Blanket Forts

Blanket forts. The other day, I was remembering how much as kids, my siblings, our friends and I loved blanket forts. My mom had some old blankets she kept just for this purpose, and in the summertime especially, we’d take them outside along with a handful of Mom’s one-piece wooden clothespins. We’d secure one edge of the blanket against the top of the chain link fence, and hammer a few more clothespins through the bottom edge into the grass. Some days, between us and the neighborhood kids, we’d have a row of tents fastened against that fence.

We could spend hours running in and out of those forts, make-believing. Simple times.

It was my coworker, Jason who made me think about those forts. His work space is next to mine, and we both have stand-up work stations. He’s a highly intelligent, tech-minded, yet very creative person. Because we’re both often standing up near each other, we can’t help chatting. It usually begins with something work-related, but because he’s easy to talk to,  before we know it, the conversation topic has meandered along to something like blanket forts. It was the millionth time since February 1st, when my mom died, that I’d remembered how much simpler life used to be.

My fifth decade on this earth came along almost two years ago now and most of what I knew to expect is proving to be true. It’s harder to get a good night’s sleep. My body doesn’t want to retain the look it used to have, no matter how hard I work at it. But most often these days, I recognize that I’ve always had things a lot better than I thought I did at the time.

This has been a hard year, following a few challenging years. But that chapter is over now. Both of my parents are gone now, and I don’t care how old I am, it just doesn’t feel right that they’re gone. But day by day, I’m getting used to the new way of things. And with every passing year, I thank God more for giving me the life I’ve been lucky enough to live.

I feel the impact of Mom’s last days more severely than Dad’s, though. He had Mom to watch over him, and to reach out to one of us when needed. Because Dad left before she did, I had to hope that Mom was capable of reaching out to me herself when I wasn’t there for her. All of those days that I worried about Mom … that I wasn’t doing enough even though I was doing all that I could, they’re over now. I still so often expect the grip of anxiety to wrap itself around me before I remember that I can relax now.

The biggest thing? The most phenomenal, unexpected, unbelievable thing? Our family is healing. In those last most difficult days of Mom’s life, I was sure I was losing the last threads of our family bond along with losing my mom. I was certain we siblings would go our separate ways for the rest of our lives. But death has a way of changing so much. It opened my eyes. When I realized during that last week of her life that our mom was leaving us, all I wanted was to pull my siblings close. I thought they owed me an apology, but I found myself asking their forgiveness for contributing to the wedge that had formed between us.

I’m sure that if I were still in the midst of it all, I wouldn’t be able to see what I see now. But I now realize (cliché and lame as it might sound to anyone not standing where I am today,) that everyone has their own way of dealing with things. And no matter how much you think you know, you don’t know what other people’s lives are like. Anyway, now that it’s over, I just don’t care why it was the way it was anymore. I don’t need to think anymore about how alone and scared I felt back then. It’s over. Those pages have been turned.

Most of this year since Mom’s passing, I’ve been dealing with settling her estate. Mom made it easy for us. She had no debt, and most of her affairs were in order. The one hiccup was that there wasn’t a transfer-on-death deed for the townhouse. So most of the summer was spent working with an attorney and getting the appropriate forms filled out, but we got it done pretty easily. It just took time.

The house is now sold – to a dear friend’s mom, and I couldn’t be happier. My parents did what they’d always wanted to do. They left each of their kids with a little something to make life a bit easier. But more importantly, they left us with a life model we now strive to mirror in many ways.

Life moves on. I’ve spent the summer feeling phenomenally grateful to have been where I was, and to have arrived where I am. I walked a lot. Almost every morning, I left the house at 5 am, and many of those days, I walked a few miles, alone, along the trail that runs behind our house. I walked before the noise of daily traffic began to fill the air. I listened to the birds sing their beautiful songs and watched as the sun rose in the sky. The sun is incredible, by the way, when it rises on a warm summer morning. I took enough pictures of the sky the past few months to fill a book. It’s late in the season now and it’s too dark to feel safe going out alone, but those were beautiful days that gave me the chance to find some peace with everything that has happened.

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I feel a little bit older now, a little bit wiser. Would I want to do it all again? No. But would I do it all again? Yes. The thing about having come this far in life is that it allows me to look back and see the purpose in so many things, to realize how I’ve grown as a result, to see that we all have to suffer some unknowns in order to keep growing up. Fifty-some years and losing loved-ones has helped me learn how to be grateful.

My life is my own again, and yet I still miss my parents so much. But most of the time I can now see that it had become too difficult for them to face another day, take another breath, fight their failing bodies. My parents brought God into our lives every single day. There were times I resisted, but I’m now so thankful that they did. I’ve had time to learn to understand some of the ways of this life. I take comfort in knowing they are with Him now, living in peace without the chains of age and disease. I can’t be unhappy about that.

Like I said, life has moved on. Good things are happening in my little world, and I feel myself changing in positive ways. When I sat down this morning to write, I thought I’d write about that. But I think for now, I’ll leave it here … with memories of blanket forts.

Coming up to breathe

It’s hard to believe that over a month has gone by since Mom’s passing. It’s been a busy, as well as highly emotional time. Losing Mom has been such a different experience in so many ways than it was to lose Dad. I’ve at times felt that my sadness is much heavier, and so much more frequent. And maybe that’s because Mom and I were so close. Or maybe it’s the finality of knowing both of my parents are now gone.

My siblings and I continue to move forward together, recognizing that forgiving each other is sometimes a daily effort. We’re all doing our best to maintain a sense of humor.

I have a sense of peace this time that I didn’t feel after Dad passed away. My parents are together now, no longer having to deal with the sufferings of this world. They are surrounded by the many loved ones gone before them, not to mention … Mom’s beloved dogs!

The worries I’m left with this time are about things, not about a person left behind and how I might care for her. The to-do list, and the stresses this time … I can deal with them. There’s a handbook for the kinds of things I have to face this time, and when I don’t know what to do, I can easily find the answer.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been difficult. It often feels wrong to be dismantling my parents’ home, sorting the surroundings of their lives into keep-, donate- and sell-piles.

The first few weeks after the funeral were the hardest, especially as I walked out the doors after work. My mind so routinely took me straight to Mom’s house to pick her up, that there was always a split-second in which I’d forget that she’s not there anymore. And then the tears would roll. I still stop by her town house almost daily to pick up mail. Leaving her neighborhood without her in the passenger seat feels so strange, but I sometimes take that time alone in the car to talk to her as if she’s still there by my side.

There’s been a bit of guilt for the sense that I have my life back. I shouldn’t say it like that. It’s not that I had to give up my life in order to help care for my parents. But I often recognize now just how very limited I was, how many evenings and weekends I had to forgo other opportunities, either because I needed to take care of Mom, or just in case she needed me. It was like returning to the years of having young kids. Their needs came first, and my freedom was secondary.

And really? I wouldn’t change a thing. The entire process of first recognizing my parents needed help, how hard it must have been for them to ask, and then having to embrace the role of caregiver was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever experienced. It was often frustrating, scary, overwhelming and depressing. It was also very rewarding. Mom and I forged a close bond the likes of which I’d once thought we’d never have. I can only see now how much stronger I am because of it. If not for this experience, I’m not sure I’d have gained such an awareness of how challenging it is to grow sick and old, how sad and lonely it can be. I don’t know what I’m going to do with this awareness, but I certainly don’t want to simply put it out of my mind and do nothing.

Maybe after the dust has settled, I’ll figure it out.

Mom is gone

MomBut she’s not gone. She’s just no longer here. No longer in this world. No longer with me.

I spent last Friday with Mom in the emergency room. She had lost most of her ability to swallow any food or liquids. She was admitted to the hospital and after an endoscopy was performed the next day, we learned that the disease which has plagued her for years, Scleroderma was attacking yet another part of her body. Her lungs had been compromised years earlier. More recently, her stomach and bowels were affected. Now it was her esophagus. It had been damaged and there was no known way to fix it.

Days. Tests. Questions. Guilt for not realizing how dire things had become. Finally a decision. A feeding tube. The procedure took place on Tuesday.

I naively thought the feeding tube was the miracle answer that would give Mom a better quality of life. In my defense, that’s pretty much how it was presented to us. Even as the hospital staff began to use it, and I felt a little panic about learning to help Mom with it, I still thought we were going to turn the corner somehow.

Mom had a lot of pain after the procedure was done. All day and well into the night, I sat with Mom, unable to do anything to ease her pain. The best I could do  was to be there when she opened her eyes looking for some comfort. Wednesday was no better.

Early Thursday morning, a nurse from the hospital called me. Mom was struggling. Pneumonia may have been starting to take hold of her. I got there as soon as I could. It was 4:30 am. I asked the nurse if I needed to call my siblings and she said, “No. We’re not at that point.”

A couple of hours later, I decided to trust my own gut and I called them. Mom wasn’t entirely lucid and she was having a lot of conversations … but not with me. Her eyes kept looking upward to a corner of the ceiling as she spoke. Sometimes I could understand her words, sometimes not. At one point, she said something and then turned her eyes to me. She looked almost surprised to see me there. I asked, “What, Mom?”

“What suit am I in?” she said.

“What suit?” I asked.

“What suit am I in?” she repeated. This was a clear sign to me that Mom thought her time here on earth was coming to an end. She has periodically expressed concern that we dress her in a nice suit for her funeral. I told her, “No suit today, Mom.”

She said, “Oh. Okay.”

My sister and two brothers arrived quickly. The day was very long. Instead of improving as a result of the feeding tube, Mom was declining quickly. We called friends and relatives. We discussed hospice care. Mom continued speaking out loud to people we could not see. She had one foot in this world and one in the next. Her priest came to give her last rites.

Plans were made to move Mom to a beautiful hospice home where my father-in-law spent his last days a few years ago. But as it turns out, we didn’t need the hospice home. Mom was gone before the day was done.

She went quietly and peacefully, surrounded by her family. We were able to take some comfort in the fact that her long struggle was over.

As I now think back over the past few years, my parents’ decline, the loss of my dad, and the care Mom required over the past two years, I have so much regret. I exhibited such an enormous amount of angst and bitterness. I see how it nearly consumed me. And I realize now that it was such an enormous waste! It only served to hurt me, my mom and my family.

I regret that I threw away so much valuable time; gave it up to my hurt and helplessness.

I know that even if I could go back and relive these days, I probably could not change it, and that thought alone gives me some comfort. This world is exponentially more difficult to navigate than most of us will ever stop to think. As I struggled to get a handle on myself during the past couple of years, I looked in many directions for some answers about how to deal with this stage of life. I looked to God, church, books, friends, the internet … and yet, I could not shed the turmoil that wrapped itself around my mind and heart. I heard loud and clear many times that life is short, and so much that we make important is not. I heard that I would have regrets if I pushed away the people who should be most important to me. But I could not be helped. I think that the darkness that often permeated my existence during those days was an inevitable consequence of our circumstances. As did I, the members of my family each dealt with things in the only ways they knew how. It was not for me to understand then. But I think I do now.

My husband has been struggling with his health for about four months now. It’s been nothing life-threatening, but concerning, none the less. My responsibilities at work have increased. It has often felt lately that I’ve been losing my grip. It has seemed as if I was crumbling, inside and out. I cried out to God in anger recently. I said he should not have let me be born. I was doing such a miserable job of managing the life he’d given me and I wasn’t really sure I cared to have it anymore. I prayed for something to break, because I couldn’t take it anymore.

I was not asking for my Mom to be taken from this world. This is not what I was asking Him to do.

My mom’s last days opened my eyes. I hope that she had enough awareness to witness the forgiveness that occurred among her children. I hope she could see the way our divisions dissolved.

I myself cannot fully explain how, or why I have been able to forgive my brothers for what I perceived as their willing and deliberate absence from my mom’s life. I was certain that at whatever point Mom left us, I would sever all ties with my brothers. I had absolutely no doubt whatsoever. Now all I want to do is pull them close. I guess it’s just that now Mom is gone, I’m willing to shut the door on that phase of our lives. I was only able to survive these last days in large part due to my siblings’ presence. I forgive them.

Yesterday as we met at my parents’ church to plan Mom’s funeral mass, I forced myself to say some words to my two brothers and sister before we met with the priest. I told them that I regretted the way I’d let our parents’ needs defeat me over the past several years. I said I regretted the way I’d contributed to the divisions in our family. I said I was sorry, and that I wanted us to be a family. We four came together at that moment. I only wish that we could have made this happen sooner.

Going forward, I believe it will be easier to let each other just be who we are. I know that with Mom now gone from this world, and without such daunting responsibilities, it will be easier for me to lower my expectations of others.

I would like to think that Mom saw us finally pulling together, and this is what made her able to let go of this world and move on to the next. I often had the presence of mind to realize that my role in Mom’s life would serve some valuable purpose. And though I wanted to understand then, it was not until now that I could see it.

Growing up, Mom and I were like oil and water. I was her challenging child. She frustrated me and I never felt understood. My high school years were hell for both of us. It has only been through the growth we both experienced since my childhood years that we’ve learned to understand and accept one another. As I’ve often believed would be true at this point, I have no regrets about our relationship now that Mom is gone. Being able to play a role in her care allowed us to grow together. My love for her exploded during these last years, and she never failed to tell me how important I was to her and how much she loved and appreciated me.

I always thought it would be somewhat of a relief when I no longer had to wake up each day and worry about Mom. So many times, I wished for the freedom to live my life, and my life alone, to be free of the responsibilities that often felt like chains. Now? What I wouldn’t give to have one more day to take care of my beautiful mother.

Just Be Happy

My alarm clock pulled me from the most amazing dream yesterday. The dream was so incredible that I just laid in bed for a while thinking it over. I was trying to hold on to every detail and the beautiful feelings it gave before it all dissolved from memory as my dreams typically do. I don’t often remember dreaming at all, and when I do dream, I barely remember the specifics or make sense of the nonsense I do recall.

Even a day later, I’m still in awe of the whole experience, partially because waking up hasn’t been my favorite thing to do for quite some time now. I think even before my dad died last December, as my parents’ health began to deteriorate rather significantly, I’d begun to recognize I’d always enjoyed a certain sense of security in my life. I hadn’t even realized I was taking it for granted until it was suddenly gone. Since Dad’s been gone, it feels like so much has fallen apart. I worry constantly. My siblings feel so far away. I spend more time than ever with Mom, taking care of things for her or just providing a meal and some company. Every day, in the back of my mind, I wonder if she’ll go soon too. And I I’m not sure I’ll be able to deal with it.

Losing my best friend last month has only compounded my daily feelings of weariness.

Lately, I wake up frequently at night and have trouble falling back to sleep. Mornings have become a time when I wake up feeling heart-heavy and tired.  I almost always pull myself out of it pretty quickly, but typically have to spend some time talking myself into the idea that I can handle what awaits me in the next twenty-four hours.

But yesterday was different. The experience was more than just a good dream that helped me greet the day with an unexpected positive energy. I know it was. There was something incredibly significant about this dream.

In the dream, I was sitting in a room. It wasn’t a familiar room, but I didn’t seem concerned. I was sitting on a couch and suddenly noticed a picture hanging on the wall directly across from me. It was a photo of my best friend, Gina. I remembered all of the photos Gina’s family and I had sorted through as we prepared some photo displays for her memorial service, and I didn’t recall having seen this particular photo before. It was beautiful and I really liked it. It wasn’t a formal photo, but a snapshot. Gina’s eyes were turned toward the camera, but the posture of her body showed that she was facing someone else. Her lips were parted in such a way that I knew at the moment the photo was snapped, she was engaged in conversation. Her eyes were sparkling, and her whole face was smiling, almost laughing. Wherever the photo was taken, whatever event was happening at that time, she was clearly happy and enjoying herself. I even imagined there was a beer in her hand, just outside the frame of the picture.

As I sat contemplating the picture, Gina was suddenly in the room with me. Even in the dream, I knew she wasn’t physically there with me, and maybe I was even imagining it, but I didn’t care. She was sort of spinning around, almost dancing to some melody I couldn’t hear. Her head was tipped slightly back, her hair swirling over her shoulders as she moved around. She was simply joyful. In my dream, any thought of the cancer that had plagued her so relentlessly over the past years was nonexistent. Gina didn’t speak to me, but somehow I heard her telling me, “Just be happy.”

I remember thinking, “I have to tell Jenny about this.” (Jenny is Gina’s niece and her other best friend. We got to know each other well in the days following Gina’s passing as we helped the family with funeral arrangements.) Just as I began to text Jenny in my dream, my alarm clock went off and I was back in reality. And instead of my usual desire to sink back into a deep sleep, I laid in bed marveling over what I’d just experienced. I couldn’t help but feel that Gina had paid me a visit from Heaven, and she’d used my dream to tell me something very important.

Just be happy.

It seems almost too simple, but it dawned on me that Gina has a point. Sadness and worry have their place in this world, but it’s dangerous to let them take over at the expense of all else. While none of life’s problems are going to just disappear because I change my mindset, nothing can be improved by wallowing in self-pity. In fact, I’m certainly only making things feel worse by maintaining so much negative energy. This is not a new concept, and certainly something I think I’ve always tried to remember. Maybe I’ve just forgotten to keep fighting for it lately.

Gina’s visit has reminded me that I need to really strive to appreciate every little good thing. And she’s left me with a sense of peace that I haven’t felt in such a long time. I feel so incredibly fortunate to have received such a gift from her. I know I’ll never stop missing her, but now I really understand that she never truly left me and she will always be such an important part of my life.

Just be happy. Okay, Chica. I’ll do my best!

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In memory of my Chica

Gina and I met back in ’88 or ’89. I’m not exactly sure. I just remember that the definitive start to our friendship began while we were both in the midst of our first pregnancies. So I guess late 1988 would have been where it all began.

I was newly married and 21 years old. She was my brother’s friend’s girlfriend, 19 years old, and a total spit-fire. I, having always been somewhat shy and insecure, was instantly attracted to her confidence and zest for life.  She was young, unmarried and pregnant. At that time in my life, I couldn’t imagine being in her shoes. But she was unapologetic and marched forward in life doing all she could to make a good life for the baby girl who soon arrived … and the four other babies who followed in the years to come. And she did a great job of it.

We fumbled our way through parenting in those early days. In addition to figuring out how to be good moms, we both had our share of struggles with financial issues, home-ownership, marriage, and all of the stuff that life throws at us. What stands out most about my friendship with Gina is that she helped me view life through a lens of humor. She seemed to know instinctively that if we couldn’t laugh at ourselves, we’d run the risk of letting life swallow us up, and she was having none of that.

As we grew older and began to find our footing, we settled into our own life routines. We shared it all with one another, often over the lines of a telephone. For so many years, not a day would go by without one of us calling the other. And even though we were in touch daily, hours could pass easily as the constant flow of conversation passed between us.

Our lives shared similarities, and yet had enough differences to help us appreciate one another. We both made livings as home daycare providers for many years, and so supported one another with ideas for keeping kids productively busy, and provided therapy for the inevitable frustrations of dealing with a house full of children all day, every day. We shared parenting successes and failures, relationship issues, family frustrations, and all the day-to-day stuff that kept life interesting.

I honestly still can’t say what it was that attracted her to me. But I was initially drawn to her wicked sense of humor. Once when we were discussing how neither of us thought we could stand one more game of Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders, she began proposing names for potential similar adult versions of all these early childhood games. Soon we were tossing inappropriate game names back and forth, things that I dare not put in writing. And all I can say is that we were laughing until we couldn’t breathe. That’s what I loved about her.

I loved that she could do anything. Her parents divorced when she was young. She lived with her mom, and had all of the “stuff” a kid could want. But it doesn’t sound like her parents were involved with her very much. So I don’t know how or where she gained some of her domestic talents, but she had them! The girl could sew like nobody’s business. During her early years of marriage, money was tight. She sewed clothes for her kids, window curtains and valances, bedding, and made pageant dresses for her girls that looked like a million bucks. She was Italian and loved to cook, and she did it well. There was no home project she couldn’t figure out how to do on her own, whether it was construction, painting, tiling or landscaping.

She coached her kids’ sports teams and was always involved, if not as a coach, then on the athletic association’s board, or with the booster club.

She was a talented photographer. She loved photography and taught herself all the ins-and-outs and tried to share some of her knowledge with me, though I could never quite remember all of the right settings for different levels of light. But oh, the fun we had going out on what we called our photo excursions. We loved to go downtown, or to sprawling parks and capture everything we saw with our cameras. She eventually earned her living as a photographer, and the proof of her talents fills the homes of so many, including mine. She was always on the “taking” end of the camera, and I only regret that this meant there are far too few pictures of the two of us together.

As our kids grew older, leaving us time to explore hobbies of our own, she discovered bowling. She called me one day and asked if I would fill in as a sub on her team. I remember saying, “Oh, I don’t bowl. I’ve probably done it five times ever in my life.”

“That’s okay,” she said. “I’ll help you. You don’t even need your own ball. You can use a house ball and rent shoes. You don’t have to be good. We just need a body.”

Well, the pressure was off and the rest is history. It wasn’t long before bowling became one of my pursuits and we shared many fun nights in the women’s league, laughing, improving our games, and drinking beers.

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The years passed by … some good times, some bad … but we hung on to each other and at some point along the way, we decided we were best friends. Our kids grew up. We spent time together along the way, usually helping each other with life stuff, like painting rooms or making food for high school graduation parties. We made time to have fun together with our husbands on the weekends, and even celebrated some holidays together. Our kids came to think of each of us as family, and I was given the honor of being godmother to Gina’s son. Not so many years ago, I helped her family pack for a move that took them out-of-state and hours away from me. It was such a sad and difficult day when they drove away from here, but the miles couldn’t keep us from remaining the best of friends. Our phone calls were filled with affection, calling each other Chica, as had become our habit, and ending our conversations with “I love ya, man!”

Within a year after her move away from me, Gina was diagnosed with cancer, one of the most aggressive, horrible forms of the disease.  Within days of her discovery of a lump in her breast, she had undergone a double mastectomy. She fought it and bounced back, but within a couple of years, the cancer had returned. She continued to fight and I prayed. I prayed, and prayed and prayed. Lately, I wasn’t reluctant in my prayers. I outright begged for a miracle.

On Memorial Day weekend, Gina’s husband, Jeff reached out to me and we talked. He explained that the cancer was winning. I had been wanting to go out and visit, but had not been able to fully work it out with Gina. Jeff told me she was never going to agree to have me come see her at this point because she would want to make the house perfect and ready for my visit. And she couldn’t do that herself because she was getting too weak and sick to do it. He told me if I wanted to come, I should come now. He said to pick the dates, any dates. He would make it easy for me. So we planned it and in mid-July I spent four wonderful days with her. Over the past few years when she would come “home” for a visit, my time with her usually had to be shared with others. She had so many friends and so much family that when she was here, everyone wanted some of her time. So one-on-one time wasn’t much of an option. Going there gave me that time with just her that we had been lacking for too long.

She had been having some really good days just before I visited. I was encouraged and told my mom so. Mom mentioned that when a terminally ill person has some really good days, it usually means the end is near. I was appalled that she would say such a thing to me, but I realize now she was right.

Gina and I had some beautiful days together. She was never able to leave the house, but she sat on the loveseat in the living room where she was basically spending all of her waking and sleeping hours by then. We talked a lot. She slept a lot. We watched movies. Actually, we watched “a” movie – Miracles from Heaven – multiple times. She had requested it and I picked it up at a nearby Red Box. I watched it again and again. Because she couldn’t stay awake for many hours at a time, she never quite made it all the way through the movie. I contemplated the real-life miracle of which the movie told, and asked God if a real-life miracle might be possible for Gina. But it wasn’t to be.

I passed the time while she was resting or sleeping by cooking meals for her family and for us, or taking short walks or reading while I waited for her to awaken. We cried when we hugged and had to say goodbye. I told her I loved her and she told me the same.

Last week, her family flew here to spend a week and to celebrate her son’s high school graduation with family and friends. They stayed with her oldest daughter who still lives here in Minnesota. I visited on Friday evening, the day before the party, and spent a couple of hours with her. I held her two grandbabies and talked with her family while I watched her sit quietly in a wheelchair, clearly struggling. She wasn’t feeling so great, and her husband told me she’d been having some difficult days. He worried that he’d waited too long to bring her here, but she had insisted on the timing and he hadn’t wanted to panic her by pushing to do this sooner than she wanted.

Saturday morning, the day of the party, Jeff called me very early. He said they were in the hospital. She had gone into distress during the night and he could not adjust her oxygen to the point where he could calm her again, so he’d called for an ambulance. I hurried to the downtown hospital just as quickly as I could get there, and spent the next eleven hours by her side as she struggled to breathe and find relief from her pain. I was honored to spend this time with them as she traveled this difficult road, and was allowed to be included in all of the conversations with doctors and specialists. It soon was made clear that there was no fixing this. All that could be done was to try to make her as comfortable as possible until the end came. Gina would not be going back to her home in Ohio with her family.

Jeff and I passed the hours by her side while the graduation party went on without us. We tried to make her as comfortable as possible, and he checked in frequently with the staff to see what more could be done. Gina maintained her sense of humor through it all. Even as we could see that her mind was partly in this world and partly in another, her true self came shining through at times. As one nurse asked if it was okay to do something for her, she raised her eyes and weakly responded, “You’re killin’ me, Smalls!”

At one point, she looked wearily at me and teased, “You need to quit crying already.” Somehow I agreed and managed, if only from the sheer weariness of having been doing so much crying.

As night fell, Jeff kept asking me if I was sure I was okay. And didn’t I want to go home? I did and I didn’t.

Eventually, Jeff called his kids to come see their mom. I needed to check on my own mom and also knew that in the ICU, the hospital staff would probably appreciate if visitors were kept to a minimum. Part of me wanted to see my friend through to the very end, and part of me felt I should step aside and let her family have that time alone with her. Around 9 pm, I kissed her goodbye and hugged Jeff. I told him to call me at any time.

I went home and fell into an exhausting sleep. I woke up before the sun and began to dread his call, which came not long afterwards. He told me that the doses of morphine had begun to be administered hourly, while she struggled to make it through each hour before needing more. She had been able to spend some time talking with her dad, sisters and children before things grew to their worst. He said eventually, she settled down after yet another dose of morphine. Her breathing grew shallow and at some point in the predawn hours, she simply stopped taking another breath. My Chica left this world peacefully.

This hurts more than I could have imagined. I have guilt that I didn’t find a way to spend more time with her in these past couple of years, but am encouraged by those who found their way into her heart in her new home in Ohio. There were a few who took such good care of her and did the things for her that I wish I could have. I am so grateful to Jeff for making sure she and I were connected during her last days. He and I talked about how maybe this was all meant to play out as it did. So many decisions remained undecided about where to hold services and where to bury her if it all came to that. He said that maybe she was only waiting to be here, amongst the majority of her friends and family before she departed from this world.

Even in the midst of the pain I feel in losing her, I am grateful. Grateful that she is free from the pain and struggle. Grateful to have had a friend who loved me so much, who looked past my many flaws and insisted only on seeing the good in me. Grateful to have someone who stood by my side and lifted me up during times when I felt utterly alone. Grateful to have had someone who helped me see the world as bright, beautiful, fun and adventurous.

As Faceb00k was filled yesterday with tributes to her, I realized the significant impact she had on so many. Her friendships spread far and wide, and her influence on everyone was so similar and postive. She will forever be remembered for her humor, her adventure, and her many and varied creative talents. She was a friend, a willing listener and a source of encouragement to everyone. Her talents as a photographer beautifully captured the most emotional and important times in the lives of others. I only hope that in the void left in the wake of her passing, I can take on a part of her and share all the good that she was with the world around me.

Gina, I will love you always and look forward to the day that we meet again in Heaven. You will be deeply missed, my dearest and best friend. Thank you for being a part of my life.

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Calmed

This long weekend has been good for me. It’s provided me some breathing room, and the realization that I have been neglecting to keep a positive focus. That is something I’ve been purposefully striving for over the past few years. I remember when I first realized that it’s possible to remain hopeful even in the midst of storms.

How easy it is to slip back to old habits. I hadn’t even realized how fretting and worrying had overtaken me lately.

But like I said, maybe a break in routine is all I needed.

Jack and I were able to go to the ball game with our friends Friday night. It had been raining all day, and the rain continued as we drove to the field. If the weather didn’t break, we were just going to find a restaurant downtown and have dinner. But the clouds parted and it ended up being a perfect night for baseball.

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St. Paul Saints games are SO much fun! We had great seats, behind home plate with a clear view of the game. We enjoyed silly fan events held on-field between innings. And the “cheerleaders” in the form of a nerd couple who danced on top of the dugouts kept us laughing and cheering the whole time.  The post-game fireworks, choreographed to commercial jingles were the perfect ending to such an enjoyable night.

Saturday morning arrived with more rain, the perfect day to be stuck in the house painting walls. I called Mom before we dove into our project and was relieved to hear she was finally feeling much better.

Jack and I got started and we made a great team. I did all the taping, while he edged along the ceilings and then the baseboard that I had protected with blue masking tape. While he continued with the detail work, I followed behind with the roller. When those first patches of sage and caramel hues hit the walls, I wondered if we’d made the right choice, but by Saturday evening when we were almost done, we were really pleased with the results.

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It’s hard to take pictures of walls, so this photo doesn’t do it justice, but there is definitely a new vibe of serenity in the living room.

Yesterday, I had plans to go with my Mom and my siblings to visit my Dad’s grave. While waiting for my brothers to arrive, I received a message from my best friend’s husband that I should call him. My heart sunk. My friend has been battling cancer and it’s not been going in her favor. When I called, her husband told me that he was aware she has not been communicating much with her friends, and basically, while he did not feel anything was immediately imminent, I might want to plan a trip to see her sooner rather than later. My mind reeled. How phenomenally difficult it must be for that poor man to have to make that call and to have that conversation with his wife’s friends. Yet he was calm and detailed. Clearly, he has reached some level of acceptance.

IMG_4229aAs I stood quietly with my family around  my dad’s grave yesterday, I tried to process all of the pain and struggle I see happening all around me, not just in the world in general, but too close to home these days, in the lives of family and friends. So often lately, I think of the world as a dirty, ugly, dark place. It’s so easy to feel lost, and it’s hard to keep moving forward with a hopeful spirit. But at the same time, I realize that I have to, that the whole point is to find the joy in spite of all the chaos that surrounds us. Otherwise, what is the point?

Difficult as it may be at times, even if it feels like I’m just sometimes just going through the motions, I’m moving forward … with prayer, hope and optimism.

No More Purple Rain

During my senior year of high school, my bedroom walls were plastered with posters, photos, and anything reminiscent of Prince.

For as long as I can remember, music had always been a staple of my life. Elvis was probably my first love. Mom had the G.I. Blues album and I remember watching it spin on the record player in the living room while all of us kids danced. Even my youngest brother, who wasn’t quite walking yet, held himself up against the coffee table and bounced his tiny body up and down to the sounds of Blue Suede Shoes.

I had a young aunt who took my sister and me to concerts at the state fair during our childhood summers. Among others I fail to remember, we saw the Captain and Tennille, and Mac Davis. I was always fascinated by those with musical talents. I daydreamed about making a living as a singer. Too bad I could never really sing, and gave up that fantasy long before I hit my teenage years.

By the time I was five years old, I had claimed Donny Osmond as my future husband. (Clearly, he didn’t get the memo.) In later years, I gave my heart to Shaun Cassidy and then Rick Springfield. But my allegiance to “bubble gum” pop began to fade around the sixth grade, when Queen came out with The Game.

I’m not sure what it was that drew me to Prince. He didn’t elicit that dreamy attraction I’d felt for some of my former music idols. He was strange. Flamboyant. He had this weird thing for the color purple. (Also, he was extremely short. At five foot nine by my high school years, Prince’s height put him out of the running as future husband material.)

His music boasted a crazy mix of energy, sexuality and spirituality. He was radical and bold, and he didn’t meet the music world’s typical standards. But he didn’t care what anyone thought. Whether his music and movies brought raging success or phenomenal failure, he continued to produce the art he so loved. You often got the sense that though he shared it with the world, he didn’t do it for the world, but simply because it was what inspired and drove him.

I remember Mom shaking her head at my bedroom wall tribute to Prince. When I played his albums, she’d warn, “If I hear one dirty lyric…”

Some of his lyrics were dirty. But lucky for me and for Mom, his style was so new and unique that we didn’t always know for certain what he was singing about.

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I still have the albums!

I remember going to see the movie Purple Rain for the first of many times. When the movie ended, people in the theater actually began to applaud and cheer. So weird! There was no one actually there to receive our applause, but I found myself joining in. I think that’s when I first realized that Prince was something really big.

Over the years, my fanaticism for Prince faded, but like many, I’ve maintained a sincere appreciation. When I first heard the news that he’d died, I was surprised that the sinking feeling in my heart was tangible. While others around me speculated with morbid fascination, I felt a quieting sense of loss. I imagine this is what my mom must have felt in the summer between my fourth and fifth grade years, when Elvis died. When a person’s impact moves you that much, you can’t help but hurt when they’re gone.

Something felt so off. I hadn’t given much thought to Prince in years, so what was it that made this tragedy weigh on me so much? For a person I never even actually knew?

Maybe it was because he was one of Minnesota’s own. Maybe it was because he had given so much to the Minneapolis community in such quiet ways. Or was it because he inspired loyalty by staying here, in the place where he’d grown up, instead of moving away to places where the rich and famous tend to dwell? Maybe it was because as much as we all thought we knew about him, he’d remained such a mystery to the world.

Probably it was because his music formed the soundtrack for my coming of age.

The local news these past few days has been saturated with stories of Prince. Not just his passing, but all of the ways he positively impacted people here in Minnesota and around the world. Although I certainly live close enough, I didn’t join the masses who have gathered the past few nights at First Avenue  to celebrate Prince’s life with all night dance parties. That wouldn’t be my style. And besides, I’d have to stay up past my bedtime. But I love hearing the stories of what’s happening as people come together to mourn and honor him. With nine shootings in just four days in the neighboring city of St. Paul this month, it’s comforting to hear that Prince’s passing is creating harmony and love among people of all generations, social status and races. Can’t we all use just a little more of that?

I imagine he was a hero to many, and a sinner in the eyes of many others. There’s speculation that drugs may have been the cause of his unexpected death, and that would be a shame. But every one of us here on earth is broken in some way. And all we can do is try to rise above it as much as possible by offering something good. Prince did that so well. And like so many, I still can’t help but contemplate his amazing life. I think what I admire most is that he did his thing, unapologetically. He didn’t wait until he felt ready. He didn’t wait for approval. He just did it and kept doing it. Maybe his message contained some darkness. But there’s no denying it was largely about love and harmony. He made us think deeper. He changed more than one generation. He made us break out of our self-imposed shells just a little bit. He showed me that it’s possible to not fit the mold, and yet … achieve greatness.

I know I’m not saying anything new here. But I join the masses in admitting that I feel his loss and he will be sadly missed. Rest in peace, Prince.

 

Unexpectedly Extended Weekend

The temperatures have been frigid around here again this week. The arctic cold held on through the weekend, but at least the sun was out in all its splendor on Saturday. It was blindingly bright, and even if it did nothing to warm the air, it felt good to be rid of the gray overcast for a change.

We ordered the headstone for my dad’s grave site on Saturday. Mom chose a nice, moderately sized marker. It’s going to be made from a stone called Lake Superior Green. We all agreed that this particular stone was the perfect choice for Dad, having been such a lover of lakes and the outdoors. Mom is having a special symbol engraved on the stone, the one that represents Dad’s diaconate class. The main image is a cross and there’s a robed figure kneeling at the foot. Mom also chose to include the title of which Dad was so proud, Deacon. Dad would approve. His burial place will be clearly marked by Memorial Day. And since the cemetery is so near where I work, I can imagine I’ll have lots of opportunity to go visit when the weather is more accommodating.

Our visit to the cemetery was much easier this time around than last, when our grief was so fresh. As my family and I contemplated how we would customize the stone, we perused the multitude of options for memorializing a loved one. One that caught our attention was a vault made in the shape of an upright piano. That got my brothers going, and they tossed around comments such as, Mine’s going to be a bass boat, or We’re making yours in the shape of a toilet. Yep, as much as they can frustrate me, I have to admit they can also make me laugh.

Mom had been complaining for a few days that her skin hurts. Friday night, she showed me a slight rash on her left arm and asked what I thought it was. It looked like eczema to me and I gave her some cortisone cream. Saturday morning, I woke up thinking, shingles. After a quick internet search, I felt positive that was it. So after our visit to the cemetery, I took Mom to urgent care where the doctor confirmed she most definitely has shingles.

I made a trip to Walgreen’s afterwards to pick up Mom’s prescriptions. While there, I couldn’t help but notice the middle aisles of the store were obnoxiously boasting Valentine’s Day decor and products. We don’t sucked into the hype, but I did pick up a nice card for Jack, and couldn’t resist a heart-shaped box of chocolates for him with a cover that looked like duct-tape. He gave me a silly card and a couple of bags of Dove chocolates, which I’ll likely take to work to share so I don’t eat them all myself.

It’s Presidents’ Day today. Some lucky people are enjoying a day off from work in honor of the holiday. I’m off work today too, but I wouldn’t say I’m enjoying it. I stayed home sick.

I woke up with something coming on yesterday morning. Jack was up at six, getting ready to go to work. Before he left, he leaned over the bed to kiss me goodbye. In the dark of our bedroom, his lips landed on my forehead and he remarked, “You’re burning up.”

img_3956He was right. I knew because I couldn’t get warm, even under a mountain of blankets. I’ve had a weirdly episodic progression of cold symptoms the past few weeks, feeling miserable and sinsus-y one day, and fine the next. It seems to have all come to a head now.  I guess my body was telling me to give it a rest. All day long yesterday, I dealt with aches and chills and that worn-out feeling that accompanies illness. My sweet Lucy suspected something was up. I spent most of the day in bed and she never left my side. What a love! Although, it was a bit much at the point when she literally laid on top of me. I nudged all fifty pounds of her off of me, and she plastered herself against my side instead. I’m feeling somewhat better today, just not enough to go back to work. I’m sure my coworkers will appreciate me keeping my germs at home anyway.

Grief in Stages

During the earlier half of this past week, I realized I had been really struggling emotionally for a while. And it wasn’t just because the January skies have been so gray and the air so cold, or the fact that daylight takes so long to arrive and darkness falls again so quickly this time of year. I couldn’t seem to shake that same old, same old feeling. And worse, I was constantly battling off feelings of anger and resentment, and not doing a very good job, I might add. As someone who feels she’s made great strides over the past few years to keep a positive mindset, it was almost scary to realize how deeply dark I was feeling inside. I wasn’t liking myself very much, and I was certain others were seeing a side of me I’d prefer they didn’t, though my closest friends kindly assured me that wasn’t so.

Logically, I know the reasons behind my feelings. I’ve been spending a lot of time with my mom. And that in itself is not the problem. I’m not complaining about the amount of time we spend together. In fact, I supremely enjoy it. Since my dad passed away seven weeks ago, my relationship with Mom has deepened and evolved in beautiful ways. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But I’m fully aware that there’s not a great amount of balance in this area of my life.

I often find myself dropping everything for Mom’s needs, even when I know she would understand if I said, “Yes, I can do this but not until I take care of that.”  She would be perfectly willing to compromise if I said, “I can’t do it today, but how about tomorrow?” She’s not demanding or selfish. She’s aware that her needs are greater since Dad has been gone, but she doesn’t expect me to be at her beck and call. I guess I’m doing what I do because most of the time I know that if Mom has a need and I don’t take care of it, no one else might. But I might also admit that deep down, I get a great sense of satisfaction in being the person on whom Mom can really depend.

So it’s really just me creating my own problems.

To be fair, my sister is in this with me. But she still has kids at home, with busy lives and activities, and the problems that accompany that stage of life. It’s harder for her to be there for Mom than it is for me, the person with an empty nest. It’s my two brothers with whom I’m so frustrated. After Dad passed away, I thought things would change. There was a lot of love and togetherness in the days following Dad’s death. But in the past few weeks, we’ve gone back to the old normal. My brothers’ lives are apparently just too busy for them to commit to seeing or helping Mom on any regular kind of basis, or even call regularly. I don’t expect them to be able to be there as often as I am able. But it bothers me that Mom sits all alone in her house all day long, with little company but the dog, and my brothers can’t seem to carve out a bit of time for her. Worse is that she openly admitted that she doesn’t hear from or see them as often as she’d like. She told me she misses them, and it hurts to hear her admit that she feels neglected by some of her kids.

Mom can manage hanging around the house on her own, but her health prevents her from getting out without assistance most of the time. She doesn’t have the stamina to do regular cleaning, grocery shopping or any real cooking. Someone has to do those things for her. My sister and I are doing a juggling act in managing the upkeep, as well as making sure Mom has a decent meal every night of the week. I’m grateful for my niece who goes almost every Tuesday to make dinner and eat with Mom. Still, I’m at Mom’s or having her over to my house a minimum of four days a week. Meanwhile, my to-do list continues to grow and be neglected.

I’m trying desperately to remember my resolve not to be so unforgiving, and to know that not everyone sees this situation in the same light. I keep reminding myself that I can’t hold everyone else to my standards, and that I don’t truly know what it’s like to walk in my brothers’ shoes. I guess it’s just that once in awhile, when Mom needs someone, it would be nice if I thought I could lean on someone else to step in. Oh, I can ask. But experience tells me that such a request is likely to be met with a sort of disdainful disbelief that I would even ask. The sense is that their lives are just so much more overwhelming than mine.

And to top it all off, the most disconcerting thing happened when I woke up one morning last week feeling angry at my dad. Who gets angry at a dead person? Well, apparently it’s a very common and normal stage of the grieving process, but that doesn’t make it any easier to admit I was having those feelings.

I think it stemmed from the fact that my parents were scheduled to move into an assisted living facility in December. The move was planned because after Dad broke his hip last year, his health and care needs upon returning home were greater than Mom or the rest of us could accommodate without professional help. My dad was adamantly opposed to the move, insisting he and Mom could manage fine on their own, even though it was obvious to the rest of us that he was fooling himself. And when he passed away one day prior to moving day, everyone sort of joked about how Dad had made sure he didn’t have to go to that damn apartment.

Mom immediately decided she just couldn’t make the move in the aftermath of Dad’s death. She wanted to stay in their town house. She said she only wanted to move in the first place because she needed to be where she could have help caring for Dad’s needs. In the midst of my fresh and raw grief, I agreed that this was the right decision for Mom. But as we’ve settled into our new normal, I find myself wishing she’d had a chance to move before Dad passed away. If things were different, she’d have had the opportunity to get settled and familiar, and make new friends before Dad left us. And these cold, dark days might not be so lonely if she were in a community where she could be with others her age, with daily social activities, and where three square meals a day are guaranteed when one of us couldn’t be with her.

I guess I was blaming Dad for taking away those opportunities that might have made all of this a bit easier.

I spent a day carrying around that confusing anger at my dad. I was angry even though I knew that my feelings had to do with Dad’s human nature, and that since he passed away, I believe he’s shed all of the ugly facets so common to our humanity.

The next morning, when I couldn’t take being down any longer, I had a good cry and asked God what I was supposed to do with all of this darkness. I soon realized that’s all I needed to do. I needed to give it up. It wasn’t something for which there was a black and white answer, and it wasn’t in my power to fix it.

It’s amazing how quickly my heart and mind settled after that. Nothing externally had changed, but I was reminded to just take each day as it comes, to stop worrying about tomorrow, and the next day and next month. I remembered to stop obsessing about what others were doing, or not doing, or what I assumed they were thinking or not thinking.

It occurred to me how long religion and spirituality were such a question mark in my life. And I realized what a gift it has been that my desire to have a greater understanding of God has resulted in a serious deepening of my faith in the past few years. This is what is carrying me through right now.

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A day after letting go, I was invited to go out for happy hour after work with a bunch of coworkers. It just so happened that this particular day left me free of responsibilities to Mom. My sister had it covered. But I left home that morning thinking I’d pass on going out after work. I had a lot of things to do, and though happy hour might be more fun, I really needed to catch my breath at home.

When I shared these thoughts with my closest coworkers, the ones who know my life inside and out, I was sternly and playfully informed, “Not acceptable. You need this and you’re going with us.”

That’s all it took. I was in and haven’t regretted it for a minute. I got to spend some down-time with good friends and coworkers. We laughed and had really great, deep conversations. There was no worry or resentment hovering around me and I remembered how good it is to lean on those around me sometimes to create a better balance.

And it helps to have done a little research on the stages of grief. It seems I’m experiencing a mix of several of them all at once, but knowing it’s all normal and part of the process, and that I’m growing in positive ways as a result makes it easier to keep moving forward.

Writer’s Cramp

The appeal of my self-proclaimed quiet New Year’s weekend is starting to wear off. I could use some fun! Hopefully that will happen before Monday comes around again and life goes back to the usual routine.

I went into this weekend with plans to catch up and catch my breath at home after a whirlwind past few weeks. Having Dad’s funeral on December 14th, and then Christmas less than two weeks later made life feel even more crazed than it usually already is during the holiday season. Add to that, frequently checking in on Mom’s well-being, and helping finalize all the little details and paperwork that follow a person’s death, and I needed some down time.

Besides, Jack had to work right through the holiday, so our lack of celebratory plans was less of a choice than a necessity in accommodating his work schedule. And anyway, I asked around and it seems most everyone we know was planning a quiet night at home. We weren’t missing out on anything. We must be reaching that age.

There were a lot of things I planned to accomplish this quiet weekend, including putting Christmas decorations away. I wasn’t really feeling Christmas-y when they were brought out. Mostly, the decorating was done out of a sense of obligation, since it was my turn to host the family Christmas Eve celebration. Maybe next December we’ll be able to decorate with a bit more enthusiasm.

Another weekend goal is yet to bake THE cookies. My fifteen year-old nephew has been asking since Thanksgiving if I would be baking the cookies. It took a bit to figure out he’d decided the sugar cookie cut-outs that I make at Christmas time were the cookies. These are made from Jack’s grandmother’s recipe. They have a lot of butter, and I have to admit, they are good! I add the extra touch of frosting them. Actually, Chesney usually does that part. And hence was born the cookie.

Unfortunately for my nephew, cookie baking fell off the priority list at Christmas time. But I thought I might still make some and surprise him with a batch this weekend. If I manage to accomplish any baking, I’ll skip the Santa and stocking cookie cutters and just use the snowflake one. We’ll call them New Year’s cookies!

The number-one priority though, was thank-you notes. With Christmas happening so soon after Dad’s funeral, the thank you notes for all of the donations and flowers given were still waiting to be written. There was an evening last week when I might have gotten started, and dang it if I didn’t fall asleep in a living room chair that night! (I’ll blame this sinus cold I’m currently fighting.)

I took responsibility for writing about forty notes to all of those connected to me who gave something in honor of Dad’s passing. This included Jack’s and my neighbors, friends, coworkers and my in-laws. The notes we ordered have a pre-printed message in them, but I thought it was appropriate to add a personal note as well. I spent all late-morning and afternoon yesterday writing those, and when I ran out of notes, I took myself over to Mom’s to get some more and finish up my list. Then I started in on the portion of notes that were Mom’s responsibility. There were a lot more. Dad, having been a deacon for twenty-one years, participating in marriage, baptismal and funeral celebrations, touched a lot of lives.

One of Mom’s many afflictions caused by her health conditions is circulatory problems in her digits. Mom’s fingers are often inflamed, infected and usually painful. She managed to write three notes before she had to call it quits. I took the rest. And can I just say that it’s been a long time since I’ve done so much writing the old-fashioned way? The callous has returned to the side of my right middle finger, the one that was always there during my school days. I have a bad habit of squeezing the pen really hard when I write.

I finished up about eleven o’clock last night, and except for a few stragglers which need addresses researched, the job is pretty much done!

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If Christmas gets put away, if cookies get baked, if the spare bedroom gets cleaned … that will be a bonus! At least those thank you notes are done, and just barely inside the timeframe that funeral etiquette says is appropriate.

It feels like life is taking a turn back towards normal again, and I’m grateful.