Lessons Learned

It’s been five months now since my Dad passed away. I of course still miss him daily. I find myself unable to see elderly men out alone, it reminds me of his loneliness, and that is difficult for me. I recently had to leave the produce section at the grocery store because there was a man of a similar age shopping alone. It moved me to tears. I found myself wondering if he had family, or if he was alone in this world. In Sunday’s New York Times there was an extensive article about a man named George Bell. He had died alone at home, discovered only because of the odor that began to escape his apartment. The article told of the procedures involved when the police discover situations such as George’s, but it also shed a little light on George and his life. George may not have had anyone in his last moments, but his story will stay with me, and in that he won’t be forgotten.

When you lose both of your parents issues of your own mortality come to the surface. You become the oldest generation in your family. It’s an odd feeling. Many years ago someone (who shall remain nameless since she seems to go out of her way to say not nice things) told me I was a bad mother. Why? Because I was too close to my children, and that in the end that would hurt them. I hadn’t yet lost a parent at the time. I sort of get it now, but I don’t agree. When you’re a parent the hardest thing in the world is to see your child hurt or in pain. It’s intolerable. Knowing the pain that my Mom’s death caused, and the recent loss of my Dad (more about that below), what troubles me most isn’t that I’ll die, but its knowing that my own children will suffer at my loss. The one pain in their lives I cannot heal. When I saw Titanic I wasn’t moved by the love story of Rose and Jack (they quite frankly could have gone down with the ship and I wouldn’t have cared…no offense Leo and Kate), what did move me, and resonate with me, was the scene of the Irish woman in steerage putting her children to bed knowing that they were going to drown and that there was nothing she could do about it. I can’t imagine her pain. Where I disagree with what my anonymous critic said is that as much pain as I felt eight years ago (and still do) and am currently feeling about my Dad, I wouldn’t trade my relationships with them for anything. My Mom knew I loved her more than anything, My Dad knew I loved him, and worried about him, and I knew that they loved me. Were they perfect parents? No, none of us are. They were human, but they both had a tremendous capacity for love and gave it to their four daughters. Would my pain be less if they were absent parents, or abusive parents? I don’t necessarily think so. I think that it actually might be more painful to lose someone and spend the rest of your life trying to figure out what you did that they treated you as such. I have spent nearly thirty-one years as a mom. I have spent all of those thirty-one years trying to show as much love to my daughter as possible, and twenty-five years with my son. I am not a perfect parent, and like all families we have had our moments, but I know without a single ounce of doubt that my children will always know how much I love them, and that means I’ve done my job.

When my mother died eight years ago it sent me into a tailspin of grief. It was like being at the bottom of a well without a ladder or rope to climb. Long periods of sobbing, and of questioning myself with all the “what ifs”. Eventually I sought counseling, probably one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. My Mom’s death served as a catalyst for much needed changes in me. I guess you could look at it as her final gift to me. I came out of that mourning as a stronger, more open, and determined woman.

My Dad’s final gift to me? I tend to be a loner. I always have been. I am not someone with a large circle of friends.  I mentioned here before how much I talked to him on the phone. I have come to realize that I wasn’t just filling his time so that he wasn’t lonely, but my own as well. I need to put myself out there in the world a little more. Twenty years from now I don’t want my children to feel the need to call me incessantly because they don’t want me to be lonely, or God forbid because they are lonely. I want them to learn from this and keep friends in their lives. I also hope they will learn from me to find the strength within them that my Mom’s death gave me, but to find it now when they are younger.

Finally, reading the story of George Bell on Sunday gave me pause for thought. Instead of running from the produce aisle in tears, I think next time I see what appears to be an elderly person alone, I will engage them in conversation. I’ve done it before, and maybe mentioned it before, but I had an elderly friend. Someone with family, but family that was disinterested at best. Her name was Hattie Klipp, she died at 104. My kids remember her from when they were much, much younger. Hattie was very dear to me, a substitute grandmother in many ways. I met her when I worked in a grocery store. Lesson three, this one comes from me. You never know what gift you will find when you reach out to someone else. I highly recommend it.

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Stepping Away

It has been two months since I last wrote on these pages. I considered labeling this post as “Running Out Of Words”, but the truth is I haven’t. I think maybe I was too sad to share, or that what I felt was far too personal. As I mentioned in a previous blog this was never intended to be such a personal and revealing account of my life. I began it in a search for self fulfillment, a way of forcing myself to tend to my own needs after a lifetime of being everything for everyone else. It has also had unintended consequences, one of those being that some people who read what I write think they know me. Yes, there have been very deep heartfelt thoughts on these pages, and a very personal glimpse into my life, but there is much more to me than what you might read and assume. I also discovered that there are two people “looking” for me on a website that reveals people who are searching for you. I have no way of knowing if it is as I suspect a sales pitch to get me to purchase “Protection”, or if someone has garnered enough information from the web to decide to look further. Either way it creeps me out. One of the names is of a woman, the other a man. I looked them up. The male exists, has a Facebook page, and I have no idea who he is or why he would look me up. Like I said, creepy. The female lives in Florida, and until recently I knew no one living there. That one is unnerving for me, especially in these days of identity theft.

As for my sadness, four months have passed since my Dad passed. There is still an aching hole that will take some time to heal. I think I realize that it never will, because it’s right next to the one that has been there for eight years, the one created by losing my Mom. That post would be titled, “Running Out Of Words”, because sometimes it hurts too much to be crafted into a coherent sentence.

People say, “Life moves on.” and it does. I’m going to be a grandmother. The immense joy that the news brought to my heart is again difficult to put into words. I will of course unfortunately have to be a grandma from the other side of the country, but these days of social media make that a much easier pill to swallow, and I can guarantee that my daughter and son in law will get to know the postman very personally.

Finally there is this, the much promised return to what this was all meant to be about…art. Our dear friends and former Chicago neighbors are themselves relatively new grandparents. Their new joy lives even further than mine, he resides in New Zealand. Our daughters grew up together, and will now be moms within a year of each other. Life does move on. While looking at Facebook I came across a photo on Nicole’s page that stirred something in me that hasn’t been there in some time. It is a photo of her baby and his father. The baby is beyond adorable, the word (as weird as it is) that comes to my mind is “scrumptious”. He is so damn cute I could eat him up, but it was John, and the look of love and tenderness that really spoke to me. I’ve never met John, but that photo speaks volumes, and it gave me something I needed, a reason to paint. Congratulations to Nicole and to John, and thank you for giving me the inspiration I so desperately needed. (It will FINALLY make its way to you. Promised weeks ago, but I found myself hearing the call of “not good enough” yet again. Having to remind myself that it’s not meant to be a Xerox copy, but a piece of art. I’m sending it today in order to shut off the voice in my head before I ruin it!)

In full disclosure I need the art police here to demand that I put down the brush. I’ve retouched this painting six times since I started photographing it…sick, just sick…

So, a return to art, and a return to writing. The first hurdle is behind me. I know it won’t be the only one, but it feels good to begin again. My life moving on.

for nicky

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OK, I admit it. I took the photo of the painting no less than a dozen times. Why? Because I started finding fault with it and “fixing” it. Memo to the voice in my head…SHUT UP! Oh no, I hearing it again….I need to fill in John’s beard a little, fix the baby’s hairline, darken the ear on one side, ….help!

Starting Over

I spent this morning thinking about my Dad. I still miss our phone calls, but I am grateful that there are no unsaid words between us. I think in many ways his passing was easier than our Mother’s. We had no idea just how bad her health was. She chose to keep that to herself. I suppose like so many mothers, myself included, she put herself last. Unexpected complications from unexpected surgery, and she was gone inside three weeks. It was like a blow to the stomach where you find yourself winded and unable to catch your breath. Dad had his first open heart surgery in 1986, and from that day forward he tried to prepare us all for the inevitable. He planned and paid for his own funeral, including asking the undertaker if he could get in the casket and try it on for size. (He had quite a sense of humor, along the lines of a thirteen year old boy) His health had been failing in the last few years. A bout of pneumonia on New Year’s Eve was the final trigger. His health both mentally and physically rapidly declined. Although there were moments where we thought we saw glimmers of hope, the reality was that he was tired, he was lonely, and he was ready to go. My sister Colleen put it best. She said, ” The selfish part of me wants him to still be here, but the other part of me is glad he isn’t in pain anymore.” I feel exactly the same. The strange thing these days is not having parents. It does feel a little like we are orphans. Not in an Oliver Twist kind of way, but more that no matter how old you are, you still look to your parents for comfort and advice. I think we all want our parents to be proud of us. It’s almost as if we never outgrow “show and tell” from kindergarten. We share new jobs, new relationships, our homes and accomplishments, all in hopes of garnering their approval, a smile, or a pat on the back. As I struggle to unpack and move in to my new home, (I know, still at it. That’s a post for another day!) it saddens me to think Dad will never step foot inside these walls. I even miss the idea of him checking my paint job, and believe me he did. I know that both of my parents will always be with me, I need only to see a soccer ball, a yellow rose, to look at my face, or on those of my children, and I see them both. I also know that they will live on in my heart, although right now that hurts. The anniversary of my Mom’s death is in three weeks. It’s been eight years, and for Dad it is not quite two months. Even as I write this a tear falls down my face. I think that my heart broke when my Mother died; a break that I don’t think will ever really heal. Now with Dad’s passing I think the crack has grown a little larger. Time helps, I know that, but I’m in no hurry for time to pass. I will instead continue to try to make them proud.

I titled this post “Starting Over”, and that’s what I need to do. Between the move, and my Dad’s illness, and funeral, I have been feeling a little lost and overwhelmed. I haven’t touched a paint brush in months, (other than the kind used to paint a house.) I have done a little sketching, but I have really nothing to show for it, so it’s time to begin again. I made mention of restarting another 365 day project, and I still like the idea of it, but unpacking takes precedence. My studio is about 80% completed, as for the rest of the house…Yikes! At best I believe I’m looking at another week or two before I can begin. Time to regain control a little, and do what I was meant to do…ART!  There’s a lot of emotion bubbling near the surface these days. I hope I can channel it into some really good work.

I mentioned Dad’s sense of humor. It often showed itself in merciless teasing of Mom. That’s how I want to remember them, the laughter, the good times, and the love they have for each other. I believe it still exists, I believe God has brought them back to each other, the way they are meant to be.Christmas

Bernie's wedding

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Unanswerable Loss

DoubleTwo months. That’s how long it has been since I’ve sat before this computer and shared my thoughts, my life. One month. That’s how long it has been since I lost my Dad. I’ve been busy. We closed on our home the 7th of April, and made two trips to Chicago to see my Dad. Well, one to see him, and one to bury him. The truth is that I’ve been avoiding myself, avoiding this blog, because I wasn’t ready. Grief is a funny thing. It’s never the same for two people. I’ve written a lot about why people are who they are, and how experiences shape them. Grief has a way of pointing out the differences. Some take action and busy themselves to the tasks at hand, while others let grief surround them like a blanket held tight, waiting for comfort, but finding none. There are those who begin the desperate search to find answers, to question God, to layer the guilty “should haves”, “would haves”, and tear themselves apart. For me there is no anger. In our Dad’s final days we were all praying that he be released from his pain, and that he might be able to rejoin our Mother. Her loss was one he had never recovered from. Once those prayers were answered we were all left feeling the pain and emptiness that only death can deliver. For me there was additional sadness. Despite making two trips to Chicago in the weeks prior to his death, I had planned to go and be there for his final days. I had a flight scheduled for a Monday, he died the Friday before. The harsh reality of not living near family is that there are times when the distance causes one to feel like they aren’t quite part of things. Birthdays, graduations, the gradual growth of a child, are all things you witness from afar, and when someone you love falls ill it brings tremendous feelings of helplessness. With my Dad it was complicated further by our move. I wasn’t free to spend as much time with him as I would have liked. When our Mother died (forgive me if I have written of this before), Dad told me he couldn’t go to sleep. For more than fifty years the love of his life had been at his side, and now the bed was empty, there was no one to say goodnight to. My heart broke for him. He had always said that loneliness was the worst disease. I began to call him every night. I spoke about it at his funeral. In almost eight years I missed only a handful of nights, and when I knew in advance that I wouldn’t be able to make that call I asked someone else, usually my daughter, to make the call for me. Eventually those calls increased to every morning, and several throughout the day. I took every call he made. I wanted him to feel secure in knowing that someone would always be there. I would check the television schedule every day looking for his other great love, soccer. I would call with movies, history programs, anything to fill his empty days. There were times when we had great conversation. We would talk politics, religion, family history, and in particular movies. There were also difficult conversations. There were times when I sat here strangling the phone in frustration. Calls when he was angry at his loss, at his loneliness, and his bewilderment at God for taking “his Mary” first, and leaving him lost. Now I am the one feeling a little lost. For nearly eight years the first thing I did every morning was pick up the phone, and again every night, a call so he could hear the voice of someone he loved before he went to sleep. He isn’t lonely anymore, but I am. There is an emptiness in both the beginning and end of my day. I couldn’t call him in the final weeks before his death. I relied on my sisters to put the phone to his ear. On the morning that he died I told him I loved him and that it was time to let go. I told him it was time to go to Mommy and to his Big Mommy (his grandmother whom he adored). I had no way to know that would be our last call. He died about two hours later. Yesterday I called one of my sisters. I was the one feeling lost and lonely; I was the one who needed to hear the voice of someone I love. On the morning that my Dad passed away I was driving to the local mall. I’m sure everyone knows of the horrible drought here in Southern California, but that morning it was raining, raining hard. As I was driving my thoughts were on my Dad. I had only two hours before been telling him to let go. I thought to myself that the way it was raining reminded me of Ireland, and of course that reminded me of my Dad. I pulled into a parking space and said aloud, “These aren’t tears of sorrow; they are tears of joy, a good one is coming home.” I stepped out of my truck and my phone rang. It was my sister calling me to tell me that our father just died. Maybe in some way I knew. Maybe all of those phone calls gave us a connection that transcends this world. Dad if there was a direct line to Heaven I’d call you right now, but I know you are with Mom right where you need to be. I love you both, and I miss the sound of your voice.