Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Category: Grief

A Eulogy for My Mother, Cecilia Tjaden-Rush

When I was 25, I asked Mom if she would teach me how to decorate a cake. She said, “Well, sure.” She showed me how to pile the icing on top and level it out, being careful not to pull crumbs up from the side. I made a lot of mistakes. The icing was too thin in some places. Chunks of cake came loose and  polluted the icing. I pointed to a hole that I had somehow made in the cake. She looked at it and said this:

“Oh, that’s just a good place to put a flower.”

She took a tiny, flat metal flower nail and spun it in her fingers as her hands moved swiftly and without any hesitation, creating a flawless rose. She placed it on top of the hole that I had made.

I cannot think of a better metaphor for Mom’s life. A master of turning the holes into something beautiful.

I want to tell you about who my mom was.

Her name was Cecilia. Born May 9, 1954 in Spencer, Iowa to Cyril and Virginia Bundy. She was the second oldest child, the oldest daughter of seven children. She spent her childhood on family farms in Iowa and Minnesota. When she was in high school, she moved to “the Cities,” a.k.a. Minneapolis/ St. Paul, Minnesota. She attended a Christian university, University of Northwestern, for two years. She met my father, Leland Tjaden in August 1974 at Cross of Glory Baptist Church. They were married here, in the same place that I’m standing right now, on September 6, 1975. From 1977-1984, they had four children, Phillip–who has since become Anna–Nate, Sharon, and  Holly. In 1985, they moved to Dayton, Ohio for my father’s job with Supervalu, a grocery store chain in the 1980s. In 1986, my parents adopted Cecilia’s sister’s child, DeAnna–who has since become Dominic– and they raised him as their own. Yes, two of my mother’s children are transgender. And she recognized and loved them as beautiful creations of God. 

In the summer of 1987, my mother received a phone call while she was decorating cakes for other people’s celebrations–her house was on fire. We lost everything. We were homeless. This event changed our lives. It taught me that the worst tragedies in our lives are almost always the times when we see humanity shine. I witnessed and felt the care of others so many times in this period of our lives. Our church sheltered and fed us until we were back on our feet.

Our family often lived paycheck to paycheck. Our furniture came from Rent-a-Center and we were frequent users of layaway. But we always had enough. We may not have had what our friends had, but we never went without what we needed. My mom could feed a family of 7 on $50 a week in the 1990s. Again, it wasn’t necessarily what we wanted to eat. But we never went hungry. 

In 1997, doctors found a slow-growing cancer in my mom’s small intestine. It was called a carcinoid tumor, a cancer that circulates in the blood and disrupts the endocrine system. My father’s response to the news was devastation and sadness. My mother’s response was level-headedness and optimism. This was just a thing that was true about her now and she would do what she needed to do to treat it. But beyond that, it wasn’t going to rob her of her joy and positivity. She believed deeply that God had plans for her and that those plans were ultimately beneficial to all those she loved–even if those plans included her death at an early age.

She kept that same spirit for the next 24 years. 

I want to tell you some things that my mother loved.

Her Myer-Briggs personality type was ISFJ, like me and my dad. “The Protector” personality. 

She loved musicals. The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, Carousel. Anything Rogers and Hammerstein. She could watch Christmas movies anytime of year.  It’s a Wonderful Life. Literally all of the Hallmark Christmas movies ever made. And Lifetime movies. For music, she loved the Carpenters, Anne Murray, Josh Groban. Almost any Christmas song you can think of–she loved it. 

But then there was her other side that loved action movies like Taken, Westerns, suspense, thrillers, and as Warren calls them, “men-bashing” movies, where the husband is the main villain. There was a period of time when Mom loved a TV series called Snapped, which was about wives who completely lost it on their husbands and ruined their cars or poisoned them or something like that. 

She and Warren enjoyed something they called “Chicago Night,” with TV shows about Chicago PD or Chicago hospitals. Things she could watch over and over included Law and Order: SVU, Heartland, Walker, Texas Ranger, and Little House on the Prairie.  

She was patient. She loved jigsaw puzzles, the more pieces the better. She loved crosswords and word puzzles in Penny Press puzzle books, particularly “Escalators” and “Magic Square Anagram” puzzles. 

She was creative. Her passion and profession was decorating cakes and she truly loved the work. She worked at so many bakeries: Stumps, Cub Foods, the Rolling Pin, Cake Box, Ashley’s Pastry Shop, Kroger, and CJ Farms. She and her dear friend, Judy Smith, even ran their own cake decorating business for a period of time called “Classic Wedding Cakes.” I know she’s my mom, but really, her decorated cakes were among the best I’ve ever seen. She had a real talent for it. I remember taking her into a local bakery and she looked in the case at the cakes. When we left, I asked her what she thought. She just shook her head and said very simply, “Nothing special in there.” That was all she said. 

Her favorite kind of cake was white cake with buttercream icing. If you were going to buy her a donut, she’d ask for a cake donut. Most people knew her for her decorated sugar Christmas cookies, but if she wanted to bake cookies just for herself, she’d make peanut butter cookies. 

Although she was a fantastic baker, she was not known for her cooking. All five of us kids can remember the countless times that we would protest the “hot dish” that my mom had made for us, a concoction of elbow macaroni, ground beef, stewed tomatoes, onion, and sometimes celery? Actually, she put celery in a lot of things that shouldn’t have put celery. Like her chili. I remember my husband, Doug, taking a bite of her chili and a confused expression came over his face. He looked into his bowl and moved his spoon around. “Is there celery in this?” I said, “Yep.” “Who puts celery in chili?” I just shrugged. My mom leaned heavily on cream of mushroom soup and Lipton onion soup mix for seasoning a dish. One thing that it seemed that no one ever agreed with her on was her love of chicken hearts, livers, and gizzards. I remember a stuffing that my mom made. Holly took one bite of it and just said, “Mom… what did you put in this?” And she said, “You can tell?”

Beyond baking, my mom loved to do so many kinds of crafts. She sewed everything from matching Christmas and Easter dresses for her girls to curtains to handbags and even stuffed animals. There was a period in the 90s when she made–with Nate as her assistant–stuffed bunnies out of muslin cloth and dressed them up in little dresses. She quilted and made a lot of quilts for people, including me. She crocheted so many blankets, especially in her last years, when she volunteered to crochet blankets for people in hospice. In the 1980s, she went through a phase when she made barretts, all decked out in lace and beads. 

As a parent, my mom recognized and valued each of her children for their uniqueness. She saw potential in each one of us, even if we disappointed her. She gave second and third and fourth chances. There was no end to the chances she would give. She was proud of whatever we did, as long as we did it to the best of our ability. She was the Keeper of the Peace in our household, the one that kept the ship sailing, even if we didn’t know the direction that we were going as the Sea of Life tossed us this way and that. 

She was the owner of a perfect laugh and a Minnesota accent. And she always granted the most generous interpretation about others, even when she could have extended judgment.

My mom was an eternal optimist.

When I hugged my mom good-bye as I was leaving after my father’s funeral, I said, “I just want you to be happy for the rest of your days.” It was 2014 and the cancer was mostly asleep inside of her, but it was never too far from my mind.

She looked at me and said, “I will be.” So confidently and assuredly. And I knew she meant it. 

I just couldn’t understand how she could be so optimistic, but she absolutely was. She hadn’t met Warren yet. As far as she knew in that moment, she could have been facing a lonely, financially difficult widowhood. 

And yet she believed that the best was yet to come. 

And by God–she was right.

My father was my mother’s first love, the father of her children, and what I say next does not take away from that cherished truth. Warren was her soulmate. Both children of farmers, lovers of the quiet land. They spent 6 incredible years together. He held her hand as she passed and still looked at her with the same adoring eyes that he had for her throughout their marriage. His last words to her were, “You gotta go, Sweetie. I’ll see you there.”

Warren, what a gift you were to my mother. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts for being in her life. You will be in our lives forever now. You can’t get rid of us! You are my children’s grandfather and we will visit and care for you just as we would my own mother.

On the night before my mother passed, I read a letter to her that intended to read at her funeral. But she deserved to hear it in this life. I’d like to read that letter now.

Mom,

We met on November 24, 1981 at 3:51 in the morning. It was a Tuesday, just two days before Thanksgiving. I don’t remember it, but now that I have two kids of my own, I know that it’s likely that you’ve never forgotten that morning. You told me after Felicity was born that I had been your hardest birth. That surprised me because I was your third child. You didn’t know why it had been that way. But it was. You and Dad had expected that I would be born before he had to leave for his early morning shift at the bakery. But no. At 1:00 a.m., Dad left for work.

And so, while the world slept and my father went to work, you labored alone in those final hours, which I know from experience are the loneliest, most painful, and most detached hours that you can experience in life. No matter how many people surround you, you are still alone in your pain. 

These are hours when you are certain there is no one in the world who is currently suffering as much as you are. They are hours when you bear the entire weight of humanity, pushing, pulling, and pressing you from all sides. There would be no human life if not for the ability for women to bear this pain. 

I repeat: Life depends on the strength and fortitude of women to bear this pain. 

You bore so much pain in your life. You bore it without most people even knowing, a true testament to your roots and upbringing in rural Iowa and Minnesota, where the simple economics of farm life governed. You cannot reap what you don’t sow. You cannot take if you don’t give.

And so when life gave you pregnancies, it also gave you severe hyperemesis gravidarum. When it gave Dad the opportunity to turn his job into a career, it also gave you an extra 800 miles between you and everyone you loved. When it gave you the stress of raising teenagers, it gave you the stress of raising more teenagers. Sorry about that. That was actually completely unfair. 

Mom, you were the oldest girl in a family of seven children. You talked about how difficult it had been to move from farm life to city life in high school. The teasing hurt you. So you turned to your faith. Your faith taught you that even if others didn’t accept you for who you were, you would always be accepted and loved by God. For you, being God’s child gave you the support and comfort that you needed as you grew up in a culture that you didn’t understand. 

Losing Dad was tough, but why does it feel like it hurts more to lose you?

Maybe it’s because it feels like a world without your mother is a world without the greatest compassion and the most acceptance and unconditional love that you have ever known.

For a long time, I didn’t want to be a mom. Moms were so uncool. So passé. So not who I wanted to become. I wanted to be accomplished and talented and maybe someday well-known. I was going to do much, much harder things than being a mom.

What a fool I was. Such foolish, foolish thoughts. So full of pride. How could I ever think that you weren’t exactly the person that I should aspire to become?

How could I ever think that being a good mom was easy?

Being a good mom has turned out to be literally the hardest thing that I will ever do. And I’m finding now, over and over again, the empathy and the perspective that I need to understand just how difficult it must have been for you to raise 5 of us. 

I’m so sorry, Mom.

Mom, it’s because of you that I’m able to keep the whole thing in perspective.

The world will always find another teacher or writer or employee. But your family will never find another you. 

I know that my heart will always call out for you when I’m hurt.

I know that I will always miss your presence, but I know that I’ll miss it the most at Christmastime. Every time I smell those fragrant pine cones, covered in cinnamon and clove, I can almost hear the scratch of the record player starting up Anne Murray’s Christmas Wishes, the notes of Winter Wonderland blending into Silver Bells.

As deep as my sadness is right now, sadness is not what I want this to be about. 

What I want to talk about is my gratitude—all the reasons that I’m thankful you are and will always be my mother. 

Thank you, from the bottom of my soul, for not just being our mother but living your life for us, as if we were your true calling. We never felt like you had something more important to do. 

Thank you for creating a home in which I always felt that there would always be enough—even when that wasn’t guaranteed.

Your optimism and positivity, which eclipsed all of Dad’s worrying.

All the times you were there when we needed you. In all the ways that we needed you. I don’t ever remember you telling us that you could not be there for us, no matter what the problem was.

For your lifelong examples of what it means to love God and live as a cherished creation of God. Through all of the financial and physical hardships, through Dad’s illness and death, you showed us how to feel grief even as you move forward.

Thank you for all the I Love You notes that you’d slip into my sandwiches and that I’d bite into while I was eating at school.

Thank you for the pair of shorts that you sewed for me late into the night when I told you I got laughed at for wearing the same pair of jeans two days in a row in fifth grade. 

Thank you for disregarding the doctors’ original prognosis in 1998 and going ahead and living your life anyway. You showed me why it was important to you to not allow people to only see CANCER when they see you. Even though cancer could consume your body, you would never give it the victory of consuming your spirit. You kept your identity and your wholeness until the end.

Thank you for teaching me that one of the very best things that you can do in this life is to be kind and generous to others—Because you never know when you will be the one that needs to feel that kindness, especially when you feel like you just cannot go on.

Thank you for filling my memory with positivity, laughter, imagination, and creativity. 

Thank you for my freedom, how you basically dropped me off at college and said, “Have fun!” You gave me the space to take ownership and responsibility for my life.  

Thank you for allowing me to feel a broken heart and giving me the space to learn how to keep on living after rejection and loss.

You were pretty amazing with space. Space to allow me to figure out marriage. Space to figure out how to be a mom. Space to feel my way through the pain of miscarriage. You were always there when I needed you, but you were always sensitive to how space could give me agency and ultimately, more resilience.

Life is funny and awful. Because now that I have all the space, what I wouldn’t give to give it all back just to have you back in my life until I’m much, much older. No matter how old you are, you’re never ready to lose your mother.

One of the first thoughts that I had when you told me in August 2019 that the cancer was back was… “Please don’t leave me alone in this world. I don’t know how to I can be okay in this world without knowing you are in it.”

But you have always been preparing me for this, haven’t you? For years, you have been giving me the space to steer my own life. You have been cheering me on from other states as you’ve gone on to live your life. You’ve encouraged me as I’ve developed my own social support network around me through friends and church. In my mind, I know that I will be okay. I know that I will wake up tomorrow, make the coffee, do all the things, and make it to the end of the day.

But my heart doesn’t know that. All my heart wants is to stop losing the people that I love.

When I first asked you why you gave me my name, you said I was named after Song of Solomon 2:1, I am the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valley. This didn’t really mean much to me, especially since I was eight years old. 

But what you wrote in my baby book made more sense. 

You wrote “The Rose of Sharon, the beauty of a desert.”

You saw me as a flower in the desert.

I came into your life at a challenging time. You were a stay-at-home mom to two young boys, aged 4 ½ and 2 years. Dad worked early morning hours at the bakery, often six days a week. We know now that Dad struggled with bipolar depression for years, but at the time, you just thought that he was moody and needed help seeing the positive side of life. And that’s what you were there for—to be his partner. To provide balance. From week to week, money was perpetually tight. I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure you didn’t complain about any of this, ever. That was your life. He was your husband and we were your children and God was God. And you rejoiced and were glad in it.

You saw me as a flower in the desert.

Desert flowers don’t have deep roots, but they do have extensive roots. They spread out far and wide to gather as much nourishment as possible, to prepare for the lack of rain. I really can’t think of a better metaphor for how I’ve lived most of my life. Drink up as much as you can now because the drought is coming. One way or another, it’s coming.

My roots have never been deep. We are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants, uprooted from homes and cultures. Children of rural farmers, isolated for miles on every side. We moved away from all our extended family early in my life. For generations, this was how we lived: stretching out instead of digging down.

There were many seasons in life when you and Dad could not depend on your family because of how far away we lived. So we reached out to the church. And they were our support. They provided structure and guidance. Love and belonging. You showed me how to make a family with those around you. How to help others and how to have the humility to be helped when you needed it. And we often did. We often did.

Thank you for this, Mom. Because now that you and Dad are gone, this is how I will survive. This is how I will bloom and continue to grow in a life where my roots are almost gone. I will reach up and reach out. I will trust that someone will be there because I know the world is full of suffering—and because it is full of suffering, it is also full of empathy. My family that remains. Friends. Always friends. I will reach up and reach out because I need help to face this world without you. 

Dying

Friday, August 12th, 3:30 p.m.

“She’s out of isolation, so you don’t need to bother with a gown or gloves. Whatever it is, it’s not COVID,” the ICU nurse says. I glance at the whiteboard. Nurse: Megan.

Through the window, I see my mother reclined on the hospital bed, her eyes closed, her chest rapidly rising and falling. This labored breathing has been ongoing for days now, her heart rate increasing steadily over the days. 90. 100. 110. 125. 130.

It holds at 140 now.

140 is my heart rate when I’m jogging or doing kickboxing. And there, she lies, reclined on the hospital bed, her body racing as if accelerating toward some unknown destination in the distance. Does she know where she’s going? And when will she arrive?

What’s causing her high heart rate? I had asked the doctor.

It’s the body’s stress response.

To what?

We don’t know.

There would be nothing else to say until more tests were done. More and more tests.

I look at my mother through the door.

She is dying. Surely, they can see that.

Can’t they?

I slide the door of the ICU room open and step inside and rest my eyes on my mother. And the reality of the situation washes over me again, a horrible reminder. Oh, right. It really is as bad as the last time that I was here, just hours ago.

But then, I realize. No.

It’s not as bad as last time.

It’s actually worse.

I want to tell every nurse and doctor and hospital worker, This isn’t what she looks like. She’s really not like this.

In a week, she has transformed from a robust 68-year-old woman into a woman who looks to be in her 80s. Frail.

I place my cup of coffee on the floor beside the chair next to her bed and sit beside her. The welts that have emerged on her face and arms are starting to crust over. The doctors guess that it’s a reaction to antibiotics to treat a UTI, but it’s just a guess.

I slide my hand under hers. It’s not as hot as yesterday, when her fever was 102, but it’s still so warm. Her fingers are swollen. From what? I don’t know. Why is she breathing like this? There are new masses in her lungs, ones that have grown rapidly at some time in the last month, but is that what’s causing her body to run like its out of control?

Her spinal tap is clear. There’s no infection. Her brain is fine. Her heart is fine. Carcinoid cancer is strange. We don’t know everything about it.

“Hi, Mom,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “It’s Sharon.”

I open a document on my phone. It’s a letter that I’ve written to her. I was going to read it at her funeral, but she deserves to hear it while she’s alive. My eyes skate over the first line that I’ve written to steel myself to read it, but I can’t see through the blurry curtain of my tears. They drop freely onto my dress.

That looks so nice on you! she had said, not two months ago. Stitch Fix? I’ve never heard of it!

I look around the room for a box of tissues and see nothing. There are never enough tissues in these rooms. I wipe my face with the back of my free hand as I hold my mother’s hand. Then, I pull a used paper towel from the dispenser in her last hospital room and dab at my face again.

I close the app with the letter to my mother and navigate to a song. Something that has comforted me in the past.

See me someday sleeping softly
Flowers draped across my knees
Hear the cries of friends and family
Missing me
Press on

She’s not gone yet, but I miss her already.

I look down at my mother’s hand.

Just two weeks ago, she responded to my touch. One week ago, she could still acknowledge that I was in the room. Yesterday, with effort, she could say a few words–if they were important. I fed her a small piece of strawberry, and with great effort, she chewed it. Now, when she is aware, her communication has reduced to groans and a look from behind glassy eyes.

In this moment, her eyes are closed. I could almost convince myself that she was sleeping, if she weren’t breathing like she were running a race.

My head drops to her hand and I press it to my cheek, where my tears are now sliding over her knuckles and down her wrists. I turn my head and look up the side of her arm, upward at her as she is reclined in the bed and suddenly she seems as large as she was to me when I was a child. Authoritative. Grand. Only now, silent and suffering.

I want to wake her up, shake her out of this nightmare. I want to curl up in her arms. She was not a mother who would say something like, “Everything’s going to be okay, Sweetie.” Instead, she would say something simpler, like, “Hey, now. What’s wrong?”

Her hand is slick underneath my cheeks, my tears still spilling forth. There is Life there, inside of her, as strong as it has ever been. But not for long. Soon, her hand will turn cold and there will be no warming it up with peach tea or coffee with cream. I can still see the steam rising from her mug as she laughed about my ridiculous guesses for unscrambling words in a puzzle book.

The sadness settling over me is so heavy I cannot even hold myself up and soon, I’m collapsed over the rail of the hospital bed. I’m crawling up the side of the bed now, my face and neck pressed against her arm and hand, gazing up at her. I want her to snap out of this. For her breathing to slow. For her to look over at me and say, “I had the weirdest dream.”

But her face is so thin now. Her face has never been this pale, this thin, this drained of life.

I want to go back. To my beginning. When I was the Protected, and she, the Protector. When it was her tears of joy covering me at my birth, not my tears of sorrow covering her just before her death. How short the years were between those two turning points in our universe. I didn’t always take those years for granted. I cherished them more each time she told us the cancer was back. But how many years had the cancer slept–and I lost sight of my gratitude?

Moments with someone you love become so much more precious when you’re threatened with losing them forever. You find yourself making frequent trips to see them. Cherishing every word they say. Not throwing away their cards. Taking more pictures. More videos.

My mind drifts and I think of the woman who wept upon Jesus’s feet and then wiped away her tears with her hair, just before pouring expensive perfume over his feet.

Why was she crying? Jesus and his disciples believed that it was because she was “a sinful woman” and was plagued with regret.

But no one asked her. They just assumed that she was sad about her sinful life.”

But now I wonder if she knew, in the way that I know now, that Death is at the doorstep. I wonder if she felt the same tight tug at her heart when she looked at Jesus, the tightness that I’m feeling now as I gaze at my mother in these final hours, as if she is being pulled into a thick fog while I am anchored here. Unable to follow, even at a distance.

Even though there was a time when we were so connected that the echoes of our heartbeats rippled throughout the same body. My hiccups were her hiccups, and hers were mine.

Wasn’t there a verse in Isaiah (Was it Isaiah?) that said, Death where is thy sting?

I know where it is. It’s here, in this room. I feel it needling me every time a monitor beeps, announcing some new threshold that my mother has fallen too far below or risen too far above.

The nurse, Megan, quietly enters the room and I don’t even try to hide my tears. What’s the point?

“Here,” she says softly, handing me a hospital washcloth. “This is better.”

I nod, unable to even thank her properly. I push the stiff, paper towels into my purse.

She doesn’t say anything.

There is nothing to say.

Life is filled with bitter music
Breeze that whistles like a song
Death gets swept down like an eagle
Snatch us with our shoes still on

Press on

Behind me, I can hear the soft conversations of nurses in the hallway. I can’t hear the content, but the tone tells me that whatever they’re talking about weighs infinitely less than what is happening in this room.

Do they know? Can they tell what’s happening? Is it obvious to them too?

When do we start using that word, dying? Is it too soon? It doesn’t seem too soon.

Instead, it seems too late for someone to be notifying me. Instead, it seems that I was meant to figure this out on my own. It seems that we are in the wrong place here. ICUs are meant for people to get better. Why is she here anyway? Shouldn’t we be in hospice? Why are we pumping high-flow oxygen into her nostrils and administering potassium?

Why did we do a biopsy? Will the results read as clearly as a pregnancy test? Dying or Not Dying? When are the results supposed to come back? After she’s dead? Why are we still testing?

The sobs overwhelm me and I find myself praying not only to God, but also my father. My grandmother. Any ancestors who will hear me.

Please. She needs someone to guide her. She needs help to find her way forward. I cannot stand to watch her suffer like this another day.

I love her too much to allow this to go on.

There is a doctor’s knock at the door. They all knock the same–an interrupting, quick signal that you are next in line. But I cannot even lift myself to acknowledge the sound. If this doctor’s time is money, they’ll need to pay the price for now. And I will come away from this moment knowing that I owe them nothing. I will not shield them from my pain or my grief. They should know the weight of what is happening here, how the gravity of this moment warps time, slows it down, so that every moment is lived painfully and with the greatest effort imaginable.

They should feel it, if even to a small degree, in the way that I’m feeling it now.

My mother is dying.

Whoever is about to sit with me and talk with me already knows that, too.

***

He’s very kind, this doctor in his late 30s. He uses phrases like, “How are you feeling about her condition?” And “Yes, I agree that it’s time to modify her goals.”

When I ask if we can help her pass without suffering, he says, “We absolutely can.”

Then, a new flood of tears arrives as phrases that should be uttered twenty years from now are spoken today.

We can move her to a private, quiet room. Make her comfortable. Give her morphine for pain. Give her anti-anxiety medication.

How long will it take, we ask as a family.

Could be 30 minutes. A few hours. Or days.

More tears.

I’m hoping for a few hours. Time to say what we want to say to her. To pray. To read to her.

But the thought of wandering for days in this Space Between Worlds…

The thought is crushing.

But I know that I will bear it, no matter how long.

I will bear it for her.

***

The night nurse comes, Regina. I believe she is the Holy Spirit, the Great Comforter, incarnate. She can’t be older than 35, but she speaks as someone who has traveled this road of Death many times. She props her hands on her hips like she’s telling us the specials on tonight’s menu.

“I want to be clear about what we’re doing tonight. We’re going to do a terminal wean. We’ll do everything to make her comfortable and relieve her pain.”

It’s not insensitive the way that she says any of this. Instead, it instantly puts me at peace. What we are doing is not unusual or awful. We are only getting out of the way of Death. We are simply fulfilling my mother’s wishes, even though it means that she’s leaving us behind.

We read last minute messages from friends and family who want to say goodbye. We hold the phone up to her ear to allow family who can’t make it to talk to her. My mother says nothing. She cannot talk. All she can do now is groan, and only when absolutely necessary. She breathes heavily through her nose and mouth, which quickly dries out her lips. The tone in her jaw is gone. She cannot keep her mouth closed. Every time Warren carefully applies Chapstick to her lips, tears sting my eyes.

Can she still hear? I wonder. While half of me is glad that we are talking to my mother as if she can still hear us, the other half of me remains skeptical and wonders if this is all a show to make ourselves feel better.

Her brain is fine, the doctors had said.

As I sit on my mom’s left, my daughter, Felicity, walks in, tears slowly careening down her nine-year-old cheeks. She has been pinballing between entering the ICU room and remaining in the hallway.

Anything you want to do is fine, I assured her. Only do what you want to do.

She sits on my lap, facing away from me. She’s too tall for me to hold her like a baby anymore, so I do the next best thing and bear-hug her from behind.

Felicity gazes over at her grandmother and places her hand on top of hers.

My mother groans.

My chest tightens and I swallow.

“She can hear you, baby girl. She knows it’s you.”

Felicity leaves her hand there as her little body shakes in my lap. I know in this moment, my mother hates that she’s making Felicity sad. She hates that she can no longer mask the fact that she’s dying. She wouldn’t want to scare Felicity. She would despise the fact that the only sound she could make to comfort Felicity was a monotone groan. She would encourage Felicity to not let her condition make her sad. She might even tell Felicity what she had said so many times before, “I’m getting better and better every day, Felicity. Don’t worry about me.”

Without warning, Felicity jumps to her feet and moves to the other side of the bed.

“Can I hug her?” she asks.

“Yes. As tightly as you want.”

She leans across the bed and rests upon my mother and pushes out her shaky words.

“I love you, Grandma.”

Warren helps Regina remove my mother’s neck brace, which had been supporting her nearly healed neck after her most recent fall.

They remove the arm brace, which had been keeping her broken right arm in place.

Regina pulls away the tubing that forces high-flow oxygen from my mother’s nostrils.

A lump rises in my throat as a thought occurs to me.

We are removing all her armor now, letting it fall away, leaving her vulnerable. We all understand that she can’t be any more broken than she is now. Nor, are we are protecting her anymore. We’ve wandered off the road to recovery long ago. Now, we’re on a different path, each of us recognizing it at different times, as if we are each acquiring a new language at different speeds. I’ve been able to read the signposts for weeks, but I know that others have only been able to read them for days.

We are handing Mom over to a Thing that we have all feared, no matter what our faith teaches us. No matter how many cheery faces have told us confidently that there’s Heaven waiting for us on the other side, none of us have seen this destination, nor have we traveled there. Perhaps someday I will find comfort in the thought of Heaven. But not today. Because my mother’s path to get there is covered in thorns, ripping at her mercilessly even as she barrels blindly forward.

She will travel this last path alone, exhausting every weapon and tool that she used in this life. She will do this alone, just as she did when she gave birth four times. Just as she did when she fought through unbearable pain when she broke her back in 2007–and all the years of pain that followed. Just as she has fought this cancer for 24 years.

Like every other time before, she would do this last battle all by herself.

No man has ever come close to demonstrating the strength that my mother has.

Not even close.

She is the only person I’ve known who has chosen over and over again to walk into the shadows of Pain and Loss.

And still found the Light inside of it.

And then held that Light up for all to see.

Warrior isn’t the title that she has earned.

She is the Hero.

Maybe that’s why her body is still wielding its sword, slashing at shadows.

We can’t tell her to stop fighting.

But at least we can take away her pain while she fights.

Both Sides Now

“I think she’s passing out,” I say.

My stepfather is on his feet in a moment, talking to my mom, asking her questions. I move from my chair to the edge of the bed and take her hand in mine without thinking.

Are you okay, Mom?

…yeah…

Do you know where you are?

…yeah…

Warren tries to talk to her.

Who’s holding your hand? Who came to visit us?

…Sharon. And Doug…

My stepfather leaves the room to get the nurse and my mom stares at a fixed point on the wall, somewhere faraway. I pull her hand into my lap and rub her hand, her palm, her wrist, her arm, over and over again.

I want to say, It’s okay. We’re getting help.

But my mouth is dry, the words catch in my throat, as large as stones. I could not cough them out if I tried. My eyes don’t sting with impending tears, nor do they water. My heart does not panic.

My hands keep moving, comforting her as she drifts between consciousness and unconsciousness. I have been there myself, on that cold, shaky cusp between states of awareness. Sinking into a cloud of thick unconsciousness, swallowed whole for a dark moment. The ringing in my ears, the cold sweat, the sounds drifting back into my ears as I push back through the clouds, breathing in the clear atmosphere once again. I know what it is like to be able to hear and understand–and be unable to speak, the task of moving your mouth and articulating words too much too handle. Hoping beyond hope that someone will just stay with me and talk me through it, until I rise to the surface again.

It’s the cancer in her leg, fueled by a reoccurring hormone-disrupting carcinoid tumor, that is causing these blackouts. Her heart is fine. Her brain is fine. Her endocrine system is not. These drops in blood pressure have brought her here, where she is now–in a rehab facility, nursing a broken arm and an injured neck.

I move my hand over her bruised wrist, where they drew blood several days ago. I cringe. That’s a spot where it would burn and sting. I rub the dark spot tenderly, careful not to push too hard.

I should be crying, I think.

But I’m not.

Because I’ve stepped into something familiar. A path that I’ve walked, both consciously and unconsciously, for the last ten years.

I think of the nights I held Felicity while her chest rattled with mucus from RSV, rubbing her back so tenderly, talking into her ear.

I think of the way I would carefully transfer Henry, so smoothly, so orchestrated to minimize the sensation from my arms to his crib.

I think of how I held each of my children after injuries and surgeries, the even and loving tone that I would hear come from my mouth, so assured. I surprised even myself.

I think of all the ways that motherhood has required me to use my whole body, my touch, my hands, my shoulders, my whole physical self to be present and to move along with the rhythms and pace of my heart.

I think of these memories. And I know exactly what to do.

I know how to hold my mother’s hand, how to talk to her softly and assuredly, without making demands or imposing undue stress on her, to let her know that I am there for her and there is nothing that she needs to do for me, that all she needs to do is breathe and hold on, and how grounded I need to be to keep her from panicking or floating away completely.

And she allows me.

*******

Whenever I ask my mom if she needs help while I’m visiting, she said, “Help is my middle name right now.”

I help her adjust the cervical collar, which holds her healing neck as still as possible. I help her grasp the dried banana chips that I’ve brought from the store. I hand the puzzle book to her to ask for her help on a clue. I direct the kids about where to stand so Grandma can see them better.

Warren is there every day, for most of her waking hours. He sits patiently next to her and helps her remember the days and what has happened. He keeps track of what occupational therapist has said, what the physical therapist has said, what the nurse has said, the medications that haven’t arrived yet, the outcomes of particular doses of this and that. He helps her lean forward in the inclined bed by gripping her unbroken arm and bracing himself. He does all the actions that she cannot do.

I don’t pray much these days. If I’m being honest, my prayers are sometimes confined to the liturgy, Help, save, comfort, and defend us, Gracious Lord.

But there as I’m watching Warren take care of my mother, I pray for him.

I downright thank God for him.

*******

The tears don’t come as I leave the rehab facility. They don’t come on the long drive home, with my husband and kids in the car. They don’t arrive while we’re making dinner or getting the kids ready for bed.

They arrive as I lay in bed, reviewing the day in the way that all introverts do: by carefully combing through the day’s memories. The considering and classifying and making sense of. Aligning memories alongside each other, drawing the far past to the what-just-happened. The contemplation.

It all gives rise to sobbing. The ugly, whole body sobbing that just wrecks you and turns you into a red, wet, messy disaster.

What do I think about?

I wonder how many times my mother has comforted me by holding me. As an infant. As a preschooler. As a young girl.

How tall was this mountain of memories that I would never remember? And I cry more because I know, I know, how many moments of my life have been spent in this period of suspension. When nothing else got done, except for the simple act of holding.

The simple act of caring.

Now, I feel the full Truth of that moment–It was worth it.

It was worth my time, my sacrifice, my pain, my life. I knew it was worth it then, but now I know it was worth it even more than I did in those moments.

And how much of a gift it is to offer this moment to my mother now.

And how I deeply wish I would have been able to offer the same to my father as he lay dying.

But now I know.

This is a gift.

To be there for her.

To bring her grandkids to her so she can see them.

To sit with her in the silence and simply be.

To hold her hand in moments when her body conquers her mind, and reassure her that, No, you are not going anywhere.

Not yet.

We will wait for that moment together.

But it’s not today.

Not yet.

Oh, but now old friends they’re acting strange

And they shake their heads and they tell me that I’ve changed

Well something’s lost, but something’s gained

In living every day

I’ve looked at life from both sides now

From win and lose and still somehow

It’s life’s illusions I recall

I really don’t know life at all

Joni Mitchell

One More Moment

Dad,

What I have to say is kind of a mess right now.

Stay with me as I take you through some things that I’ve been thinking about.

***

It has been seven years since I saw that message from Mom.

Call me as soon as you can.

And I just knew. Before I pressed Call, I knew that at the end of the conversation, I would know that you were gone. I remember looking at that button on my phone thinking, Just one more moment before I know for sure. I need one more moment of not knowing. Just one more moment before I know and I can never not know again. I need just one more moment.

This is not happening.

But it is.

I sat at the top of the stairs and I pressed, Call.

I heard the words and they rattled inside my mind like marbles in a jar. Away. Passed. Unable. Last night. Nurses. Dad. Breathing. They were all words that I knew and understood, individually, until they were forced to be in the same sentence. I had the context to expect these words. You had not been doing well for weeks after you fell. I was expecting this.

My mind understood. But my heart did not.

The reality of losing someone who has seen your hand grow from the clenched fist of a newborn to the open palm of an adult. Someone whose memory populates the entire landscape of your childhood and teenage years.

It should not be possible to lose someone as important as you were to me.

And yet it does.

All the time.

***

The first time that Felicity asked seriously about death was shortly after the pandemic broke out, no doubt fueled by the never-ending news updates about the virus. She was six years old. We were watching Hook, specifically the scene when Rufio dies. When the movie ended, she was sobbing.

I had never seen her cry like this before. I asked her what was wrong and she said, “What happened to Rufio?”

“Well, he died,” I said.

“But what happened to him? Where did he go?”

I could feel my heart seizing in my chest. This was an important moment and I literally had no words. I almost wished that I was still 19 years old, certain of the destination of souls depending on who was right and who was wrong.

So I did what all smart parents do.

I stalled. And then I put the question back to her.

“Where do you think he went?”

“I don’t know!” she sobbed harder.

I panicked. Like I said, I had never seen her like this before. This moment was crushing her and she was seeking out my comfort and certainty.

Say something! I chided myself.

“No one knows for sure what happens when we die,” I began. “But I think that we go to be with God.”

She sobbed even harder.

And I instantly knew that it was the wrong thing to say.

“I don’t want to be with God! I want to be with you and Daddy!”

“You’re not going to die, Kermit. You’re going to be fine. This virus mostly hurts people who are older.”

“But what if it does?”

I swallowed the growing knot in my throat, pushing it deep into my stomach and straightened myself. She wasn’t saying it–but I knew what she was getting at.

“Is that what you’re afraid of? That me and Daddy will die?”

“YES!” she continued to sob.

At this point, three-year-old Henry walked into the room and saw Felicity crying. He walked over to her and put his arms around his sister and said, “S’ok, Ficity.” She hugged him back.

And in that moment, my three-year-old had given more comfort to her than I had.

Of course telling her that she would “go to be with God” was a terrifying concept. Who was God to her? Some large, unknowable entity who lived up in the clouds. Although she had learned in church that “God is Love,” her six-year-old brain understood love as a packed lunch, a hug when you’re sad, and the voice that says “good night” before the light goes out.

I pulled her into my arms and held her while she sobbed.

And then I told her the truth.

“You will never be alone. Daddy and I have surrounded you with friends and family so that this will never happen. Even if you lose me and Daddy, there will be someone to take care of you. You don’t ever have to worry about who will take care of you and Henry.”

“Who will take care of me?”

And then we spent the next five minutes listing, in order, the people that would take care of her. I started with those we had designated as her legal guardians should such a situation arise. Then, I kept going. I named every friend that we had incorporated into our lives, one by one, holding a finger up for each person who loved her and cared about her. When I ran out of fingers, I made her hold one of her fingers up for the names that I was still listing.

When we got to twenty names, we looked at our fingers and then I held her hands in mine.

“You will never, ever be left alone. Ever.”

***

The day after you died, I got a bouquet of flowers from my friends.

Our friendships are special.

I understand this more now that I’m approaching 40. To continue to share weekly dinners and breakfasts with a group of friends throughout your 20s and 30s is not typical. We’ve taken vacations together, both long and short. We’ve stayed after parties and helped each other clean up. We’ve made each meals when we were sick. We’ve supported each other through the stuff that we don’t talk about with just anyone. We’ve come together to support each other as we’ve lost parents. Six times over now.

And when the pandemic came, we moved our dinners to Zoom and suffered through the constant, Wait, what did you say? Go ahead. Wait, me?, just so we could stay connected.

After 15 months of separation, we had our first in-person dinner a few weeks ago. When I hugged my friend, Ben, I said, “I’m not letting go first.”

He said, “Okay.”

And we just stayed like that for a full minute.

What is a word stronger than “grateful”? If there is one, that’s how I feel toward my friends.

I wish you had a friend group like this when you were alive.

***

Dad,

Does time make it easier?

Sometimes.

It’s not so hard when I’m remembering the things about you that make me laugh and smile. All the ways that you were completely unique and unforgettable. Whenever I see someone dressed oddly, I remember that one time we were at the gas station together. I took stock of what you were wearing on a hot July afternoon through the driver’s side window of your sedan. You were so tall that all I could see was your belly, covered by a blue and maroon striped dress shirt, tucked into teal and black swimming trunks. When you got back in the car, I laughed at your bare feet, shoved into brown loafers. You grabbed a McDonald’s napkin from your glove compartment and mopped at the sweat underneath your baseball cap.

It’s also not so hard when I’m remembering things you used to say. Whenever situational context pulls something you would say out of the depths of my memory, it makes me smile. You lack motivation, but not know-how, you used to say our border collie, Gator. Down at the Old Country Buffer, you would say to talk about the restaurant, Old Country Buffet. It’s the Boss! You know they call him the Boss?, you would ask me every time Bruce Springsteen came on the radio in the car.

But then sometimes, no, time does not make losing you easier.

It hasn’t been easy to hear How Great Thou Art or Amazing Grace. I miss the way you would lower your head and mutter the words. Not sing. You weren’t a huge singer. But mutter, yes. You were a soulful mutterer. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed.

It’s not easy when Felicity reads a story to Henry, cover and to cover, and he asks her what the difference is between a My Little Pony storybook and a My Little Pony comic, and she comes up with a perfect child-appropriate answer. You never got to see them like this. I wish you had.

And the squeezing of my heart when I look at Henry’s school pictures and I think, He has my eyes. Which means he has Dad’s eyes.

Those are the times when it is not easier.

***

After seven years of life without you, I understand a few things better now than I did in the immediate days after you passed.

First, the times when I’ve felt your loss the most were the times when I built the walls high and kept everyone at arm’s length.

These were times when I was perpetually stressed by the endless juggling of work and care-taking when the kids were small(er). To be honest, I was afraid of running out. Running out of what? Everything. Energy. Time. Love. Everyone wanted something from me and so I gave and gave and gave–almost as if I were trying to beat life to the punch. Ha-ha. You can’t take away when I’m readily giving and giving and giving. And that’s what I did.

Until I had nothing left except numbness.

And in that quiet numbness, the feeling of loss would rear its ugly head at surprising and unpredictable times. And I was shocked by it. I thought I was fine. I had been getting everything done for everyone else, hadn’t I? But in all that business, my heart called out for me to acknowledge what I had lost.

Dwell on it? No. But acknowledge? Yes.

I don’t fully understand why the acknowledgment matters so much. But something within the human heart calls out for remembrance. It’s why we have namesakes and statues and days of remembrance. Perhaps we sense on a primal level that the worst horror of death is in the Forgetting.

Maybe it’s why no matter how far I meander here and there throughout the year and throughout my writing, my steps and my words always bring me back to this sacred space of remembering you around this time of year.

Second, after seven years of life without you, I can say for sure that the one thing that has helped the most is this:

My commitment to keep my heart open to Love.

To welcome new friends into my life.

To share my house and food, conversation and laughter.

To sacrifice for those I love, even when I’m not sure of the outcome.

To listen and believe and comfort.

To give and hold.

Every act of love and care that I’ve given someone else in the time since your death has healed me.

Because every act of love proves I have not surrendered to the pain of loss.

Because every act of love is an act of Courage.

People who have lost understand this more acutely than those who have not. Because after someone you love dies, you have the evidence that the act of loving can feel like a painful, reckless act.

Because the more people you love, the more you have to lose.

And so to continue to love after you have lost proves, once and for all, your tremendous bravery.

You understand this, Dad, especially because of your experience as a father. That first child that enters your arms opens a giant hole to your heart that remains exposed forevermore. The more children you have, the more vulnerable you are to the ways they can hurt you.

And you were a father of five.

To love deeply is the definition of courage. So much can go wrong. But it is the act of loving that gives us the greatest joy, the greatest reason to not only live, but thrive.

***

When I want to remember you the clearest, I always find myself in the passenger seat, you in the driver seat, hand on the wheel. I don’t know why, but we are headed south on route 127, going toward Oxford, back to Miami for classes. We pull over for Croissan’wiches–sausage, egg, and cheese–and coffee from Burger King and we eat from fast food wrappers in the front seat. We talk past each other over and over again because the space of our common ground is shrinking now that I’m building my own life, replete with different interests and concerns. We both feel it, crumbling on all sides of us, accelerating now that the time we spend together is limited to school breaks and summers. It pushes us closer together for the moment even as the edge approaches fast.

But I couldn’t see that.

I was looking somewhere else.

Somewhere off into the distance.

Somewhere where you were not.

I was falling in love, making new friends, traveling, taking class after class after class, and redefining my beliefs. I was growing up, reaching out, moving on.

And you were standing there.

Is this the terrible pain of parenthood that they don’t tell you about?

That as you are standing there, the circle where you stand with your kids gradually and imperceptibly shrinks over the years? Until you realize that everything around you has changed and your shared common ground has dwindled to only your shared moments from the past?

Maybe it is.

And maybe your wisdom to me now would be to say,

Stop looking off into the distance. Stop looking for the approaching edge. It will get here soon enough. Just stand with me. For now.

For one more moment.

Just one more moment before everything changes.

Just one more moment.

Love this moment.

Write it on your heart.

And when it’s time to let go, remember that they can be loved by others, just as much as they were loved by you.

Find comfort in that. Because I know it’s true for you.

It is, Dad. It is absolutely true.

But I still love you.

And I still miss you.

Sharon

We danced to “Unforgettable.” It’s still true.

***

6 Years: If He Were Alive Today…

We’d probably be arguing about whether or not fears of the COVID pandemic are warranted.

I would plead with him to either wear a mask, (I’m not wearing a mask, he would practically hiss) or to stop going to Wal-Mart altogether. (You know, they got a deal on russet potatoes this week? Five pounds for $2!)

He would blame the spread of the disease on protesters, (That’s what you get for protesting! No one is making them do it!) and we’d go back and forth about the right to protest, perhaps a whole two turns, before he’d digress into something like, You know, this country was also full of protests during Vietnam. To which I would say, Exactly! And he’d say, Lot of good that did them. And I would face palm myself. And then he’d say, It doesn’t even concern you. It’s right there in the phrase: Black Lives Matter.

At this point in the conversation, it would be time to turn our attention elsewhere–because neither of us was going to change each other’s mind.

We’d talk about the weather, the kids, my work, Doug’s work, and house repairs. If we veered too much into local and state pandemic policies, I’d guide it back to a good book that I’d read, and he’d remind me for the thousandth time that he really loved Louis L’Amour’s westerns. Have you ever read any of those?

At some point, we would eat something that Doug had cooked: fried chicken or steak with billowy garlic mashed potatoes and blanched green beans. Dad would say a murmured prayer that no one could hear, head bowed low, and then silently eat his whole meal before wiping his mouth and pronouncing, “Well, you done good, Sharon.”

And we would laugh.

If my dad were alive today, we would be having some tough conversations. I know that. For sure.

But I also know that I’d rather have him alive to talk about them than to not have him at all.

***

What is Getting Me Through (Week 5-7 of Pandemic Coping)

Weeks 1-2 were a mix of denial and anger, all set to rhythms of Survival Mode, acquiring food and necessities, making sense of pandemic life, and figuring out how to rearrange the landscape of life in a way that we can all live with in this house.

Weeks 3-4 have been, so far, my low point. Replete with the constant wishing things were different, feelings of helplessness, and depression.

Week 5 was my Saturation Point of News. Since then, I’ve only been able to stomach 20 minutes of NPR while I’m making dinner. It’s just enough for me to think, Yep, things are still awful and No, we still don’t have a handle on this.

By Week 6, the depression started to lift as we were faced with the news that we’d been expecting for weeks: Sorry, no more school for your kids this academic year.

And our President thought it would be a good idea to look into using disinfectant to “clean out the lungs.”

This week, Week 7, I feel mostly resigned to living life like this through the summer and well into fall. In my mind, I overestimate (I hope) that we’ll be doing this same type of life through Christmas.

In Week 7, I was able to see my mom in person, though from six feet away and with masks.

In Week 7, I learned that COVID-19 is not just a respiratory disease–it affects the whole body through blood clotting. And I read this ICU nurse’s account of the inconceivable situations and grief that she and other healthcare workers are facing right now.

***

In all this darkness, I want to make plenty of room for the things that are still bringing me light.

  1. My partner–My rationality, my burden-bearer, my chef and gardener, accountant and engineer. The person I still love to watch TV with (although we rarely have time to do that anymore).
  2. Running. Sweet, sweet exercise. Early in the morning. Nothing but feet on the pavement and music in my ears.
  3. Watching my kids grow closer together–This is both unexpected and welcome. They (generally) love being around each other. My daughter tucks my son in at night and tells hawks to “Stay away from her little brother.”
  4. Working with co-workers via Zoom. Sharing our little victories in helping faculty teach online.
  5. Attending church services via YouTube. I was surprised by how much my nerves are calmed every week by just hearing familiar songs and the liturgy. When so much is changing, my mind craves the unchanging, the stable.
  6. Taking on a short-term contract to help move some classes online that otherwise wouldn’t happen.
  7. Re-watching the entire American Pie series. And then all of the Austin Powers movies. (Apparently, this is the extent of problem-solving and just the right level of dumb that I need in my life to balance out all the soul-crushing news.)
  8. Reading “Dear Students: There is No Afterwards,” a letter written by a professor to Notre Dame students who won’t be returning to school. Profound and spot on.

It is freeing if we learn to accept that our lives are on loan and we are meant to give our lives over to others. That is the kind of lesson we are taught when we are young, though it often remains on the level of a noble idea that we may opt into or out of depending on our mood. What all the many sufferings of adult life show us is that this idea is actually the high and unbending rule, and it governs our bodies and our relationships and everything else, without exception. 

Leonard J. DeLorenzo

There will be no return to “normal” because we are all forced to face our own vulnerabilities now. And so the question put to us now is, How will we react to this vulnerability? What will we do?

9. Listening to Kate Tempest’s “People’s Faces.” But first, grab a box of tissues. You’ll need it.

Her poem hits all the right notes for this moment in time.

The uncertainty, the desperation, the frustration, and the sadness.

But also the hope.

The current’s fast, but the river moves slow.

Kate Tempest, “People’s Faces”

Holding onto that truth today.

Strange and Broken Things (Week 2 of Pandemic Coping)

It’s a strange thing, to be at home in the early afternoon on a Wednesday, walking through the backyard with my kids, flowers blossoming in the bright spring grass. To walk down the street and realize that, Oh, there are kids at that house, too. A dad is pushing his child on a swing, hanging from a tree branch. This dad and I are home in the early afternoon on a Wednesday, playing with our kids.

It’s strange to remind your kids that, Remember, we can’t get too close, okay? Saying, ‘hi’ is okay.

It’s strange to not be thinking about upcoming birthday parties. Or mentally preparing to present at a conference next week. Or coordinating the PTO hospitality lunches for my daughter’s school. Or taking my daughter to first communion classes. I deleted all these events from my Google calendar en masse. Also gone, the reminders: on Wednesdays, pack bathing suit for Felicity, in mid-April, order birthday cake by this day, in the first week of May, deliver Teacher Appreciation lunch.

It’s jarring to see the end of normalcy displayed so clearly in my Google calendar. It’s as if someone I loved had died and I just couldn’t even cope. It has echoes of Grief. But then, when my dad died, I went back to work the next week and the world spun on like nothing had happened. I wanted there to be nothing to do, but there was still everything to do. No one else behaved like there was any reason to change, and so I felt like the odd one.

I also had Choice. I could choose to allow myself to get swept into the rituals and rhythms of Life that no one else had given up and find some reprieve from the pain of my New Reality, however short-lived. It was a quiet suffering that I moved through in my own time. And I made incremental progress toward my acceptance. It was a personal journey and I was in control.

Not this time.

This time, there really is no escape, physical or mental, from this New Reality. I cannot binge-watch Netflix until May. I cannot even do much creative work, like video editing or writing. The kids are home. AND I still need to work. To sit here and write in quiet moments to myself, I get up at 4:00 a.m. and sacrifice a daily workout for the mental clarity that writing gives me.

At a time when I most need a reprieve, there is none to be had.

Being a parent is fun. This is all so fun.

You’d think that with the deletion of all those events and reminders would come a measure of peace and clarity.

Not so.

Instead, my mind is overflowing with news and charts and numbers and questions and predictions and announcements.

I’m constantly thinking about disinfection and washing hands (all. the. time.) and cleaning up the house over and over and over, and getting the kids outside, and Is Felicity reading enough? She should be writing more. Are we doing enough for Henry?, and Relax. You’re doing the best that you can.

My mind doesn’t have much space left to think about anything else other than this Giant Wave that is approaching all of us.

When will it hit Ohio hard? How many people will die? Will someone I love die? Will their body be stored in one of those refrigerated semi-trucks until we can bury them? Was that cold that I had really COVID-19? I had a low fever and a sore throat. Then I felt okay, like nothing happened. Then my lungs were irritated for a couple of days, and that was weird. But no doctor would order a test for me with the few symptoms that I had.

We are all trudging through physical isolation while also being solely responsible for regulating our consumption of the the deluge of news and social media posts that we consume each day about the surging pandemic.

Limit your social media consumption for your mental health, they say.

I don’t want to read about this all of the time, and yet I do. I don’t want to read about another instance of Trump’s feckless leadership and reckless disregard for the consequences of spreading misinformation during a pandemic.

And yet I do. It’s like my mind is begging for another example of,

See! There he goes again, being the biggest jackass the world has even seen! See everyone! He not only sucks at his job, but he’s actively making it worse! See! He doesn’t deserve to lead us one more day! Get rid of him! SOMEHOW!!!

And yet there are still millions of Americans who stand up for this buffoon. It’s not his fault. We can’t put the economy on hold forever. We have to go back to normal. Let’s get back to normal by Easter.

Fools.

And so my mind spins on and on.

A few days ago, I woke up at 2:30 a.m. and just couldn’t go back to sleep. I tried. For an hour, I tried. But once the thoughts started, they rode the steep curve of that red line, riding the most terrifying roller coaster ever, clink-clink-clink, rising exponentially in the coming weeks. Up, up, and up. Who in my life would become part of that line? Who will I lose?

For certainly, we are on a path to becoming a country in which everyone loses someone. We are starting to hear the rhetoric that it’s patriotic to sacrifice ourselves and those we love to a disease that we could have been better prepared to fight had our own destructive president not dismantled the systems that were in place to keep us ahead of the curve.

And to provide our human sacrifices all in the name of preserving the Great American Economy.

It’s too late for the outcome to be much different than that.

It haunts me. That undoubtedly, months from now, after thousands, if not millions of Americans have died, Trump will talk about how much worse it would have been had they not done whatever they had decided to do. Oh, right, sorry. The federal government isn’t responsible. It’s every State for themselves. Hope the States have enough funds to outbid foreign governments for their bulk purchase of medical masks and ventilators. Unless they use flattery to win Trump over. (Which I find even more maddening. Because if governors resort to falsely flattering Trump on the record in order to secure a federal response, now all the Crazy in America will have “evidence” that Trump is doing a good job.)

But in the event that Trump tries to take credit for whatever federal response the government may take, he can always say, More lives could have been lost, and be right. That’s the same argument that we’ve heard after years and years of increasingly horrific mass shootings. Hard to think that the argument will change much.

It haunts me. That Trump will undoubtedly, through tweets and press conferences, rewrite history over and over again so that it looks like he was never wrong. But, hey, at least he can’t use his rallies to rewrite history right now. I revel in the fact that he cannot hold these mass ego-feeding sessions that simply confirm his far-fetched delusions.

Trump will do everything in his power to be seen as the Winner.

But in 2020, it looks like there’s only going to be Losers. Trump included.

And in any case, we don’t need a Winner.

We need a Hero.

(Fauci for President?)

So after an hour of lying in bed, thinking and thinking, I decided to get up and do something for myself.

I did some yoga.

And then I cleaned the kitchen.

***

And then this happened.

After years of erosion along the bank of a creek behind our house, a tree fell over into our backyard. Now it lies against the edge of our backyard, at the end of its life, broken and unable to be properly disposed of as it is not considered an “essential service” at this time.

The morning after it happened, I occupied the kids by having them pick up sticks and put them in a bucket. It was cold that morning and my coffee cup warmed my fingers as I watched my kids poke through the safest parts of the fallen tree.

Looking at its dark branches against the pink of the dawning sky, I remembered a dream that I had about a tree falling over in the backyard, at a time in my life when everything seemed to be turning upside down.

Maybe it’s a coincidence.

I don’t think everything like this has to be a sign.

But I’m not closed to the idea either.

But it’s strange.

And then this happened.

While I was in a conference call, I was twisting my rings on my hands and I noticed that they didn’t feel right.

The setting was just gone.

I didn’t hit it on anything.

It was strange.

(Jewelry repair is also not an “essential service” at this time.)

These things don’t need to mean anything. I can be okay with believing that sometimes stuff like this happens all at the same time.

But it’s strange.

***

The rhythms of our lives are radically different, but we are making it work. I am working from home from the morning to the afternoon and my husband works from afternoon to midnight. There is no one else to help with care-taking. All the social support of friends and church, daycare and after-school care. It’s all gone. The best babysitter now is the TV and a Chrome book, which we use prudently through the week and throw caution to the wind on the weekend.

We are finding the good in being with our kids more. Time that we previously spent simply commuting to work and picking up kids and going to the occasional weeknight event is all now spent at home. We eat dinner together like usual, but our kids now eat with one of us at lunch time. Sometimes, I finish my shift online and find culinary gems like this waiting for me:

(I know. I’m lucky. I married well. I don’t share stuff like this all the time because he’s too good, and no, you can’t have him. I got him first.)

Although it is hard in the immediate moments of taking care of our kids to remember this, it is ultimately good for us to hold our kids close during this time. (Even though 25% of the care-taking still requires the constant vigilance and reminders of No, Hold on, Wait, Put that down!, Where’s your jacket? Away from the road!, No water guns right now, Zip up your jacket, My God! Stay out of the mud!, Too close to the creek!, Stop! No, that’s my coffee, Careful!)

It is good to take them outside to pick up sticks and discover newly blossomed flowers and put on their rainboots to splash in the puddles and watch an earthworm stretch its way across the paving stones for ten minutes and wish him well. Bye-bye worm!

It’s good to give in and read a Five-Minute Paw Patrol story (few girl characters, and they never solve the problems) when I’d totally prefer to read something like the Little Engine that Could (good moral) or even One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (good rhyming schemes).

In all this time with the kids, moments emerge.

There’s the moment when I hear my daughter reading to my son, as the daylight fades from their rooms. They are having a moment together, apart from me. And it doesn’t tear me apart. It makes my heart soar.

There’s the moment as I’m sleeping that I feel my husband’s hand slip into mine and I wake long enough to squeeze it but not long enough for my mind to start spinning again.

There’s the moment when I hear, for the first time, my son say to my daughter, “I love you, Cici.”

Although my places are restricted, time marches on, leaving behind moments in its wake.

Gather ye moments while ye may.

A Time to Say Good-Bye

When my dad died five years ago, I didn’t have the chance to say good-bye.

Since then, I’ve had a few dreams about him. But nothing that has given me much closure.

Until recently.

The dream went like this: My dad is alive. So is my mom and her new husband, Warren. And everyone is okay with this.

It’s a dream, right? You know how dreams are.

It’s also Thanksgiving and we’re back at our old house in Huber Heights. The table is set up in the living room, which is awkward. But that’s because my youngest sister’s bed is set up in the dining room, and we’re all coping with that.

Fine.

There are lots of chairs around the table, but no one is sitting down. I see that it’s because, apparently, everyone has already eaten except me. I feel hungry. And yet I’m frustrated because there is food all over the table and the floor. I start picking up, scraping bits of food into my hands: lemon wedges, wet and cold Spaghetti-os, cracker crumbs, and rice. Absolutely nothing that looks like anything we would actually eat at Thanksgiving dinner.

No one is helping me. Actually, I can sense that they are annoyed that I’m cleaning up. They’re all talking with each other, laughing, having a great time.

Apparently, my dad and Warren are old pals. I can hear my dad’s laugh above everything else. That cutting HA! that interrupts what someone else is saying, just before saying, “Well, that’s just like what they did down there in…” And he segues into a new story. They’re off to the races.

Ah, whatever, I think as I get up from scraping up food from the carpet. Maybe later.

By the time I get over to where I think my dad is, I see my mom sitting on the sofa, staring out the window, a book on her knees. She’s sad. And she won’t talk about it.

And she’s also pregnant. Like third-trimester pregnant. At sixty-some years old. Her hands rest protectively on her belly.

It’s a dream, right?

Suddenly, she’s gone. The book is still there, conveniently left open to the page that she was reading, marked with underlining. The heading reads “Brain Disorders.”

“It’s her decision,” my dad says. He’s there now, sitting on the couch.

“Why won’t she talk about it with me?” I ask.

“This isn’t about you. This is between her and God.”

“But…” I can’t think of the words. But what I feel is this immense emptiness opening in the fabric of my life. This is isn’t about you. This is between her and God.

Through the window, I see the tree in our backyard tipping over, its roots becoming exposed to the air.

“I don’t want her to make that decision,” I finally say.

“It’s not about you,” he repeats.

He is not somber. He’s actually quite jovial about it. His health has been restored to the last time that I remember him being physically and mentally well, probably around 2007. He tries to help me see the positive possibilities. What if the brain disorder actually benefits the baby? He tries to give me examples of babies with certain brain disorders who were born in the past and who are now astounding doctors. He places his fingers close together and far apart, saying something about the spaces between synapses.

“But we don’t know what type of condition the baby has,” I say.

“You can’t know everything that you want to know,” he says. “Sometimes, you have to trust God.” He is laughing.

Laughing!

The nerve.

“Dad?”

“What?” he says.

I reach over and grip his large hand in mine, pull it to my heart and lock it there so that we are connected from fingers to elbow. This is not something I ever remember doing when he was alive. Our family wasn’t big into hugs and we certainly didn’t hold each other’s hands.

But I don’t have the words anymore.

All I have is the grief of his loss.

The knowing that when this is over, he’ll be gone again. He will slip away for months or years, away into realities that I cannot sense or galaxies where I cannot travel. He’ll be gone again and I’ll still be here.

And I won’t know when I’ll see him again.

I don’t know what I’m doing, but I feel that I’m sending out everything that I want to say but can’t find the words for. All the empty spaces in my life where he should be. All the moments that he should have seen with his grandkids. All the times that I regret I didn’t spend more time with him. All the jealousy that I have for my peers who still have their fathers with them. All the love that I still have for him that has nowhere to go, nowhere to land. And so it swirls inside of me and rises at unexpected moments. Crying in the store over 0.99 cent cinnamon rolls. (I would pay you $1 NOT to eat them!, I had joked.)

My roots are raw and exposed, my world is upside down.

I pull him all the way to me, into my very heartbeat.

And he starts weeping.

He doesn’t deny how I’m feeling. He doesn’t tell me it will all be okay. He stops mentioning God and the possibilities.

He just weeps with me.

We don’t talk anymore. I just hold his arm against me until all the emotions are gone and what remains is stillness. Peace.

Once all these emotions have been released, the truth that remains is that my father is Gone.

And I don’t have to be okay with that.

I’m not angry. Anger is just an emotion that covers a far deeper wound.

No, the anger is gone.

Now, all that’s left is love and pain. And it’s not wrong. It’s not a failure or a flaw. Sometimes, this is just the way that it is.

Sometimes, love just plain hurts. Sometimes life grinds cold Spahetti-os into the carpet, pulls out trees by their roots, and takes away the people that you love the most. And it gives zero shits about how you feel about any of it.

But there is also Peace to be felt in the middle of it.

But first, the pain has to find its way out. It cannot be numbed or ignored or medicated. It needs to be felt and acknowledged, directed and released.

The only way to Peace is through the Pain.

***

I woke up shortly after that, replaying the bits and pieces that I remember over and over. Dreams are often slippery suckers. But I think this one will stay with me for quite a well.

It felt like a chance to show my dad what I’m carrying with me through this life, now that he is gone. But also to assure him that I will be okay, as long as I have someone to hear my stories, as long as there is an outlet for the emotion to flow through me and settle elsewhere. It’s the bottling up that makes grief unbearable.

It felt like a space to catch my breath.

A moment to hold on with all I have.

A moment to decide to let it all go.

It felt like my chance to say good-bye.

When you are far away
I dream on the horizon
And words fail,
and, Yes, I know
that you are with me;
you, my moon, are here with me,
my sun, you are here with me,
with me, with me, with me.
 
Time to say goodbye
To countries I never
Saw and shared with you,
now, yes, I shall experience them.
I’ll go with you
On ships across seas
which, I know,
no, no, exist no longer.

with you I shall experience them again.
I’ll go with you

“Con Te Partiro” Lucio Quarantotto, as sung by Andrea Bocelli

On Rising Again: A Remembrance of Alyssa

Alyssa,

We were cousins who grew up states apart, seeing each other sometimes in the summer. You were two years older than me, always finding out things before I did. Always reaching milestones before me. We survived the traumatic hairstyles of the early 1990s, which inevitably led to us inhaling whole cans of Aquanet over the years.

True warriors, right?

But I didn’t know you like your family knew you. I only have a few memories that still remain sharp, even today.

Here is my favorite one.

In the summer of 2000, my friend and I were driving from Ohio to California, as a celebration of finishing high school. Our first stop was Minnetonka, MN, where we stayed with Grandma Bundy. Our second stop was Sioux Falls, SD, where you had just moved. My friend and I met you at the hair salon where you had just started working. Grinning from ear to ear, you greeted me like an old friend and insisted that we try out this burger place that you loved.

Over burgers and fries and sodas, we talked. You were 20 years old. I was 18. You seemed so much cooler, so much more grown-up than me. Your life was taking off, and it was exciting. You had an apartment of your own. A full-time job. You were the one calling the shots, and you reveled in your freedom.

While we sat there, a song came on that made you howl.

Yes, howl.

You threw your head back, laughing, saying, I LOVE THIS SONG! And right there in the middle of the restaurant, you belted it out, wiggling in your seat, arms and hips twisting in opposition.

I did not know the song. But you knew it word for word.

The best thing about being a woman
Is the prerogative to have a little fun and
Oh-OH-oh-oh, Go totally crazy, Forget I’m a lady
Men’s shirts, short skirts, Oh-OH-oh-oh,
Really go wild, yeah, Doin’ it in style, Oh-OH-oh-oh,
Get in the action, Feel the attraction, Color my hair, Do what I dare
Oh-OH-oh-oh
I want to be free yeah, to feel the way I feel
Man! I feel like a woman!

Young. Wild. Free.

I think that is how I will remember you best.

***

Although we didn’t really talk much over the years, I heard updates from my mom. You got a new job. You started a new business. You got married. You became a stepmom. Life was no longer Young and Wild and Free.

Yes, Life had taken off. But instead of riding a rocket to the stars, you found yourself navigating life in a hot air balloon. Fueled by your energy and drive to keep rising. Tethered by so many ropes. Carrying a basket holding all those you loved. You traveled a bit. Then, came back down. Then traveled more. Then, back down. Up and down. Over and over. Your will, the fuel that kept you going.

Did you ever have the chance to ride in a hot air balloon? It seems like it would be just the kind of adventure that you’d like.

Years ago, I went hot air ballooning on my honeymoon. There was a lot about the trip that surprised me, but the most surprising thing was this:

The pilot didn’t have a fixed landing site.

In fact, it was impossible to do so because the trajectory of the balloon shifts as the air currents change. At one altitude, the wind may take the balloon east. At a lower altitude, it may shift west. And so safely landing the balloon requires that the pilot be able to make adjustments and readjustments to the landing process, depending on the air currents and the landscape.

Is there a better metaphor for how many of us live life?

Hard to think of one.

You faced a lot of shifting currents as your life took off. Through the ups and downs, the surprises, the detours, and the unexpected mid-flight landings…

You kept rising.

For that is the true Measure of a Life.

It’s not about how high you rise or how far you travel.

It’s about how many times you get back off the ground.

And it’s about the people you carry and how much you lift them.

That’s what makes the loss of you difficult. You lifted so many others with you.

***

You shared memes on Facebook about raising teenagers. You seemed to be carrying a lot on your shoulders. One of the last memes that you shared was this:

That line haunts me.

We are almost there.

There.

***

How could any of us have seen this coming?

How could we imagine a future in which you died so suddenly?

Here one minute. Gone the next.

Your sister reminded us in her first post after your death that, Life is a vapor (James 4:14).

Yes. It truly is.

Even to live 80 years. A vapor.

In the millions of years that life has churned on and on and on.

A vapor.

And yet, what we do matters.

How we live our lives matters.

And when the atmosphere finally swallows the vapor that is our Life, this thing that we so painstakingly lived day after day, all the energy that we poured into our goals, getting up each morning, drinking the coffee, doing the things, making decisions, dealing with the outcomes of the decisions that we made and those that we didn’t, may we all have the perspective to hold to this Truth: All that we did mattered.

Every damn moment of it mattered.

But rest assured, no one does Life perfectly.

The true impact of our lives is measured in how we used that time. Whether we chose Love. Or not.

It’s measured by how often we chose forgiveness over grudges, mercy over vengeance, compassion over resentment, empathy over judgment, inclusion over exclusion, gratitude over envy, contentment over greed.

And so, Alyssa, when you lifted others with your sheer willpower, it mattered.

When you made space in your life for people you loved, it mattered.

When you listened to someone who was hurting, it mattered.

When you apologized for something that you had done wrong, it mattered.

And every time that you gave Love to someone, it mattered.

Love is the whole point.

It’s all that has ever mattered.

***

A final clear memory that I have of you happened during the summer when your family of six came to visit my family of seven. (How did we fit thirteen people in our tiny 1,000 square foot house? One of life’s great mysteries.) I think you may have been twelve. I can’t remember for sure.

One of the ways that we got everyone out of the house was a trip to Eastwood Lake, a fifteen-minute drive from our house.

We went canoeing.

And as a stepmom to teenagers, I’m sure you can appreciate the recollection of what happened next.

With the surface of the water so still, your father rested the oars against the sides of the canoe and closed his eyes.

Then, to the horror of my siblings, he started singing.

I’ve got peace, like a river

I’ve got peace, like a river

I’ve got peace like a river in my soul…

He didn’t have a bad voice. That wasn’t the issue. It was just Parents are so embarrassing. And what if other people hear him and look at us? What would we even do? Is he ever going to stop? How many verses are in this song?

But after it became clear that your dad was invested in this moment, you threw caution to the wind.

You sang with him.

I’ve got love like an ocean.

I’ve got love like an ocean.

I’ve got love like an ocean in my soul…

Looking back now, it was the right thing to do.

To be present and support those we love is always the right choice.

***

I believe in a God that sees through us, from top to bottom and beginning to end. I believe in a God who sees all our flaws, our mistakes, our failures, our weaknesses, and our sins. And knows the difference between them.

But I also believe in a God who sees our intentions, our motivations, our faith, our courage, all the things we’ve done right, all the love we gave, and all the goodness we shared.

And finally, I believe in a God that gathers us in and brings us Home.

May you rest forever in the spirit that you lived.

Rising again.

Young. Wild. Free.

Home.

***

If you’d like to help Alyssa’s family in their time of need, you can donate here.

Alyssa and her siblings: two younger brothers and her younger sister.
Some of the people you loved most: Your siblings. (2009)

5 Years

Dad and Sharon 1982

“I Will Be Blessed” by Ben Howard

 

Heaven is a place we hold.
Heaven is the arms that hold us
Long before we go
If you’re there
When the world comes to gather me in
I will be blessed

 

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