Ten years ago today, I got the call. The call I’d been dreading. The call from my dad to tell me that my mom was dead. I was in my car, in line to drop my #1 son at school. He was still in the car, but I answered the phone because it was my dad calling. Trying to respond to him while cloaking my words in a way as to not upset my 6-year-old was hard. Living the last 10 years without my mom has been even harder.
I’ve written much about my sweet mama and how much I miss her. I’m not sure that there are new ways to say, I’m sad. I miss her. I feel lost sometimes. I worry that I don’t do enough to keep her memory alive. I can’t believe she’s gone. I don’t want to live the rest of my life without her. I’m afraid I don’t mother my kids as well as she mothered me. I’m totally pissed that she’s gone. I was robbed. She was robbed. It still hurts, a lot. It’s better, but it still hurts.
I miss her. So much.
I’ve been torn today, between wallowing in the sadness and doing the kinds of things she respected. Between feeling sorry for myself and being productive. Between having a shitty day and “walking on the sunny side of the street” (the latter was how she bid me farewell every day when I left for school when I was little). How can I walk on the sunny side of the street when the sunshine is gone?
Cancer steals so much. All the time. Every day. This I know for sure.
A couple of days ago I smacked my head upon this truth and watched helplessly as my dear friend experienced this for himself. His dad died from cancer a decade ago. Ten years, yet the grief was as raw as can be, the loss as crushing as it was a decade ago.
His dad was a handy guy who could fix anything. He made a good living — and supported four kids — with his hands. My friend learned from his dad and is handy too. Although his livelihood isn’t manual, he can fix anything, like his dad. He just doesn’t always believe it until it’s done.
My friend was fixing the spring on our gate (one of the many things he’s helped with around our house). The spring on the outside of the gate had lost some of its tension, and the screws holding it in place had wriggled loose after seven years of use. How many hundreds of times has that gate banged shut as my busy little family comes and goes? When we were building our pool, the gate and the fence came down, to be replaced by temporary, orange plastic fencing (seen behind the slabs of flagstone) that couldn’t contain my dogs. My then 7-year-old chased the escaped dogs across a very busy street, unaccompanied, but that’s a story for another day.
In the process of repairing the spring on the gate, my friend broke his screwdriver. The one that he inherited from his dad. No big deal, it’s part of a set and he has several others the same size. But he was upset–really upset–because along with the screwdriver, he felt like he lost a piece of his dad.
His rational brain knows that the screwdriver isn’t indicative of his dad’s presence or absence. His intellect knows that having the screwdriver doesn’t mean that he still has his dad, or that by not having the screwdriver he no longer has a hold on his dad’s memory. But his irrational side mourned the screwdriver. His emotional brain felt that he’d lost another part of his dad. As the wise poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Sorrow makes us all children again – destroys all differences of intellect. The wisest know nothing.”
I’m very familiar with the destroying of intellect in times of grief, and I know just how my friend feels. After my mom died, I hung on to all kinds of her stuff: cookbooks, costume jewelry, unfinished embroidery projects, even her ratty old college sweatshirt. My dad has the more personal items — her glasses, her wedding ring, her driver’s license. I desperately wanted a piece of her, any piece, to remain, so I clung to her things in hopes of finding pieces of her.
Guess what? It doesn’t work. The desperation, the clinging, the hoping against hope are all for naught. Once the person you loved with your whole heart is gone, snatched away too soon by illness, there is no holding on to them. I’ve learned this slowly and painfully in the almost seven years that my mom has been dead. Her stuff is just that — stuff. It’s not her. She’s gone and that’s the brutal finality of experiencing the death of a loved one.
I’ve written before about how grief sneaks up on us, and can buckle our knees out of nowhere, even after years have passed. I know that this is what happened to my friend the other day: he was going about his business, engaged in a simple task that took little effort and yet would yield great satisfaction when done. The sun was shining, the workday was done, and a cold beer accompanied him as he unscrewed the rusty, spent screws from my gate. But once the screwdriver broke, so did the dam that most days holds back the torrent of sadness that is life without his dad. How many times has he said he wished his dad were here to help him with a DIY project, or to admire his handiwork upon a project’s completion? Too many times to count. And in the midst of an ordinary task being done on an ordinary day, the torrent rushed through.
“It’s so curious: one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses.” ~Colette
I find it helpful as I go about my daily ablutions, especially on days like yesterday as I made myself presentable for an event I dreaded attending.
No one likes going to funerals. Well, if there are people who do, I don’t get it. There probably are people who like it. If there are “extreme couponers” willing to spend hours preparing for and doing their grocery shopping, I guess it’s possible that there are people who like going to funerals. Yes, I can see how some people need closure, one of the most overused words in the English language. Ok, I can see how some people find comfort in the ritual that envelopes saying that final good-bye to a loved one. I also can see how some people enjoy the socializing that occurs before and after, in which people from near and far come together for a sad and solemn occasion.
But wouldn’t it be nice if we were spending time, good quality time, with our loved one, instead of saying good-bye to them?
I definitely needed an extra surge of power to prepare for Sophia’s funeral. And if that surge comes from a snarky piece of art in my bathroom, I’ll take it. In addition to facing my own demons of funeral-memory-overload from my mom’s event in October 2005, I also had the momentous task of getting my dress-clothes-hating son kitted out in appropriate funeral attire. Not that this task was on par with the Navy Seals taking down Osama bin Laden, by any means, but it was complicated and fraught with peril.
There were multiple-stage negotiations, some of which turned hostile; trial runs and practice fittings; surveillance to be done, and more than one recon mission to procure the necessary supplies to make this task a success.
With supplies gathered from multiple trips between our house and Amy’s house and two trips to Target and with fittings complete despite tricky buttons, we were good to go. My boy had the dress clothes he needed for two occasions. Back-to-back dressing up was torture for him, but like any good soldier, he dug deep and found the resources to stay strong and carry on.
He noted that Aunt Sophia was one of the few people on this Earth for whom he would subject himself to the torture that is dressing up. Not once, but twice, and not spaced out over the passage of time but one day right after the other.
He didn’t want to, but he did it. When I commented that while I know he hates it, he actually looked quite nice, his reply was “Your opinion.”
Back away slowly from the crazy boy.
As we saw our relatives gathered at the funeral home and then again at the church, I murmured, “Don’t comment on his outfit. Pretend everything is normal.” His smartened-up look was duly noted but not commented upon, and peace was restored in our little kingdom.
The memorial service the night before the funeral was sad, very sad. But good. Lots of reminders from the priest to remember the good times, to not let our sadness override our happy memories. A whole lot of talk about Sophia being in a better place. While I can’t deny that her being free from the horrors of a brain tumor is a good thing, the “better place” idea is cold comfort to me.
I certainly don’t want her to still be here, suffering and unable to communicate, a prisoner in her uncooperative body. I most definitely don’t want her to be subjected to living a life devoid of independence, something so very important to her. I don’t even want her to have to live in a skilled nursing home instead of her own neat & tidy, cozy home that was so much a part of her.
What I want is for her to still be here, healthy and vibrant, with no trace of glioblastoma or any other disease. What I want is to be sitting at her kitchen table, watching her fold tiropitas as if it’s the easiest thing in the world (and knowing that I’ll be going home with some of those little yummies). What I want is to be in her pool, watching the delight on her face as she presents my kids with their own individual pool floats: a huge, inflated baseball glove for Payton and a hibiscus-flower decorated inner tube for Macy. What I want is to walk into her cool, dark garage, with the musty smell I remember from childhood, to grab a popsicle from the deep freeze. What I want is to be calling her on the phone to tell her we’re having a family party, after the kiddie party, for one of my kids’ birthdays, and to listen to hear volunteer to make the cake. What I want is to see her walk through my door and to hear her say, “Hi, Nance.”
What I want, I guess, is to stop time. To freeze our lively interaction. To halt the passage of time and the acquiring of diseases that rob us of our health, our independence, and our lifestyles.
And while I’m at it, I sure would like to have the same thing for my sweet mama. To have her sitting next to me at Sophia’s table, assuring me that folding the perfect tiropita is easy. Just pinch and seal and brush with melted butter, and the filling won’t leak out during baking. To have her in the pool with my kids and me, mediating their squabble over whose turn it is with the blue pool noodle. To be grabbing her a Diet Coke from the fridge in the musty garage. To hear her voice on the phone, even if it’s the 11th time she’s called me today. To know that she’ll be at the family after-party, scurrying around my kitchen and telling me how to do a task I’ve done a thousand times, but which she thinks still requires her expertise.
Is that really asking so much?
The viewer mail is pouring in about this post and this one, in which I inadvertently gave y’all some reason to think you might be suffering a small heart attack. Many apologies. I didn’t mean to scare anyone or cause anyone to stroke out. I promise to be much more boring and much less dramatic in future.
I will get to coverage of Day 2 in Napa, really I will. It’s in the works. The trip was so fantastic, I want to do it justice, and sometimes that means ruminating, and you know I have very little patience.
As Winnie the Pooh referred to himself as “a bear of very little brain,” I am the blogger of very little patience. Working on it, people, working on it.
Thinking about Winnie the Pooh reminded me of how much I loved that bear as a little girl, and I’m sure somewhere in the deep recesses of my parents’ attic, there are photos of me surrounded by Winnie; my sweet mama never threw anything away. I had the Pooh treehouse with all the little figures: Pooh, Piglet, Rabbit, Christopher Robin, Kanga, and Roo. Oh, and Tigger. Don’t forget him. He’s c-razy! I had some Pooh pajamas that I wore nonstop, although not out in public like my little girl does in her jammies. I had a stuffed pooh, the original AA Milne version before Disney got its hands on him, and that bear went everywhere with me. I loved him so much I even gave him open heart surgery with my mom’s seam ripper from her sewing kit. I must have left the closing to my surgical assistant, because Pooh had a hole in his chest for the rest of time.
Now that I’m all grown up, I appreciate Winnie the Pooh on a whole ‘nother level, and find the depth and meaning contained in his quotes so moving.
We’ve all seen this one, on a greeting card perhaps or a t-shirt: ““If you live to be 100, I hope I live to be 100 minus 1 day, so I never have to live without you.” So endearing when said by a cartoon bear, but if a human said that I’d want to barf. Those of you who know what a non-romantic I am will be shaking your heads right now. Go ahead, it’s all right.
This quote from Pooh’s endless wisdom does not make me want to barf, however:
This one is all right with me. Don’t know why, but I suspect it’s because it reminds me of my sweet mama, and how very much I miss her. It also reminds me of my favorite ee cummings poem “i carry your heart with me,” which I had planned to read at my mom’s funeral but I just couldn’t get the words out. The words are always in my head, though, and I especially like this part:
“i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart) i am never without it… you are whatever a moon has always meant and whatever a sun will always sing is you here is the deepest secret nobody knows (here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)”
Having cancer sucks, but having cancer while you still have young kids at home really sucks. There’s the day-to-day junk that still needs to be dealt with, despite the gravity of disease, treatment, hospital stays, and ongoing drug therapy. I guess it’s not surprising that I find myself not really caring about whether I sign Macy’s daily folder, or wanting to punch the teachers who think another parent-driven school project is in order. Simmer down, teachers; I won’t really punch you but when you assign projects that my child cannot reasonably complete on her own, I do think about it, briefly, because it’s hard to muster the emotional energy needed to guide my child in her education, and I sure don’t want to have to make a trip to Hobby Lobby for supplies.
There’s a never-ending juggling act that comes with the cancer territory when young kids are involved. Like the fact that most of my doctor’s appointments are with surgeons, who tend to do surgery in the mornings and see patients in the afternoon. Sometimes that means I’m cutting it close when seeing the doctor and taking care of business while still making it in time to pick up the kids from school.
Like the fact that I never know when this beast will rear its ugly head again and interfere with our daily life, plans, and schedules. Payton’s Little League season is halfway over, maybe more, and I’ve yet to make it to a single game. For the first time in his Little League “career,” he’s played games for which neither of his parents was in the stands. Not the end of the world, by any stretch, and he’s a pretty resilient kid, but it still bugs me.
Like the fact that sometimes when my kids are venting to me about whatever problem is foremost in their minds, and all I can think is, “It’s not so bad…at least you aren’t dealing with the aftermath of cancer.”
But then I smarten up and realize that yes, they are dealing with the aftermath of cancer. It’s there for them, too, even though they don’t talk about it much or worry about it like I do. It comes out sideways, sometimes, like in Macy’s “getting to know you” questionnaire from the first day of school this year, and her answer to the question “What scares you the most?” Her answer: That my mom will get another infection. Geez, what happened to monsters under the bed? We’ve eclipsed that childhood fear and have sped headlong into unchartered territory here. Like Payton asking us about the annual summer trip to Boston and Salisbury Beach, and wondering if all of us will be going this year. Since I missed it last year, I want to be there even more this year, but part of me hesitates in promising him that, because with this damn disease and this damn infection, I just don’t know. I’m operating under the assumption that the answer is yes, we’re all going this year. But I shy away from promising it.
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) left the University Medical Center in Tucson to come to our fair city. Welcome, Gabby! She checked into the esteemed TIRR (The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research) Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Hospital in Houston’s Medical Center.
I say this like I know her or anything beyond what’s being reported in the mainstream media, and I do not. So don’t go asking me for personal details or to get you an autograph or anything. After my trip down there Thursday, I don’t have any plans to trek to the med center again, and besides that poor woman needs some privacy. She’s likely to be very tired after her trip from AZ to TX.
In the photo above, which was kindly provided by Giffords’s office, her husband, Mark Kelly, is by her side as she enjoys the beautiful scenery of the Santa Catalina Mountains while on an outdoor deck at the Tucson hospital on Thursday. Not that I’m complaining, but no one ever wheeled me outside in my bed in my multiple hospital stays this summer. But that’s ok, because really, who wants to be outside in Houston in the summer? And there aren’t any mountains to gaze upon anyway. After the terrible ordeal she went through, I’m glad Giffords got to go outside, after more than 2 weeks in a hospital room. She earned that trip, plus a whole lot more.
In case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard, Giffords was critically injured at an event she was holding in Tucson on January 8th. She was going about her business, doing her job as a public servant and was shot by an idiot-jerk-birdbrain-fool-imbecile-jackass-whackjob whose name I won’t mention because he and his ilk don’t deserve one more second in the spotlight.
That idiot-jerk-birdbrain-fool-imbecile-jackass-whackjob killed 6 people and injured another 13, including Giffords. The fact that one of the 6 people killed was a 9-year-old girl named Christina-Taylor Green makes me so mad I can’t even express the right words here. My fingers are flying across the keyboard, yet nothing of sense materializes, because how can we make sense of something so horrendous, so tragic, and so unnecessary?
This darling girl, who is the same age as my own darling girl, sounds like she was a fantastic addition to the human race. She had recently been elected to her 3rd-grade student council, and was at the “Congress on Your Corner”event at the local grocery store in Tucson, hoping to get up close & personal with her congresswoman.
Her mama says she can’t even put into words the depths of their grief, and the horror of “being robbed of our beautiful little princess.”
Christina-Taylor was the only girl on her Little League baseball team. We’ve had a girl on Payton’s baseball team a few times, and it really livens up the game. I’m a big fan of girl power in any form, and seeing a girl on a team with all boys does my heart proud. Little League and the world in general suffers a big loss with Christina-Taylor’s death.
She came from a baseball-loving family. Her grandpa, Dallas Green, managed the Phillies. Her daddy John supervises the group that scouts new talent for the Dodgers. I bet that little girl was fun to watch on the field. And I just hate that she’ll never again don her uniform and step up to the plate.
What a waste.
While this post started out as a welcome to Giffords to Houston, it’s taken another form and morphed into a memorial, if you will, to Christina-Taylor. She sounds like someone Macy would hang with, who I would enjoy having in our home.
I’m going to make y’all suffer through the wrenching story told by Christina-Taylor’s friend and neighbor, Susan Hileman, who took Christina-Taylor to the event that ended her young life.
This 58-year-old didn’t have any grandchildren yet and befriended Christina-Taylor. They hung out, played Pickup Sticks, and did the kind of things that my cousins do with my daughter. (Christina-Taylor cheated at Pickup Sticks, by the way, according to Hileman, which is another touching yet heartbreaking insight into this multi-faceted little girl.) They went to the zoo together, and if there was a movie Hileman wanted to see, she’d ask Christina-Taylor, “If I buy the popcorn, will you keep me company?” Sounds like what my dad says to Macy as they plan their movie dates.
As Hileman picked Christina-Taylor up for the “Congress on Your Corner” event, she asked Christina-Taylor’s mom, “Does she really want to do this with me? Is there something else she would rather be doing?” Roxanna Green replied, “Any place she goes with you, she’s happy.”
As they drove to the event, the two friends talked about what they might ask Giffords. Once they arrived and parked, Christina-Taylor asked Hileman if she had the keys. Apparently that was her job, because Hileman sometimes forgot and left her keys in the car.
Hileman had planned to take Christina-Taylor to lunch and to get their nails done after meeting Giffords, and would have her home in 3 or 4 hours. But that plan changed drastically and irrevocably.
I’m struck by how many times I’ve turned my children over to a friend or relative for an outing, much anticipated by both parties. I send them off without a second thought on my part or a backward glance on theirs. These connections, these events, these outings are what join us together as friends & family, and what weaves together the warm & fuzzy fabric of our existence.
Instead of an enjoyable and enlightening outing, Hileman and her young companion entered Hell. They were next in line to meet Giffords, and Hileman was telling Christina-Taylor that she could be the next Gabrielle Giffords, when gunshots rang out.
Hileman instinctively threw her body in front of Christina-Taylor’s to shield her from danger and was shot in the thigh, belly, and chest. She remembers seeing a hole in her new skinny jeans, but can’t remember any pain.
She does remember falling to the ground with Christina-Taylor, looking into the wounded girl’s eyes. Hileman had been shot and was bleeding, but was only concerned for Christina-Taylor. “Don’t you leave me, Christina-Taylor. Don’t you die on me,” she said as the two friends clung to each other. A woman who arrived on the scene to help reportedly applied pressure to Christina-Taylor’s wound and asked, “Who was with this girl? Who is this girl?” Hileman answered, “She is my responsibility.”
Nine-year-olds don’t carry ID. So nobody but Hileman knew who Christina-Taylor was, and in the chaos of the crime scene, imagine the frantic moments before Hileman spoke up and claimed Christina-Taylor. That sweet girl was Hileman’s responsibility, and a big part of her world.
And now the rest of the world does indeed know who Christina-Taylor Green was. Sadly, it’s too late.
I just read, yesterday morning, that Elizabeth Edwards announced that “future cancer treatment would be unproductive” and that she had only months or maybe even weeks to live. And then she died. That same day.
I’m so sad. For her. For her kids. She’s suffered a lot already (let’s not even mention her jackass husband and all the suffering he brought into her life). She wrecked up my childish yet dogged desire to believe in a limited amount of suffering in one person’s life. I wanted to believe that losing my mom would be the worst thing to ever happen to me. So far it is, but when I look at Elizabeth’s Edwards’s life, and the fact that her 16-year-old son was killed in a car crash, I am smacked in the face with the reality that there is no limit to the amount of suffering in one’s life.
Obviously, I don’t know her, but she seemed to have a lot of class, regardless of politics or religion or her jackass of a husband. She lived most of her life in relative obscurity, practicing law and raising the family she vowed to create after Wade was killed. My heart breaks for her remaining children. Cate, who is in her late twenties, will likely become the mama to Emma Claire, 12, and Jack, 10. All three of them will have to navigate the treacherous terrain that is life without their mama. No matter how old you are, you never stop wanting your mom. Former press secretary Jennifer Palmieri said about Elizabeth, “Any room she walked into, she made it a home.”
That’s a real talent.
Elizabeth faced her breast cancer publicly and bravely. She was diagnosed in November 2004 and made headlines when she urged her jackass of a husband to continue his presidential campaign despite her Stage IV cancer.
Stage IV. That’s as bad as it gets, and the fact that she wanted him to continue his dream despite the tumor in her breast and the spots on her rib, lung & hip, is the epitome of selflessness.
She was brave, and she was a fantastic example to cancer patients everywhere that life goes on. Despite diagnosis, life goes on. Despite treatment, life goes on. Despite surgery, life goes on. Despite complications, life goes on. Despite John Edwards making a fool of himself and a mockery of all that his family held dear, life goes on.
And life did go on for Elizabeth. She worked hard: raising her family, writing 2 books, advising President Obama on health care reform, and doing her best to make a difference–for her family, for countless cancer patients, and for herself. Although she was all these things: attorney, author, advisor, advocate, she said often and proudly that her job was to be a mom.
She knew her cancer wasn’t curable, but treatable. She did all the right things and tried to stay strong, despite life on the campaign trail.
Her final statement reflects upon the kind of person she was and the sheer strength she embodied:
“You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces – my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope. These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined. The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And, yes, there are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful. It isn’t possible to put into words the love and gratitude I feel to everyone who has and continues to support and inspire me every day. To you I simply say: you know.”
In a 2007 interview she spoke realistically about her cancer, saying, “When I was first diagnosed, I was going to beat this. I was going to be the champion of cancer. And I don’t have that feeling now. The cancer will eventually kill me. It’s going to win this fight.”
Her cancer did win, but she is a champion nonetheless. Rest in peace, Elizabeth.