend time, be kind & serve one another. Make no room for regrets. Tomorrow is not promised & today is short.” – Unknown

I loved having my mother live near me. Coinciding with Mom’s move was hiring one of the twins – Abee – to work with our company; and so, she too… moved (in with mom). She was the perfect addition to our staff as we expanded and implemented a customer service position. I was elated to have family close by and my sister and I soon became great friends, expanding our relationship beyond sisterhood. We shared an office at work and enjoyed family time off the clock. She was a wonderful mentor to our daughters. She and I shared some of the medical advocacy responsibility for mom as they (Mom and step-dad) made frequent trips to Walter Reed. On one of those trips, mom asked Frank (her husband, my step-dad, sister’s dad – not to be confused with my son Francis also known as Frank in High School…) to have a mole checked out that had grown sufficiently to interfere with the arm of his eyeglasses.

It wasn’t ‘just’ a mole. Within a week, it – the mole – along with a large margin of surrounding tissue and a series of lymph nodes had been removed. He had (literally) a monstrous line of staples running from his temple down the side of his face and across his neck to the base of his shoulder. Within another week, he was receiving aggressive radiation for what had been determined to be Stage Four Malignant Melanoma. It was just less than a year since we had moved them nearby to help with Mom’s illness and Step-dad (SD) Frank was receiving a cancer death sentence. After a couple of months, it was clear that radiation was not working and he was advised to call Hospice and go home; that’s what they did. It was early June.

Abee’s twin had been married a few years back and had a baby the prior fall. They came often to visit that summer. We all spent a lot of time at Mom’s house as a family. When we weren’t working, we were together in some capacity. We took turns nursing a garden for SD Frank, who loved gardening and sitting on the porch chain smoking. We would sit with him, smoking far too many cigs ourselves, speaking quite philosophically about life, love, and hope. One thing was sure. He loved our mother. He was more protective of her than any other man I’ve known in any relationship with the exception perhaps of my maternal grandmother and grandfather. It was a beautiful example of the chivalry that one thinks of when considering the definition of a champion – at least in my mind. Her well-being was foremost in his mind at any given time. It was endearing and I loved him more because of the way he loved my mother – the way he made her life better and easier. I wanted to be loved and taken care of like that.

I wanted to ask him to say hello to Rocky for me – to give him my love – when he finally made it to heaven, but it felt somewhat callous so I never actually spoke those words but I thought them each time we would sit together. He found a wonderful way of being present and in-the-moment with every person who was with him that summer. He was peaceful and gentle and loving and kind until cancer went to his brain. Then, he wasn’t himself. By then it was August and he was running out of time. I spoke to him pragmatically and told him how fortunate I was to have had him in my life as a father figure. I was so deeply grateful for his support of me over the years he was a part of my life. Much of any success I experienced was in part – because of his support. I expressed appreciation for all the patience he had with me through the years as I grew from a snotty little brat into a cohort of sorts. I told him how much I loved him and how we would all band together to make sure that mom was ok. I was sitting there as Hubby let him know that he would look after us, make sure our needs were met – all the gals.

If ever there was a beautiful death, it was his. We were prepared, we thought. He had been ‘out of it’ for several days and heavily medicated for two or three. He was peaceful and still. Mom was anything but… she was so immensely emotional that none of us could comfort her. The nurse was telling us that he should have passed hours earlier, she didn’t know why he was holding on. We, the twins, our brother, myself, Hubby, and my children, along with a few Hospice people, were in and out of the room – mostly in – as we sat and waited for him to take his last breath. We would all hold ours when we noticed any irregularity in his and then with the sound of an inhale, we would exhale and the wait would resume. In the meantime, Mom continued her outpouring of grief without control of her tears. Eventually, she crawled up, in bed with SD Frank and laid with him –  her head on his shoulder, sobbing gently, until she fell asleep. Then, without apparent hesitation – with his beloved resting and momentarily calm – he left. In a matter of micro moments, there was peace in the room – not in the quiet sense – but in the way of the spirit. He quickly and quietly slipped out of this existence, away from the living energy in that room and it was palpable that his essence had moved away.

He was the 3rd person ever and indeed, the 3rd most important man in my life – to leave. I found it very difficult to process that men I loved – died. Hubby was the only man of any importance left in my life and frankly, I was still having trouble trusting him.

SD Frank didn’t just leave me of course. He left mom (his wife) and his daughters. Abee was particularly close to her dad and his death hit her hard. She and mom hunkered down in their grief in a way that was almost impenetrable; mom especially. Within a month or two she was diagnosed with a Lung neoplasm that required resection and via wet slide was determined benign only to discover – two weeks later – that a fully developed sample indicated malignancy. They went back in – through scars not yet hardened, to remove a larger section of her right lobe. We – all her children – stayed close by, taking turns, caring for our grieving mother. Abee became her primary physical and emotional caregiver – they became extensions of my immediate family. In our mourning of SD Frank, we bonded with one another in a way that many families fail. Abee and Mom moved into a new house in an effort to begin a new life; still close enough to be a part of our everyday experience. I loved dropping in and having a morning cup of coffee with mom or coming home only to find her finishing my laundry as a surprise (for some quacky reason, she found laundry to be relaxing and offering her a sense of accomplishment). Of course, Abee, Hubby and I continued to work together and build a business that had somehow become a ‘family’ vision.

We developed a strong, robust connection – a form of ‘super glue’ – that we thought was impervious.

Little Hurricane

“Don’t despair: despair suggests you are in total control and know what is coming. You don’t – surrender to events with hope.” – Alain de Botton

Our little family was running on auto-pilot. My twin sisters took turns spending the summer with us to care for baby Sara and Francis while I took my Series 7 licensing classes and exams. By then, they were turning 16 and ‘playing house’ was fun. It was great to have them around – what new mother doesn’t dream about having a built in mother’s helper? Hubby and I – always in unison while planning – were redesigning our business plan and imagining an environment that offered maximum flexibility while also maximized income potential. With me as an administrative principle, it left him available to optimally utilize his talents. It seemed like a match made in heaven – he got to be the brightest star in the constellation and I managed the sky.

I had given up trying to reconcile how I felt about our physical life. The only communication skills on that front existed in the form of lingerie, toys, and erotica. If our encounters went to a place that I wasn’t ‘comfortable’ with, I simply went out of my body. I became another person very much like my time in high school when I adopted a character in a play and presented that personality to the audience. She looked like me, talked like me, and laughed like me but she didn’t think like me. In fact, she didn’t think. She didn’t have emotional feelings, just the ability to experience physical things, most of which ‘felt’ good. She rather enjoyed the carnal reactions of those nightly encounters. That is unless ‘I’ was exhausted or menstruating, in which case there was a perceived expectation to ‘make it quick’ or provide pleasure, which ever was more appropriate. In those times it was harder for ‘me’ to escape and then the emotions would flood my psyche with feelings of disrespect, insensitiveness, and/or distrust.

If ever I attempted to communicate these feelings, I experienced rebuttal in the form of disparaging comments, criticism, or complete discredit for what I expressed. It seems that I ‘was naïve’ and unaware of what ‘most people did’. It was always pointed out that my body said one thing and my words said another. I didn’t know how to argue that point and it always ended with a passionate seduction that took the form of intense physical pleasure. I resigned myself to the understanding that ‘this’ was love.

In October, my dad died. My rock, my foundation, the man who always had my back – died suddenly. He had called one morning to find me busily preparing for a conference trip to Florida. I chatted briefly but told him I’d call next week after we returned and I’d catch up. I never got the chance. We were only in Orlando for a few hours when we got the call and by the next afternoon, I was back home, repacking and flying out to Cincinnati. The second funeral I had ever attended. One – two. Two funerals in my life so far and they were the most important men in my world.

That year we spent Christmas in Virginia with my mom and step-dad. My brother was working down in Atlanta by then and came home as well. Our other sister lived in the area and of course, the twins were still at home, in high school. The whole family was there and it was good. It was baby Sara’s first Christmas and we all spoiled her with attention. I missed my family. Long distance telephone calls were still expensive and 250 miles is not a Sunday dinner distance. We drove down fairly often. We had a big ‘ole conversion van in those days with a five-inch television in the back. The only VHS movie we really had was Top Gun and Francis would watch it once on the way down and at least once on the way back. It got to the point that Hubby and I would sit in the front seat acting out the parts of Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis – having memorized the parts by osmosis.

On the way home after Christmas I was sitting in the front seat talking to Hubby about my emotional goodbye just hours earlier. I was still feeling rather funky and complaining about my body’s aches and pains although I was just 32 that summer. Quite suddenly, it occurred to me that I was late for my period and with some thought, realized I was three weeks overdue. Baby Sara was in the back seat only eight months old. Oh my goodness… holy cow… I think I’m pregnant.

…….

It was confirmed and I had an adjustment period. I was still changing several diapers a day and now there would be another little behind needing wiped, bathed, and patted. My body changed rapidly. Our wombs are like balloons, the doctor explained, after being blown up a few times, it just kind of remembers which shape to take. This new baby was due in September which meant all of my maternity clothes were going to be the wrong season. That felt like a minor inconvenience compared to the anxiety I felt about pregnancy in general since my last one was so full of marital discord. I was quick to remember the emotional turmoil that I experienced less than two years prior and I went ‘on guard’ to protect my heart.

It was rather unnecessary as it did not get repeated (which, flipped the switch on my wariness scale and left me feeling unsettled about the fears I had experienced then). This pregnancy, in fact, was completely different. I felt happy. Life at home took on a comfortable routine and I didn’t gain much weight; thankfully because I still had 25 pounds of baby Sara weight left over.  I only looked pregnant from the side for most of the term. I experienced a sense of contentment for the first time in a long while.

The twins again took turns staying with us that summer. They were 17 and turning into fantastic young women, looking at colleges and anticipating their future. They were each little mothers and delighted in making sure Sara was a baby fashion icon, adorned (as was insanely popular in the 1990’s) in matchy-matchy top, bottoms, socks, shoes, and headband. We have dozens of photographs from that summer documenting the current toddler styles as introduced by Gymboree and Baby Gap. I loved having them around and was eternally grateful for their help. As a two-year-old, Sara was talking up a storm, repeating her vocabulary on demand as we, very proud parents, put her on display for family. It was a personality trait that blossomed through the years as she always created some kind of dance or skit to be performed before bedtime.

Labor Day weekend was approaching and we would be losing our teen help because she had to go back to Virginia to start her Senior year of High School. On the Thursday morning before, I woke early to discover that my water had broken. I wasn’t exactly laying in a pool, but soaked enough that a shower was necessary when I noticed contractions had begun. I quickly cleaned up and we headed to the hospital where again, the doctor opted to induce my labor. I experienced a panicked memory of the last induction and the intensity of it so we agreed to take it slow. The Pitocin rate was reduced and I settled in for what turned out to be a manageable but long day of labor.

The pregnancy had been so completely different than the one I endured with Sara that we were convinced the baby would be a boy. So much so that we only had one name chosen; Phillip. By 4 pm, we had another daughter. A daughter with no name. We had thought about Erin Nicole or Alexandra Nicole but couldn’t decide. We decided to sleep on it and see what we thought after holding her for a few hours. Hurricane Emily had just decimated Cape Hatteras and many of the babies in the hospital were named Emily that year and while we didn’t name her Emily, she did somehow get nicknamed Little Hurricane. Finally, when they pressured us to choose, we dropped the Nicole and took our little Erin Alexandra home.

We were now five.

Making Sense of Nothing

“I believe that everything happens for a reason. People change so that you can learn to let go, things go wrong so that you appreciate them when they’re right, you believe lies so you eventually learn to trust no one but yourself, and sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.”
— Marilyn Monroe

So there I was – turning 25 and the mom of an almost two-year-old. I vividly recall my birthday that year and a couple of friends from work took me to a disco. Everyone had this goal of getting me hooked up with a guy – I guess it was their way of helping me to see that life could go on.  I recall the bartender serving us shots of Peppermint Schnapps when he discovered we were celebrating and I recall some kind of ‘blue’ drink – perhaps Mediterranean Iced Tea? Well, I’m sure you can see this train wreck coming….  One of my friends (the smart one) went home early and unbeknownst to us, took the car keys. The only transportation option for the remaining two of us was to hitch a ride with the two dudes that had been grinding on the dance floor with us all night. These boys thought they were going to get lucky! It was 1985 – I’m not sure we had any thoughts about which one of us were too drunk to drive in fact, if Patty hadn’t taken the keys – one of us probably would have driven back to my place. I’m so glad we are more intellectually evolved these days

I distinctly recall getting in the house and my girlfriend headed upstairs – she must have been prepared to spend the night. I laid out on the Flokati rug that was in front of the fireplace. Oh man – I was in trouble. My stomach churned and swished and stirred as it tried like a geyser to spout up my throat… This was not going to be good. I recall this guy on his hands and knees over the top of me (we still had clothing on) attempting to kiss me and all I could say was “watch out, I’m going to puke”.  About that time, I hear yelling upstairs “who the hell are you?” and another guy runs down the stairs, saying “Let’s go” and they bolt out the door. It was a long night of puking. It was also the night that became a strong reminder to not abuse alcohol. I can count future hangovers on my hands – maybe even on one.

I had a really hard time redefining myself. I was a single mom. I had responsibilities that prevented me from engaging fully in the ‘single’ life. I didn’t really ‘belong’ anywhere. Eventually, the people I worked with became like family to me. They adopted Francis as a mascot of sorts. I recall a party or two where we took turns trying to get him to sleep while 80’s funk blasted in Dolby stereo. Weekdays were routine…. And emotionally manageable. It was the weekends that truly sucked.

Weekends are for families. They are for making things happen – for forging plans and dreams. For us, they were about cartoons and …. Well – laundry. I adopted a coping mechanism of leaving on Saturday morning. I would pack the car and drive somewhere – anywhere that didn’t remind me of what I ‘wasn’t’ doing. Francis was a trooper on those adventures. He hung out in his car seat and sang songs with me. He may not want to ever admit it but at one time he really moved to Madonna, Foreigner, and REO Speedwagon! We occasionally drove far enough that I would grab a hotel room and extend the escapade. I found some great little museums, parks, playgrounds, and beaches by doing this. It remains one of my favorite things to do – random exploring.

I wasn’t alone. I had a housemate who was great. He did all the ‘guy’ things – including the removal of a maggot infused bag of potatoes that had been forgotten in the pantry. I had family. My mom and stepdad, brother and twin sisters lived only 10 miles away. I saw them frequently. I had a lot of support from friends at work. I FELT alone. There is NO surrogate for the father of your child. No one cares as much as you and your partner when he has diarrhea or a fever. No one is able to experience the sweetness of peek-a-boo for the two-hundredth time like a parent. Sharing your child with others who love them is special but it does not replace the experience of sharing it with your partner. It is an obvious omission every day and difficult to get used to. I wish I had known more about gratitude back then.

I was trying to make sense of life. I was still pretty mad at God. I found more reasons than is logical for why Rocky died. I attempted to rationalize beyond a reasonable effort. I tried to convince myself that it had been ‘his time’ and that it didn’t matter that I had bought the kite that ultimately killed him; if we had gone into town, perhaps there would have been a car accident. I was using a concept I had learned as a teenager at a Youth for Christ conference I had attended with a Methodist friend. “Everything happens for a reason”.  It was a mantra that had a big impact then – I was attempting to use it now. What ‘reason’ could there possibly be for this tragedy in my life? I hit a void each time I searched for an answer. My aunt gave me a copy of the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People and while I knew that God didn’t make it happen, I needed a reason as to why it happened.

My brother was in high school at this point – remember that kid I dressed up? He was smart and we were close. Rocky had been a mentor to him, a true brother. This death had hit him hard – a turning point in his life too. I recall a particular esoteric conversation with him that bordered on unhinged in the way we discussed it. We began talking about God, heaven, hell, spirits, and reincarnation. We started thinking about Rocky’s death from the perspective that perhaps his soul had been called for another body. What if his only purpose here on Earth was to help me create Francis? What if he was only ‘supposed’ to be here for a while. We talked about that Warren Beatty movie Heaven Can Wait where the main character dies accidentally and his soul needed a new body. After that conversation, I found myself looking DEEP into the eyes of every man I met – looking for Rocky.

It was the beginning of a defining spiritual journey for me. It sparked a curiosity that brewed in my soul for many years. The seed had been planted and while it laid dormant for some time, it was (under my awareness) being fertilized and cared for.

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Letting Go

Life as a widow was exceptionally awkward. I was still very much in the “we” mode. I was hesitant to make plans before I checked with Rocky. I would wonder what he wanted for dinner. I would buy his favorite cookies without thinking. Each time I remembered he wasn’t there I would quickly inhale and stop breathing for just a minute. I was just 24 years old with an 18 mo. old baby, learning to navigate widowhood.

We live in a “couple’s culture”. From a very early age we are exposed to the idea that we will eventually become ‘a couple’. We are led to find someone and share our life. Valentine’s Day, wedding season, two-parent family focus, date night reminders and the like are constant in our society – reminding us of the ultimate goal. When you ARE a couple you are part of the club and when you are NOT it’s painfully obvious that you no longer belong.  Married people we used to hang out with stopped inviting me to events (they didn’t want me to feel bad). When someone did invite me to a party or something, they were generally attempting to set me up with someone.

I was living in a Navy Mecca – Tidewater Virginia. Sailors were everywhere; in cars on the freeway, at 7-11 getting coffee, in grocery stores and banks. Every time I saw a tall blonde with broad shoulders wearing Navy whites I would experience tightness in my chest and feel my stomach begin to turn inside out. For that first six months I was in denial, choosing to believe that perhaps he was just doing another tour of duty, that he had somehow escaped the hospital and had amnesia. No matter what I did, there were triggers everywhere. Even doing something s simple as laundry could move me to an exhaustive crying fit as I realized (again) that there were no men’s briefs in the basket.  I tried to move on. I tried to ‘get over it’. I tried to be how everyone thought I should be. I didn’t know what grief was supposed to look like or how long it should last so I went with what others suggested was appropriate.

I attended a widow’s group at the urging of a neighbor. It was held her church and she offered to go with me although she was not yet widowed. I have to assume that the people in that room were well intended. I realize they were experiencing their own losses. They listened as I described my circumstances, my pain, and my fears. And then they dismissed it all. They told me that I should be glad to be young. They said that I had plenty of time to remarry, that I would find someone else. Another person suggested that I replace all of my underwear because ‘single’ ladies should have pretty panties. Some part of me knew these people meant well. I wanted to spit at them.

In MY mind, it didn’t matter if I had been married 4 years or 40. Perhaps we hadn’t yet accumulated the history but we HAD developed the dreams and anticipation of them. Every aspect of my future – every vision I had about it – included him.  He was automatically built into the mental picture of everything I had hoped for going forward. It was a constant ‘head shaking’ to realign or reconfigure day to day living. In terms of visualizing a future – it was as if someone had built a cinder block wall in front of me. I couldn’t see around it, over it, or through it, I had NO idea what was ahead of me and I had no energy to keep going.

On a particularly difficult night as I lay in bed, deeply feeling my loss and experiencing intense sorrow – I contemplated taking my own life. I didn’t want to be in a world without him. I wanted to be WITH him- no matter how that had to happen. I thought about how I could die without feeling pain. I thought about it a long time. Of course my first thought was Francis…. Who would take care of him? My mom and step dad lived close and my twin (half) sisters were only 7 … they would take excellent care of him; they would love him. He would really never remember us… would he be ok? I wondered if he would hate me. I wondered if Rocky would be happy to see me or mad that I had left Francis? And then… I remembered. I remembered the Catholic upbringing that taught me about suicide; they say it is the ONLY sin committed that one cannot ask forgiveness for… without forgiveness, I would go to hell. That’s what I thought about.

If I was in hell, and Rocky was in heaven – then the entire objective of dying to be with him didn’t make sense. It wouldn’t serve any purpose.

………..

During these months there were a number of incidents that pointed to the idea that Rock was with us…

One evening I went to pick Francis up from the sitter – he’s about 20 mos. old. She explained that she was sitting on the couch folding clothes while Francis played with his truck on the floor. He started chatting and then suddenly got up, ran to the corner of the room and held his arms up chanting “Dadadadada…” then, went back to the center of his room, picked up the truck he had been playing with and took it over to the corner – lifting it high as if to show it off.

The babysitter was freaked out.

On another occasion a few months later after I had moved into a new place I heard Francis in his room playing and talking away… my housemate and I stood in the doorway as we watched and listened to him talk to his dad about his toys.

I was sitting in bed one evening reading. It was quiet in the house and I felt settled for a change. Suddenly I felt something – he was there – in the house. The sense of him was so strong. I knew in my heart that he was just outside my door. “Stop” I whispered. “Please, please don’t come in here.”  I knew that if by being ‘here’ – he could be ‘there’ – I would never be able to leave the ‘here’ space. I’d never be able to live in the world – to have a life.

My heart was beating so fast and hard that I could hear it and tears were building in my eyes. “I have to let you go and I can’t do it if I know that you are here with me.”

I was so very sad.

“Go see Francis – he needs you. I will never teach him that you aren’t really there – be with him but let me be babe.”  I sank into my pillows, eyes tightly closed, and refused him.

That night, I let go and made a conscious decision to keep moving.

Only Darkness

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
― Mary Oliver

I was a widow.  Prior to this moment I was mostly untouched by death; the very old grandmother of a childhood friend and my own grandfather that I had barely known.  One day we were talking about more babies, going to school, buying a house, and our next vacation – two weeks later I was picking out a coffin and planning funeral music. It was the most surreal experience of my life. Please people…. Pick out your own coffin!! Make your own funeral arrangements!! Do NOT let your loved ones have to do it…

How does one coffin shop?? A funeral director ushers you into a room full of them and explains the benefits of one from another. This one is particle board covered in velvet – it’s the least expensive. This one is Brazilian Cherry and lined with satin. This one has 7 layers of steel with a lead core to survive a nuclear explosion. This one has a time capsule for DNA so the body will never have to be exhumed. Are you f***ing kidding me? I want my husband back!

I left my body. I was aware of sounds and people. I was aware of where I was but I became someone else. It was as if I was back in high school, on stage, playing a part. Rocky wasn’t the velvet type… maybe Cherry… it was warm looking. I wanted him to be warm.  I saw something with a flannel interior and chose that one.

Do you have a favorite reading? Do you want someone to sing? What kind of music? When? Where? How? Who? Holy shit… shut up people. Leave me alone! My soul was screaming but my voice was deciding. He loved Journey and Little River Band – play those songs. Yes, On Eagles Wings – that’s nice… Sure, she can sing it. I floated above it all remembering our wedding night when some fool packed the car air vents with flour so that we were blasted as soon as the car was started and looked like two old people checking into the hotel. It was apparently, not… a vision of our future. I was remembering our first kiss… it was some kiss! I was remembering the sight of him holding our son for the first time… such love. So many dreams, not enough memories.

My sister-in-laws took me shopping for something to wear. I wasn’t so concerned about being stylish or fashionably chic, nor did I care about how well my purchase would fit. My primary concern was finding something that I ‘felt’ beautiful in, not for me – for Rocky. I wanted to be beautiful. I was searching for something that felt calm and comfortable yet highlighted my best features, perhaps the color of my hair. It couldn’t say happy but I was adamant that it did not shout sad. It could not be black, navy, or brown. It shouldn’t be too short or too long; the fabric not too thick or too thin. I was not sure if it should be one piece or two, and I was undecided about the sleeve. We were in hunting mode, searching for just the right thing. Eventually, I settled on a light peach linen suit and an ivory blouse with satin buttons and a round collar. It was feminine, soft, and quite respectful. It worked with my strawberry blonde hair and most importantly, it didn’t scream funeral.

I dressed up and showed up at the funeral home on the night of the private viewing. It was for family only. I did not go into the room where he was on display. I was unwilling to see my husband as a dead man (ultimately a mistake). I was told that the funeral director did a fantastic job with makeup, etc…

That’s nice ~ with a southern slur**

I was still detached. Existing on another plane where I was safe and not alone and loved.  In reality, I was surrounded by so. many. people. Rocky’s large family had all flown in. My dad and step-mom drove in along with a few other relatives. His co-workers, mom’s friends and neighbors whom we had started to know. I don’t know where Francis was… I seem to remember making a decision to keep him away from the ceremonial affairs because I didn’t want him to be negatively impacted by all the emotions, but I can’t remember who had him. I logically know many of these people loved – and still love – me. It’s just that, well – they weren’t HIM.

I got through it. We all did. Indeed – there were lots of funny stories and laughter that goes with them. There were tears – lots.

I couldn’t go back to the house where we had been a family; it was too much for my spirit. His brothers went through things so that I didn’t have to. Someone moved our stuff into storage. I kept a pair of 501 Jeans (because his butt…well, it was so HOT in them!) and I kept his Navy whites. I don’t really remember making all of those decisions and I’m sure some of them were made on my behalf, out of compassion and concern. I’m not sure any were made out of understanding; even my own. How does one understand the death of a 23 year old whose whole life was yet to be lived – or the wishes of his widow – or the lonely cries from his child? How?

I know I was not the only one struggling with these impossible questions but I was so deeply immersed in my personal loss that I was unable to really consider the experience from the perspective of his parents or siblings. It took me years if not decades to be willing to look in that direction. At some point, everyone left. Everyone went back to their own lives and I was left to face each sunrise and each sunset in a way that was unfamiliar to me; unwanted.

A friend took me to her parent’s beach house for a week. We took the kids too.  Then a week later, I went back to work because there was nothing else to do. I didn’t know how to be a widow. I was so very pissed at the world. This was NOT supposed to be my life. I thought God and I had agreed that me – as a single parent – was off the table. Rocky and I had mapped out our lives…. there was going to be three children, a house, and a career by 30. It was planned. It was imagined. If that wasn’t going to happen – what was? What was in store for me?  For our son? What did the universe want from us?

Each morning when I opened my mind – there was only darkness.

**That’s nice ~ with a southern slur** – My mother told a story about a proper southern woman who believed it completely unladylike and immoral to curse. And so, from time to time you could hear her say “That’s nice” with a gentle smile and a slight nod of her head. When asked if she ‘really’ thought it was nice?? she replied “Why no darlin’ – that’s how us Southern women say “FUCK YOU”.

Photo credit: Infomastern via Foter.com / CC BY-SA