Posts Tagged ‘Death’

in a word, love

December 23rd, 2011    -    3 Comments

The mountains have more snow. Georgia dragged her jacket out today and went outside for one minute before she agreed it was too cold. She was happy to read and play inside today.

My sister sent me an envelope in the mail this week. She attached a short note:

“I found this today while going through a drawer of old letters. I think I found it in Mom’s room when cleaning up after her death. Regardless, it belongs with you. Now that Georgia is all grown up, it’s especially poignant.”

She ate a good supper of chicken and vegetables all by herself. When the spoon proves inefficient, she just digs in with both hands.

The date of the letter was Feb. 14, 2001. I think it was the last letter I sent to my mom before she died.

She thought the doctor’s office yesterday was one big hoot but the wait was boring. She is 20 lbs and 31 inches. She was very happy after her long nap and danced backwards and forwards to Barney before her Daddy came home.

Georgia was 18 months old. Not knowing what else to say to a dying woman, I put every little detail of my daughter’s day on the paper. I wanted my mother to be in her life. I wanted my mother to be alive.

Last night she had a bath in the big tub, and while she was squatting in the water, she pooped. That was a fast bath and a long cleanup. I bought her a small potty chair for her to look at and she thinks it is a waste of time and money. Good for holding Cheerios but nothing else.

I see how I was mimicking my mother’s style of correspondence. My sisters and I used to laugh at the quotidian details she put in her letters. Perhaps we thought she should make better use of the time and space to expound on worldly matters, things that would interest daughters like us.

Georgia misses her Grandpa to chase around the dinner table. She runs a circuit around the table or sofa every night. Where is he?!?

Mom died on April 13, 2001. Dad died on Nov. 25, 2005.

I will not tell you how my parents failed me; I will not tell you I despise my kin. I no longer indulge those conversations when there are more important things to say.

Our love and thanks for another day,
Karen & Family

My holiday wish for you.

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out of the chifforobe

October 28th, 2011    -    10 Comments

Staring from family photographs, we look
older than we are. Even as children, our faces
are shadowed with doubt and parental disappointment,
as if to say to those looking years from now:
We persist. We persevere. We do this for you.

– from “In the Olden Days” by Richard Newman

My grandmother’s house held the scent of a mothballed century. Time had locked itself in a cabinet called a chifforobe. The very word was one of the secrets it contained. I considered it a double mystery: first, that a country washerwoman would have a chifforobe, and second, that she would call it by that name, the frill of the double consonant like a vestige of lost extravagance.

Inside hung the few fancy dresses worn by my mother and her sisters to dances and weddings. On summer visits we granddaughters made charades with them. (Such frocks are kept for the sake of girlish fantasy.) But there were other things that held me for a longer stretch — old photographs of the dead and unnamed — my phantom ancestors. I would flip through shoeboxes full of sepia images, staring into the stiff and grim faces of related strangers.

My mother’s people were Wends, an odd and oppressed sort of religious colony, which like all colonies, no longer exists. Run out of Prussia in the late-nineteenth century, they settled in the purgatory of Central Texas where they were mostly poor farmers. (Except for my grandfather, who out of enterprise or foolishness later made himself the town barber, ensuring that he would remain the poorest among poor relations.) The Wends were serious about faith, hard work, and economy. The wedding portraits captured their high sobriety: the brides wearing black to signify the life of toil awaiting them. This foresight was not in the least bit faulty.

These were my kin, somber in face and fashion, weighted by work and gravity, and much younger than they looked. On the backs of some photos, salvaged from frames or torn from albums, were half-vanished names written in thin pencil.

What brings this to mind today? Is it the season? A poem about olden days drifted into my hands and moved me. I have been taken of late with the matter of lineage, and how we have largely disposed of its umbrage. We are a do-it-yourself culture. We believe we can manufacture anything with independence and initiative. Our heroes are the self-made who suggest that by clever sorcery we can conjure our own mythology. Perhaps it is my age that turns me back to face the accident of my birth, which was no accident.

I am not self-made. I have come from the persistent. I am the heir of disappointment and doubt. I came out of the chifforobe and I will yet join the ranks of its unremembered. Like all those before me, I do this for you, and it is all I can do.

Leaving me to wonder and to grieve.

Also inspired by the work of Michael Douglas Jones.

seeing joan

September 8th, 2011    -    7 Comments

On a weekend when we’re being called to have a reckoning with the memory of unspeakable ruin, I won’t say one word. I only offer this light to memorialize a friend who left last week. By this, may you see.

It was a shock, yes, the news. From nowhere, it was a wave, a blast, a shimmer. It was the sun, exploding.

It was Joan.

In the days that followed, that’s how I would recall her. That’s what I would say, “I never saw a shadow darken her face.” Joan was pure radiance, and I think she still is.

She made you think it was all about you: her pure delight at the sight of you. You might have thought you were special, even gifted. But any gift you had was what Joan had first given you. She gave you her presence and she gave you her joy. It wasn’t a pretense. She could not pretend. The fact is, you never once disappointed her.

Joan was full in the way the sun is always full. And I imagine she still is, her arms full of the whole of us, her heart wide open, her face beaming. There are so many who are sad in her absence and so she keeps shining, shining through the shadow that darkens us, the vacancy, the disbelief, until we look up and see the light, the light that is vast and uninterrupted.

It is Joan. I see her still.

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the longest day of my life

August 30th, 2011    -    8 Comments

It’s the day before the start of middle school. I take my daughter to the campus to pick up her sixth grade class schedule. Half hidden by their summer growth spurts are the kids we’ve always known and yet never seen before.

Georgia gambols over the dusty grounds with a pack of friends while I sit under my hat like a mom perched on the rim of a playground. All the action is inside the circle.

Everything moves in patterns and cycles repeating, repeating.

The temperature cools. The sunset shaves off two minutes of daylight. It’s Tuesday, so I wheel the trash cans to the curb. Standing there I recall another dusk when I carried the baby to the sidewalk, so weary, so done, waiting for Daddy’s car to turn into view so I could end the longest day of my life.

It wasn’t long and it wasn’t over. The morning will come and I will love – I will really love – this day forever.

A sad prayer and promise for my happy friend Joan, on what began as another day and ended as her last.

grief is its own teacher

July 19th, 2011    -    1 Comment

And takes its own time. This could help.

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to jacqueline’s mom

May 25th, 2011    -    21 Comments

When bird passes on –
like moon,
a friend to water
– Masahide

It’s the final week of rehearsals before the fifth grade song and dance revue, and since my daughter is sidelined on crutches, she sits wallflowered in the front row every afternoon until I come into the auditorium to fetch her. I’m none too cheery when I get there, since the sight of a hundred kids cavorting to Katy Perry makes my eyes sting. It’s like a stage show of all that Georgia has missed in this long year of hurt feelings, hard knocks and disappointments – a cruel season, to be sure, and not quite over. Today at dismissal the teachers called all the kids into small groups and handed out letters. The letters ran out before Georgia could get one, but she returned and told me what it said.

“Jacqueline’s mom died last night.”

I stood in that sludge of disbelief that comes with information you can’t yet receive, the noun and verb colliding in violent disagreement.  It can’t be. No. Yes. It is.

Our two girls had shared a second-grade class. There was not much that passed between us moms at first. Jacqueline’s mom was a single mom, working, with two kids and no other family nearby. She had moved to California for a job and had since left a husband. We passed one another at pickup, and she was hurried, private. By spring she had spoken, or emailed, I can’t remember, and she came to the house. We talked. I gave her a book. She was searching; she was ready. She came to one of my retreats where she won the door prize: a kitchen timer. She felt lucky.

Afterwards, we always greeted each other across the grass, waiting for the kids to ramble out from school. She passed me quick updates: she’d quit smoking, changed jobs, started therapy and worked out the family issues; she was getting better, reading books, loving her kids, taking her time, and nearly ready. I’m using the timer, she told me. One day she handed me a plastic shopping bag with something inside.

“I saw this and thought of you.” I waited until I was in the car to look inside. It was a 2011 Gift of Zen wall calendar that is hanging in our kitchen right now. We’ll be turning the page soon. Looking at it my eyes sting.

I feel lucky.

I feel lucky I was a friend.

To Jacqueline’s mom.

 

risen

April 24th, 2011    -    16 Comments

My mother had come to me in a dream. Four years dead, she was standing on my front porch. I rushed up and hugged her. Her body was like ash in my arms, crumbling and decayed, but I was not afraid or repulsed. She took me up. We flew into space, into the vast darkness and pulsing light. I felt celestial wind in my face. It was exhilarating.

I asked her, “Is there a heaven?”

She said yes.

“What’s it like?”

Like this, she said, like this.

It was an attribute of her deep faith and her final, modest confusion that my mother believed she was dying on Easter, and it was, for her. But for the rest of us it was in the small hours before Good Friday, the dark night after Maundy Thursday, the day commemorating the Last Supper, when Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment to love one another as he had loved them. read more

emerging face

April 11th, 2011    -    22 Comments

Last week I was taking notes at a meeting and I suddenly noticed my hands. However I might appear to others, my hands have always betrayed me. They are workman’s hands, big-knuckled, covered in ropey veins and papery skin. I swear they are mummified. When I looked at them this time, I saw age spots.

“I have my mother’s hands,” I later told my teacher.

Last week I read about a conference entitled The Emerging Face of Something or The Other. I’m not being specific because “emerging face” is applied to all kinds of things to make them seem new or trendy or interesting. Like that magazine article that chooses 50 of the Most Fascinating People of the Year. You don’t know 25 of them and you won’t remember the other 25 by the end of the week. We all have about three minutes when we’re just fascinated by our own emergence. Then our real face shows up, and it’s not so new after all. We stop finding ourselves remarkable, and then we can begin to do good for others.

“Do you ever hear yourself speak with her voice?” he asked me.

Wednesday will be the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death. I remembered this picture of her, taken in my backyard, holding baby Georgia. Everyone is dressed up for this, the baby in one of those darling outfits you manage to put on once before they are outgrown. Mom is wearing a wig, since she is bald after her first round of chemo. We are happy and hopeful. I can see her hands, which are my hands, and I can see her face, which is my face, and I can see everything that will emerge from this moment.

“On my best days,” I answered. “I hear my mother’s voice on my best days.”

Karen, this is your mother.

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grief is a mother

October 24th, 2010    -    14 Comments

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva doing deep prajna paramita clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions. – Heart Sutra

We are on a death watch at my house. Which is to say, we are on a life watch. Redhead, the fantail I once boasted to be the world’s oldest living goldfish, has become the world’s newest dying goldfish. To watch her transit is a powerful and fitting thing at this hour. And although I kept her alive for so long by absurdly arrogant and heroic measures (see How to Keep a Goldfish Alive in 20 Easy Steps) now I am doing what is even more heroic: letting her disappear into her own insurmountable mystery.

Death surrounds at this time of year. It surrounds at all times, but in these dwindling of days we might see it. We might see it in the surrender of the sun and the swift triumph of night. Feel it in the grip of the wind, the cataclysm of leaves, mud, dirty windshields, paw prints, rain-dank rugs and snot: the whole soggy rot of life’s residue.

Yesterday we observed Obon at the Hazy Moon, a ceremony honoring our departed loved ones. The altar was crowded with photos of more people loved and remembered than have ever stood alive before it. Such is the way, and it is always the way, and it is always sad. Grief is our mother, and when we grieve, we taste her tears. We taste eternity, the brimming fullness from which everything rises and to which everything returns.

I can see the cycle of things that have lately come near:

A mother quaking in bottomless shock after her baby died at birth.
A friend moored in friendship’s final vigil.
A granddaughter answering the clear call of goodbye.

And right here too, come unexpected calls and emails, late word of swift departures and funerals on Thursday at 3. My daughter’s third-grade teacher was stunned six months into her happy retirement by her husband’s sudden crumbling fall into a mean disease. She walked into the school assembly last week, to see and be seen by the children she last cradled, the ones who will be the last to remember her. She whispered her widowed vacancy to me, “It’s the absence, the absence!”

I know that awful yawning space, that thunderclap after a jagged bolt rends the sky. It is the infinite ache of a mother’s heart, the heart we all have whether we are men or women, mothers or not. It is the absence that contains, curiously, our own presence, the tender fearlessness to watch and weep and let angels sleep.

Edited to add: Leave a comment on this post and I’ll include the name of your departed loved one in memorial services I do this week at my backyard altar.

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is you, the embodiment of infinite compassion.

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death by twitter

August 2nd, 2010    -    1 Comment

“Facebook is like a nosebleed. Twitter is like breathing into a paper bag.” Read more poetic license about our social ills in my first blog post at Smartly LA, a writers collective for “people who get it,” in which I confess how very much I still don’t get social media. “Like pointing to a Twinkie as the defense for murder.” Go there and tell the good doctor how you feel when you’re on a steady diet of social media. Oh, and follow me.

***

Only 2 more weeks of early bird registration for the Mother’s Plunge-Boston. For reals.

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Now entering the motherland

April 12th, 2009    -    11 Comments


Last week I was reminded of one of the most refreshing aspects of an arduous trip to a foreign country: not speaking the language. What sweet relief! Being utterly, absolutely free of language and its insidious effect on me: reading, talking, eavesdropping, writing, judging, second guessing, comparing, competing and then, and then, and then. Last week I didn’t read, blog or bloviate. I didn’t charge ahead. I didn’t fall behind. I didn’t make a list. Here I’m home but for two hours, and the list is already lengthening at my side, the pen squiggling across the lines of my journal even as I fight a reunion with the cherished sleep I missed most dearly.

I’m striving again. We’re all striving. If we’re not striving, we might wonder, what then?

As I rapid-fire clicked through emails and blogs I returned twice to Kelly, who today stands in the nowhere between a very sick mother and a very sick sister:

The most challenging part of all the illness around me is accepting that I have absolutely no ability to help anyone get better.

That is the truest thing I haven’t said lately. Being with someone who is sick or dying can seem like being in a foreign country. Or a foreign airport, in my case, in an unmoving line leading to one Lufthansa ticket agent hammering uselessly into a broken computer while the cushiony minutes to takeoff disappear. The most challenging part is accepting that I have absolutely no ability to help. There’s no striving. There’s just being. And even though there is no striving in just being, some folks will tell you that there must be a way to steer the being along better. Not just a way to do nothing, but a right way, a good way, to do nothing.

I don’t subscribe to that expertise. We are all amateurs at death; in the same way we are all amateurs at life, although we rarely give ourselves permission. For those of us whose part in dire hours is to sit it out and sit beside, our part is to just sit. Sitting with my mother and my father as they died was the most intimate act I’ve ever known. And while I do not think it more sacred than going nowhere at a ticket counter, it was no less sacred.

You see, when it looks and feels as if we are doing nothing, we’re actually doing quite a bit. We are standing still on one of those slow-motion moving walkways stretching from terminal A to terminal E. We are crossing a threshold all the while, crossing a border whose demarcation is all but imperceptible. We are entering the motherland, the pure land, and in that nowhere else, we are coming home.

A tribute to my mother, and to everyone’s mother, on the eighth anniversary of her death April 13, 2001.

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A time and place for unicorns

August 13th, 2008    -    19 Comments

“The unicorn is the only fabulous beast that does not seem to have been conceived out of human fears. In even the earliest references he is fierce yet good, selfless yet solitary, but always mysteriously beautiful. He could be captured only by unfair means, and his single horn was said to neutralize poison.” –The Unicorn and the Lake

That my daughter, for all her outsized dreams, could be satisfied with only a bedspread for this birthday is something I regard as fabulous. One look and you might not share my opinion of it, but I am a selfless saint, or so it helps we sinners to encourage ourselves daily.

Yesterday I asked her if she wanted to change out her old quilt for the new one, and we did. Off came the patchwork spread that had cushioned her across that first fearsome transition to the big bed. Fadeworn and soft. Off too the menagerie of stuffed animals, the easier for her to swoon at the sight of her new beloved.

“And what about Fay?” I asked. Fay is a three-foot-long stuffed pink unicorn, perhaps the most fabulous gift ever bestowed on a four-year-old, as big as she was when an infatuated little friend named Noah hauled it in to the birthday party five years ago. I was faintly disturbed by its sheer heft, the volume of space it dislocated on the bed. But Georgia adored it and she named it herself: Fay, which was my mother’s middle name, although my mother had died even before Georgia turned two. Did she understand?

“What about Fay?” I’d asked. And she proceeded to tell me a new and fabulous story, of how Fay should now be on the floor, behind the chair, by the turtle tank, for when Daddy needed to kneel down, and protect his knees, and such like that, her tone earnest and good.

I understood.

I understood completely.

There is a time and place for unicorns named Fay, that mysteriously gentle phantasm, the transition between first and last, then and now, hello and goodbye.

I miss my baby. I miss my mommy too.

I release them both into the wild.

Daily reflection on SPF 50

July 21st, 2008    -    5 Comments


Me: You got a little red yesterday, honey, so let’s put more sunscreen on your face. The sun causes cancer and we don’t want you to get cancer.
Her: If I ever get cancer, I’m not going to brush my hair.
Me: No?
Her: No, because I read in a magazine about a girl who had cancer and when she brushed her hair it came out, so if I have cancer I’m not going to brush my hair.
Me: Okay.
Her: Does that sound like a good idea?
Me: It sure does.

Reflecting on my family history of cancer and hair loss and good ideas.

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