Friday’s Child

Around 4:30 on the first afternoon of any June in our last years together, she would say, “This time _______ years ago,” and I would stop whatever I was doing to sit and listen to the story of my birth.

It was never a long story.  Not full of how much pain she had withstood or how hard it had been to bring me into the world.  In fact, the only real complaint she ever made was, “It was so HOT!”

“I had been to the store and it was SO hot.  I had just put down the last bag and was thinking how hot it already was and it just barely June when the first pains hit.  I called your daddy and told him it was time, then I put up the groceries.  It was so HOT!”

I once asked her if I’d given her a lot of trouble, if it had been a hard labour.

“Not really.  None of you were really all that hard.  Your daddy got home, we went to the hospital.  I was in labor through the night, then there you were.”

I was born at 8:03 the next morning, June 2nd.  It was a Friday.

Like today.

Today is my second birthday without her.

I don’t remember the first.

There is much I have forgotten  — about all my life — but that first loss-filled year after her death is particularly full of holes and vagaries.  And while I am not an advocate of recovering lost memories, (I believe The Universe has swallowed certain things for our own protection), I do rather wish I could remember some of The First Year more clearly than I do, if only to learn more from its pain.

The pain itself I remember vividly.  Though to call it a “memory” is a mistake, for it lives with me still.  Still and always.

And on my birthday most of all.

I woke in the middle of the night one night last week in sheer terror at the sudden realization that when my last cell phone died not long after she, it took with it her voice mails that I had saved.  The only recordings of her voice that I had.  This happened months ago, yet I was only just now realizing the loss.  I got up, went to the computer, searched every file, every cloud, thinking that surely, surely, I wouldn’t have been so careless as to have saved them only on that phone.

But I was that careless.  That thoughtless.  That lost.

I climbed back into bed and cried for a long time, amazed — again — at the immediacy and overwhelming power of grief.  A power that only gives the illusion of abating over time.  A power that in many ways actually never stops growing.

***

This birthday finds me 1600 miles or more away from my mother’s physical remains.

The last thing I did before driving away from my home town one last time was stop at the cemetery.  I stood a long while looking down at the three headstones of my family, agonizing over the fact that I’d forgotten to bring anything with which to clean the Texas Panhandle dust and dirt from the crevices.

Something else forgotten.

Finally, hearing my mother say, “It doesn’t matter, baby,” I sat down on the spiky winter grass and remembered the now decades long process of filling these three plots, of setting these three stones.

I remembered making the arrangements for my father’s Veteran’s marker.  The multiple telephone calls and forms, the trip from frighteningly foreign to familiar each time I had to say aloud, “my father just died”, each time I ticked the box for “Deceased”.

I had been so young.

I remembered bringing my mother to the cemetery office to choose my sister’s.  The surreality of sitting with her as she designed, piece by piece, her daughter’s headstone.  So grateful for the knowledge and kindness of the owner who helped us.  Grateful for it again eight years later as he led me alone through the same process for my mother.

It was even harder than I had imagined it would be.

We had discussed her headstone as we had discussed her funeral, many times.  My mother didn’t care for flowers, her favourite colour was black, she preferred simple, classic lines to any sort of flourish, so, I knew the cross was perfect the moment I saw it.

She had been a devout Catholic from the time she converted in order to marry my father, and yet, in the last years of her life she seemed to withdraw from Catholicism, especially in the years following my sister’s death.  In the end, she did not want a priest, no funeral mass, nothing but a rosary and a graveside service that was presided over by the hospice chaplain she had come to “love like the son I never had”.  So, I felt this cross, with its straight line strength and grace so reflective of her, was a better choice than a Catholic crucifix.

“Beloved wife and mother” was out — she had made that clear.  It bothered her that “that’s on everyone’s.  just put my name and the dates on mine”.  Yet, somehow, I couldn’t manage to leave it at just that.  It just wasn’t enough.

More than once in those last years she had said to me, “No one can ever know what all we’ve been through together.  We’re the only ones who can ever really know that.”

I realized that I wanted her headstone to reflect that, to reflect us, if only a little.  I wanted one last and final time to say, “It’s me, Mommy.  I’m here.”

My mother loved almost all things British.  I don’t think many people knew that about her.  She loved British history, British television — documentaries about the Royals, PBS historical dramas and to my great and happy surprise, she loved to watch Shakespeare performances with me.  So, when I went looking for a way to leave a special mark on her headstone, I went, of course, to Shakespeare.

“And all my mother came into mine eyes.
And gave me up to tears.”

It’s a quote from Henry V, Act IV, Scene vi.  It isn’t a quote about mothers nor about the loss of a mother.  It is spoken from a battlefield by Exeter to King Henry, describing the deaths of the Dukes of York and Suffolk.  Exeter refers, ashamedly, of his inability to hold back tears upon witnessing these deaths.

But, to me, it says everything about the loss of my mother.  For me, they are the perfect words to mark my forever goodbye to her.  So often, she comes into my eyes.  And when she does, I am always given up to tears.

Sitting here writing this, so far away from where I lived with her, from where she gave birth to me, from where her physical form lies marked with those words, I realize that I am, in these almost two years following her death, being re-born.

The labour is intense.  Long.  Complicated.  Painful.

And still not complete.

But she is with me, as she was the first time.  Working with me and for me, labouring to give me New Life.

That realization comforts me, in a way, on a level, I could not have expected and cannot quite put into words.

I know only that she is here.  Still and always.  Just like the pain of her loss, in the pain of her loss, carrying me forward into the season in which I was first born, into the heat and light that I love and she hated.

She is here and she is saying, “Momma’s got you, baby.  Everything’s gonna be alright.”

 

 

 

 

The Phone of the Wind

There is a phone booth.  A beautiful structure of white wood and glass simplicity, it stands atop a hill in the northeastern Japanese town of Otsuchi.  Inside the booth, a small shelf holds a thin spiral notebook, a ballpoint pen, and a rotary dial telephone, its black worn to a smooth shine from the clutch of countless hands, its cord curled up behind, connected to nowhere, reaching everywhere.  It is called, “The Phone of the Wind”.

Since the 2011 tsunami of the Great East Japan Earthquake, survivors have come to The Phone of the Wind to call their dead loved ones.  For some, it is a one-time pilgrimage of many miles and many hours to stand inside the booth and say what was unsaid before the wave overtook the town.  For others, visiting the booth has become an almost habitual ritual, a place to come when even, “words are not enough”, a place to cling to the belief that their loved ones do hear them, that they may, even, make a response.

For years, I have encouraged the bereaved to speak to their dead loved ones, to talk to them, aloud and fearlessly, to call them by name, to ask for their help.  The Phone of the Wind is one of the most beautiful, most literal examples of doing just that.

I encourage you to take 49 minutes to watch this documentary:  The Phone of the Wind:  Whispers to Lost Families.

We are more alike than we are different.  And so often it is grief that binds us

.

 

 

One Year Ago Right Now

It is a day she would have loved — grey, cloudy, overcast, cool for July.  She would have loved it.

She loved darkness.  She loved storms and wind, and the colour black.  She loved heavy things — fat furniture, big cars, chunky jewelry.  Substantial, formidable things.  Things Built to Last.  Like she was.

By the end, one year ago today, she was none of the above. By the 29th of July, 2015, she was small, broken, bruised.  One year ago today, she lay silent and immobile.  Had done for almost a week.  During that week, her smooth, pale skin had grown even more luminous, as though the light of her being was pressing against it from within, making its way out, pushing its way to freedom.

The last time she opened her eyes to me, they were clear, cloudless, grey points of glistening light.  I gave her water which I, of course, managed to spill on her.  I was crying so hard I couldn’t see what I was doing.  The water was icy cold, just the way she liked it, and yet she responded very little when it hit her skin.  She only weakly motioned toward the spill with a crooked finger.

Then she realized I was crying.  And everything changed.

I watched her call herself back from wherever she had been, from wherever she was going, call herself back to the present, this present, my present, the present in which one of her children was crying.

“Don’t cry, baby,” she mouthed, voiceless.  “Please don’t cry.”

How was it that I didn’t realize she was dying?

I, who have been watching people die for most of my life.  How did I not see that my mother was dying?

Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints

It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall
And we break

And we make our mistakes
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When everyone who loves me has died
I’m willing to wait for it
I’m willing to wait for it

For most of this year, I, like so much of the world, have been obsessed with Hamilton, an American Musical.  The past two weeks have been filled with the song Wait for It on continuous loop in my head even when it’s not playing.  Only today, listening to this particular verse have I understood just why.

I spent the last decade of my life with my mother.  Nine years living with and caring for her, one year trying to figure out how to live without her here in the form I knew so well, the form I miss so much.

It’s not that I spent that decade waiting for anything.  I wasn’t waiting for it to get easier nor for it to be done, over, finished, in some way.  I wasn’t waiting for my life to begin once hers was ended.  In fact, those ten years were some of the richest most fulfilling years of my life, professionally and personally, beyond and including the healing time spent with my mother.

And it was healing.

Of her four children, I was the one least likely to be chosen as Primary Caregiver in her final years.  To say that our relationship for most of my life was “challenging” is the greatest of understatements.  And yet the last nine years of her life allowed us to build the kind of relationship I would never have dreamed possible.

For that, I am forever grateful.

So, no, I did not spend all those years waiting.  But, today, I realize that, in some ways, I have been waiting, waiting for Something during this past year since her death.

I just don’t know what it is.

I know from what my hospice patients and their families have taught me that following the death of a loved one after a lengthy illness, the Primary Caregiver is often left without an identity, with a nameless emptiness where the Caregiver identity stood for so long.

I just never expected it would happen to me.

Who am I now that I am no longer my mother’s keeper?

Who am I now that I am, officially, an orphan?

I don’t know.

Sitting here writing this as the sun sets, as I approach the actual moment 365 days after her death, I realize there is so much I do not know.

I also realize that’s ok.

Real problems never stem from not knowing.  Real problems always result from thinking we know it all.

And I so do not Know It All.

Still, there are a few things I do know.

I know that, orphan though I am, I am still my mother’s daughter.  Nothing can ever change that.  It is its own “legacy to protect”.

And, I know they never really leave us.

Never.

Earlier today, I went for a bottle of wine. When I opened the car door to step out, this awaited me:

DebMomma

As some of you know, my sister, Debbie, collected pennies.  This is a penny covered in something that has embedded it into the parking lot pavement and allowed a white feather to attach itself to it.  Since she died in 2007, Debbie has sent me pennies at the most difficult times of my life.  Today, my mother added an angel feather.  And Deb out did herself, scattering pennies all around the feathered one:

scatter 1

scatter 2

No, they never really leave us.  Not after the first year, not after 100 years.

So…

…if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When everyone who loves me has died
I’m willing to wait for it

I’m willing to wait for it.

And I will do my best to remember I’m not waiting alone.

 

Things

My mother loved clothes.  She kept them well.  She wore them well.  In the years after we all left home, in the years after my father’s death, she began allowing herself to buy more and more clothing.  Never anything too expensive or extravagant.  She didn’t need that.  She could turn Walmart into couture simply by putting it on.  She loved crisp, clean lines.  She loved blazers and starched button downs and pairs of what she called “good shoes”.  She loved silk scarves and the wide, shiny rings she called “bling” in her later years.

All she ever wanted to do was to die at home, sitting in her old chair, surrounded by the things she loved.  That was what I wanted so to be able to give her.  Instead, during the last two years of her life, my mother had to move four times, each time culling through her things, winnowing out the closets full of clothes she loved so much until the last of her belongings fit into three large bags and a couple of boxes brought from the shared room in the nursing home where she died.

Yesterday, almost five months to the day after her death, I went through those bags and boxes.  It seemed the proper way to end the last year of her life.

As a grief counselor, I have heard many stories about the sorting of things.  Some good, some not so much. I once saw two brothers come to physical blows over their father’s ancient, ragged, and urine-filled recliner.  Things are so much more than things when they are all that is left.

Often I’m asked about the “proper time” to keep things, the “proper time” to let things go.  Of course, there is no “proper time”.  Textbooks say that leaving a dead loved one’s room untouched past the first anniversary of her death may be a symptom of “complicated grief”.  They say the same thing about getting rid of belongings within the first month.  I don’t believe either of those things.  Not professionally, not personally.

Something happens when we sort through the last tangible vestiges of the dead.  Something sad and painful and comforting and beautiful.  It is more than the memories called up by their things; it is deeper, more visceral than that.  It is something that rises and falls in its own rhythm, a rhythm not bound by time passing on a clock or a calendar.  For some, it happens with furious speed, within weeks or even days after the death.  For others, it is a slow hum of years, a largo of waiting and touching, picking up and replacing, diving in then avoiding for weeks or months or years at a time.

For me, it was yesterday.  The last afternoon of the last year of my mother’s life.  I spent it with her.  With her things.  With the clothes that no longer smelled like her no matter how I longed for them to.  With the pieces of bling and silk scarves and fuzzy socks and yellowing books of prayer she had not already dispersed to those she loved.  I touched and held and petted and stroked.  I cried.  I talked to her.  I thanked her.  I held her.  And she held me in each of those last shining bits that reflected so much of who she was.  Of who she will always be.  A strong and beautiful woman.  Gracious.  Classy.  With a wicked sharp tongue and a wit to match.  My mother.  Momma.  Mommy.

I miss you so much.  I love you so much.  Happy New Year.

 

 

 

Ornamental

 

 

invitation-page-001I brought it with me over ten years ago from East Texas.  Four hundred miles and more than one lifetime from where I am now.

I call it, “The Memory Tree Service” — a way to honour the dead during a time when their absence is most deeply felt, but seldom marked.

It has been a part of my life for so long now that the memory of its creation is a bit hazy, as though there’s never really been a holiday season that didn’t include a Memory Tree Service, just as it seems as though there’s never been a time when I wasn’t “a death professional”.

But there was.

That first service came at the end of my first year as a Grief Counselor.  It had been a year of personal loss in all ways but death.  The end of a ten year career and a twenty year marriage set in motion a series of losses that left me feeling empty, excited, and not a little frightened.  Everything about grief counseling was new to me, new and yet so familiar.  I had never been so certain that I was doing what I was meant to do.

I still am.

But that first year, the holidays found me faced with the task of helping people make sense of a season that was, for me, no more than a sad reminder of times past or never been; a season full of emotional, temporal, and financial burdens I had no idea how to meet.  I couldn’t imagine how I was going to help myself, much less anyone else.

Writing this, five short months after my mother’s death, I realize that I feel much the same today.

In 2004, however, I had far fewer resources than I do today.  Then, when faced with task of how to create a memorial service, I did the only thing I knew to do — I consulted The Oracle.  In other words, I Googled.

First I Googled “memorial services”.  Mistake.  Then I tried, “holiday services”.  Even bigger mistake.  I was sent to site after site full of trite symbolism and bad music.  Occasionally, a truly beautiful, honest tribute to an individual would pop up, but I was at a loss as to how to translate what had been shared there into something accessible to many, for many, of any faith, (including the faith of non-faith), of any culture, age, or income.  How was I to create an environment in which it was safe for people to openly mourn when all the world was screaming Ho!Ho!Ho! at them?

The only thing I knew for sure was that I needed a ritual.

I am a huge believer in ritual.  Ritual speaks to us on a visceral level.  It begins with the human animal, and through its power, through its link to ancestors, it connects us to all other human animals in the world, transforming us into Mankind.  But we, especially we in the West, have basically done away with ritual.  We have disregarded its efficacy as we have done that of the Shaman and the Medicine Woman, replacing them with Science and Technology.  The pros and cons of this exchange are for another post, but, as Joseph Campbell said, “If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any rituals, read the New York Times.”

I was determined to give the grieving a ritual to help them transcend not only their pain, but the tinsel and holly and price-tags as well.  From that determination was born The Memory Tree Service.

It is a very simple service that I have staged in all kinds of locations, from auditorium-like churches to tiny chapels, from institutional dining rooms to drafty foyers.  So long as there is room for a tree and a gathering of people who want, who need, to Remember, any location will do.

What is far more important than location, or even the tree (which doesn’t necessarily even have to be a traditional Christmas tree), is the music.

Each year I make a new Memory Tree Service Mix.  Knowing that in the community I currently serve, the attendees will be widely older and conservative, I include pieces that will be familiar to them, but I also try to use interpretations by people they have most likely never heard, interspersed with new pieces not usually associated with loss or even with memory.  This year’s mix includes music by Christine Kane, Diana Krall, The Beatles, Vince Gill, Steven Curtis Chapman, Billie Holiday, Damien Rice,  kd Lang and Coldplay, among others.

Here’s what will happen Saturday, Dec 5th, at this year’s Memory Tree Service:

The venue this year is very small, a cozy space with overstuffed furniture and lots of natural light.  There are two lit pre-lit trees,  one filled with ornaments from past services, one standing bare, awaiting this year’s remembrances.  Music will play as people enter, then our Hospice Chaplain will offer a welcome and light the central of five pillar candles, officially beginning the service.

The Hospice Director will then introduce each of the Hospice disciplines:  nursing, home health aides, social work, spiritual care, and volunteers.  The remaining four candles will be lit by representatives of those disciplines while the Director reads of Grief, Courage, Memory, and Love.

Then will come the placing of the ornaments.

Each family, staff member, and business partner in our community has been invited to bring an ornament representing the loved one/s they have lost.  It does not matter whether or not the person was a hospice patient.  What matters is only that they have been loved, have died, and someone wants them to be remembered.

The ornaments we get are amazing.  Some are hand made, some very expensive; some are personalized, some anonymous, each one representing a very personal aspect of the life of a dead loved one.  If someone realizes at the service that there are others they want to remember, we have simple ornaments available for personalization.

We ask only that the ornament be something you are willing to leave behind as a perpetual memorial to your loved one.  After the first year, the Memory Tree is never again bare.  All ornaments are placed year after year, expanding to additional trees as necessary.  Over the years, decorating the trees before the service becomes a ritual in itself.

Placing of the Ornaments is followed by a short Litany of Remembrance then the closing prayer.  Afterwards, we invite you to join us for cider and cookies and the opportunity to see again the hospice care team that was with you during your loved one’s illness.  During this time many attendees take photographs and videos of their ornaments on the tree.  We also encourage them to return throughout the holiday season, especially if there are visiting family and friends who might like to see the trees.

The 2015 Memory Tree Service is Saturday, December 5th at 1:00 p.m. at the Amarillo Hospice of the Plains Business Office.  If you would like to attend, or would like more information, please let me know.

May your holidays be blessed with peace.