There are moments when the veil seems almost to lift, and we understand what the earth is meant to mean to us — the trees in their docility, the hills in their patience, the flowers and the vines in their wild, sweet vitality. Then the Word is within us, and the Book is put away.
Mary Oliver, The Veil
They called her Barbie, an apt moniker for her given name. A real-live Barbie doll, she was tall, gorgeous, voluptuous, blonde. But she also carried herself with the elegance of a Barbara. Moviestar glamour. Dressed to the nines and turning heads. She made you feel important when she bestowed her attention on you. She was all yours. Her eyes held an almost mischievous twinkle, while her gorgeous, wide-mouthed smile lifted on one side only. Her laugh was sensuous, subtle.
Dad emailed on Monday.
“Good morning, kids. Our dear Barbie passed through the veil last night about 9:15 pm Seattle time. She never woke up again since she went to sleep Thursday evening. It was a very blessed and peaceful passing. No more pain and trauma to her little body.”
It’s a gorgeous spring day on our 22 acres outside Fulton, a brocade of rolling green set against a periwinkle sky. It’s where I come to breathe. Today all four kids, their families, plus my dad and sister visiting from out of state are here to celebrate. Four generations together, a rare treat. I’m relishing every idyllic minute. The afternoon, spent fishing, exploring, hiking, and picnicking, is nearly over before I remember the photo.
“Hey, you guys!” I say, calling everyone in. “Let’s get a picture under the big tree.”
My youngest shouts this over the top of Katy Perry’s “Roar” playing on the radio as I’m dodging traffic on Providence Road, trying to get to gymnastics. I shouldn’t be surprised that questions of this magnitude frequently come from the back seat of the minivan. Questions like, “Why can’t gay people get married?” or, “Are you a Christian, Mom?” or, “What does it mean, ‘I’ve got passion in my pants and I ain’t afraid to show it?’” We spend a large quantity of our time in transit; it makes sense that life lessons are dispensed there.
“Some of my friends are saying it’s just your parents who put the presents under the tree,” Haley yells.
I turn down the volume and glance in my rearview mirror. So, I sigh, it’s begun.
“Hmm, they are?” Buying some time, I ask, “What do you think?”
Haley noticed a few years back that not all Santas are created equal. It wasn’t the Halloween-grade red suits, or even the slip-on shoe covers in lieu of black leather boots. No, it was the beard. Perfectly groomed white facial hair with a slit for the mouth signaled fake. Luckily, she accepted the explanation that Santa needs helpers around the world, and while they aren’t the real Santa they are bona fide representatives sanctioned by the Master Elf himself.
When the subject of Santa sightings came up with her younger cousins — so many Santas, so little time — she bragged, “I’ve seen the real Santa,” as in, “you just think you have.”
“At Bass Pro, in Columbia,” she clarified.
Wide-eyed, her spellbound audience gasped, “But, how do you know it’s him?”
“Well,” her eyes darted up to the left, “he’s pretty old, kinda fat and his beard is dusty and oldish. He’s the real one.”
This year, however, we’re skating on thin ice. At 10, her analytical ability and attention to detail are developing at an alarming pace. And she’s getting curious.
“I think that if there is really no Santa Claus and if parents buy the presents and put them under the tree themselves, that would mean that you and Dad are doing it, too, and all of these years you’re doing it, then you are LYING to the kids. Would you lie to me, Mom!?”
Curious and savvy. Case-in-point: The current question — brutal in its honesty — is almost impossible to answer.
Sydney still believes, though at 14 she’s surrounded by peers who’ve long since traded the childish story for a “nobody believes that” attitude, cue eye-roll. But because of Down syndrome, like many developmental phases, she will get there when her little sister does, and Haley isn’t in a hurry to grow up. Maybe it’s her role as baby of the family, but she’s made a conscious decision to stay arrested: She refused to potty-train until 3, and no amount of pleading would coerce her to ditch the diapers. She hung on to her pacifier until 4, hauled her booster chair out of the trash at 7 and to this day lapses into baby talk.
But, as anxious as I’ve been for her to progress, I’m not ready for this childhood rite of passage. Her innocence is adorable; Christmas seen through her eyes becomes new again for us as her parents. The year she was in second grade, she hung a tiny stocking next to her regular one with a note that read: “Merry Christmas, Santa Claus! I love you! This is mine too, Haley Kent! Shign if yove been here!” (sic) At the bottom she penciled two boxes to choose from: “Been here” and “not been here.”
Perpetuating the magic for my girls takes me back to my own childhood, revisiting my father’s firsthand account of seeing Santa. My brother and sister and I would beg to hear the tale: In the wee hours of Christmas morning, when everyone else was sleeping, he heard sleigh bells and looked up just in time to spy Santa’s sleigh flying away. The fantastical vision of my dad as a freckle-faced farm kid, leaning out an attic window into the cold night air, gazing into a starry sky and seeing something so rare, made me shiver with delight and more than a little envy.
He solidified our confidence by staging a Christmas morning I’ll never forget. Rushing into the living room before dawn, utter amazement stopped us in our tracks. There, on the shag carpeting before us, large foot prints walked directly out of the fireplace and to each present laid out on display; for me, it was a Crissy doll, with long red hair that grew from the top of her head when her belly button was pushed — exactly what I’d asked for.
And my dad isn’t the only father (or grandfather) committed to creating wonderful memories for their kids. In the Kent family, Santa has made several appearances. Announced by approaching jingle bells, he’d enter with a “Ho, ho, ho, Meeeeerrrrrry Christmas!” and a bag of presents on his back. The kids were fascinated by this special, home visit.
One year Santa made a substantial impression on our youngest. Spending time with each, he welcomed the children to sit on his lap, even the teenagers. Shy, she hung back, but in a big booming voice he said, “Haley, come sit,” slapping his thigh. “Ho, ho, ho. Have you been a good girl this year?”
Ducking her head she answered, yes, she’d been good. She hugged his furry neck and thanked him politely. Then, present in hand, she hopped down and hurried to her daddy, whispering ecstatically, “He remembered my name!”
It never gets old. The excitement never wears thin. And the kids never make the connection that PaPa is nowhere to be found during Santa’s visit.
“PaPa, where did you go? Santa was just here!”
“He was?! Well, Jim-ah-nee! I go downstairs to get a beer and I miss everything.”
My husband, too, loves to see his daughters enthralled with the wonder of the season and is not above artful manipulation. One Christmas morning, he called urgently, “Girls, come see this!” In footie pajamas they padded across the floor. Peering through the cold glass of the patio door they saw, lying on the deck, under a dusting of snowfall from sometime during the night, a pile of reindeer droppings, a tell-tale sign that Santa — and his reindeer — had indeed been there. And yet another example of what a father will do for his children.
“Is Santa real?” my children want to know. As they face this inevitable epiphany, my hope is they won’t outgrow their belief in the mystical, but will see the spirit of Santa in the ones they love, and everyone around them, if they look closely. And most importantly, it can always be found within them. It isn’t in the goods. It’s not about the stuff: the loot they stockpile, the stack of toys guaranteed to be broken by New Year’s.
In fact, the risk of greediness arising from a Christmas morning piled high in crumpled wrapping paper threatens more disillusionment than questioning Santa’s existence. What I want my girls to get is that the celebration of Christmas — Santa Claus and his jet-setting reindeer delivering presents on one night of global magic, or the miraculous birth of a baby long ago under a star followed by wise men from far away bringing precious gifts, or both — is not about the gifts themselves, but the connection between the giver and the receiver. It’s about the exchange of love and the phenomenon of belonging to each other.
The most magical Christmas memory I have is of the night before, when I was in second grade. I’d woken up and tiptoed down the hall. Afraid I’d be in big trouble if discovered, I peeked stealthily around the corner into the living room. It wasn’t Santa that I saw, but my parents, sitting on the couch together in the dark, the twinkling lights of the tree casting a glow, soft music playing on the stereo turntable. Unseen, I watched, mesmerized. The very air was enchanted. I can still remember the voices of the Ray Conniff Singers:
“And when you’re giving your presents, don’t forget as you give them away, that the real meaning of Christmas is the giving of love every day.”
Their heads turned at the same time, but instead of shooing me back to bed, they motioned me over, making room between them and handing me a mug of hot chocolate; my mom on one side, my dad on the other. Time stopped. Pure love surrounded me. I believed.
“So, I guess you have to decide, Haley Bug.” I offer this to my daughter by way of an answer.
“Well, my friends say, ‘You don’t still believe in Santa, do you?’ and I just go with the flow and say no so they won’t make fun of me, even though I really do believe.”
Saddened that she needs to protect herself from peer pressure, I’m nonetheless touched that her child-like outlook prevails, at least for one more year.
“But, I have a plan. This year? When we go to Bass Pro? I’m going to whisper in Santa’s ear, ‘Are you the real Santa?’ What do you think he’ll say, Mom?”
I smile, “I don’t know, sweetie. Maybe he’ll say, ‘Do you think I’m the real Santa?’”
“Hmm. I think he is. Besides, another reason I know? Last year you two were exhausted and I know there’s no way you could do all that in one night.”
Aaaaaaand just like that, Christmas is over. The preparation, the anticipation, the actualization; come and gone for another year. My beautiful live tree adorned in sparkling red and gold is dead, morphed into an endearing Dr. Suess caricature; its pliant needles turned brittle and sharp, its majestic branches drooping sadly, ornaments lowered to the floor in resignation.
But, I’m in no hurry to take it down, even if it is a 10’ fire hazard. I want to sit with it a few more days, turn on the lights and gaze at all the pretty decorations in my house; pretty things that hold pretty memories. The presents have been opened. The food has been devoured. The kids have gone home. But the lights can wait to be wound around plastic spools, the garland to be coiled into plastic tubs and the tree to be hauled out to decompose. I’m not quite ready to let go.
All our children were here this year – the ‘little girls’ who still live under our roof, and the ‘big kids,’ who grew up and left years ago. Melissa and Jeremy were 9 and 7 when I married Steven and we celebrated our first Christmas as a new family. They were 14 and 12 when Sydney was born, her diagnosis of Down syndrome an unexpected turn of events, and 18 and 16 when Haley came along, her very presence an unexpected turn of events. As older sibs, they were a huge help, stepping up to the responsibilities of dealing with their younger sisters’ special needs.
And just like that they’re 28 and 26, bringing their significant others home, growing our family and adding more people to love. Melissa lives, with her partner, Jey, here in Columbia, For now. She didn’t always, and one day she will spread her wings to fly far and wide. But that day has not yet come. Jeremy recently landed in Oklahoma City with his wife, Carly; albeit temporarily. The 450-mile stretch that separates us now is a much smaller distance than the 1300-mile span it used to be. I’m hanging on to every day that they’re close by.
Because of it, we don’t often get Christmases together. It’s been four years since the last so I wanted to make this a big one and the preparations started early.
“Are you sure you want to spend that much on a tree?” my husband asked, checking the price tag on a gorgeous Balsam Fir. He craned his neck to look up, “I’m not sure it’ll even fit.”
“Honey, the kids are coming home,” I reminded him. “I want it to be special.”
Of course he gets it; he shares my inclination to go all out. It’s the same drive that lead him to the roof for 12 hours in 30 degrees, hanging brand-new LED lights, clip by clip as he inched along the gutters and peaks, only once sliding to the edge and nearly plummeting to the ground (thank God for the satellite dish). Tons of work, more than a little frustration, but the result was magical and breathtaking.
The tree went up in the corner of the living room; a few inches lopped off the top left just enough room for a delicate illuminated star. Fragrant evergreen scent, full of promise, permeated the house, We trimmed the tree while listening to Pandora’s “Traditional Holiday” station and took turns identifying the crooners; Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin. We shopped; at the mall and at our computers. We wrapped and wrapped and wrapped. We got out the good dishes. We baked and we cleaned. We stayed up late and got up early, exhaustion crowding excitement, knowing it would be worth the effort.
And then they were here. Melissa and Jey came from their little house downtown, and Jeremy and Carly drove seven hours on the interstate, stopping regularly because my daughter-in-law is 33 weeks pregnant. Their first, a boy, will arrive shortly before their third anniversary. And just like that, my boy will become a father. 7 lbs. 1 oz. at birth, he now towers over me and swallows me in bear hugs. I can picture him holding his tiny infant son in those arms, just as I held him.
Our time together didn’t disappoint; it was full and rewarding. We told stories. We played games. We ate and then ate some more. We watched ‘Home Alone,’ 1 and 2, the kids reciting the classic line in unison – “Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal.” And ‘Christmas Vacation’ with Chevy Chase, the hilarious spoof of stereotypical holiday foibles; both funny and touching as we recognize ourselves in Clark Griswold, a hard-working family man determined to create the perfect holiday for his clan. We love him for his indomitable spirit in the face of mounting obstacles and catastrophic property damage, and for his vulnerability that reveals itself in the midst of calamity. Locked in the freezing attic, he bundles up in a woman’s fur coat then stumbles across a box of old film reels. Before we know it, he’s projecting black and white movies onto a sheet, frustration and mayhem forgotten. The juxtaposition of a grown man lost in childhood memories, wearing his mother’s turban while a sentimental tear slips down his cheek captures the complexities precisely.
We also watched our own home movies.
“Mom, look. I found some old videos,” Jeremy yelled from the guest room, emerging with a crate of VHS cassettes, my handwriting on the labels: ‘Melissa and Jeremy 1988.’
“Let’s watch ‘em!” He said with his typical enthusiasm.
We dimmed the lights and gathered around the big screen. I loaded the tape into a borrowed VCR. It disappeared, sucked inside with a click. The play button lit up, images sprang to life on the screen and just like that, it was 25 years earlier.
A three-year-old girl in pink sponge rollers eats tortilla chips out of the bag on a couch with her best friend. She wears panties and nothing else, watching King Kong from 1976 with Jessica Lange. She says to her baby brother blocking the TV, “Germ-y, get out-uh-our way!” leaning around him, intent on the images in front of her.
She sits on the floor of a horse stall in her grandpa’s barn. A new litter of puppies was born in the hay and a squirming puppy licks her face as she holds it. Giggling she says, “He likes me!”
A toddler in diapers sports a blond mullet, the back long and curly. He wears top-siders with no socks. In the sunshine he climbs into his Little Tikes car and walks his feet ala Fred Flinstone to make it go. Hands on the wheel, he steers his yellow and red cozy coupe down the sidewalk and off the curb, lodging it against a parked car. He cries in a bitty voice, “Mama, I stuck!”
He holds his hands out to catch a ball and it hits him in the face, bouncing off. Exploding with laughter, he runs to chase it then heaves it back with all his might. Not quite in control, he jumps up and down then trips over his own feet, yelling, “My turn! My turn!”
A young woman in mom jeans, the waistband hiked up under her armpits, bends to speak in a loving voice to her babies. She wears her hair like Dorothy Hamill with a perm. She has clear eyes and a soft face; she is self-conscious and uncomfortable in her own skin.
Time bent. I couldn’t get my bearings as I glanced from the wide screen TV to the kids watching themselves, and to their partners watching their loved ones as children. They’re all laughing and taking delight in the obvious evidence of personalities, even early on.
Melissa was thoughtful and a little shy; content. Her easy-going nature radiated visibly and she smiled easily and often. She was innocent and sweet and unassuming. Her motto was, life is great—I’m happy to be here. She was pure, authentic.
Jeremy couldn’t sit still or stay quiet; his exuberance was uncontainable. He lived large and loud, grabbing on to every moment and demanding attention. Whatever he felt, he expressed. His motto was life is great—what’s next? He was eager, energetic.
Then just like that, my daughter is putting herself through college, returning to school with purpose, pursuing an advanced degree in psychology. She’s an honor student with scholarships and awards, a leader, a camp counselor, a nanny, possessing rare qualities for working with children and teenagers. Babies love her, children flock to her and adolescents confide in her. She’s smart, caring and making a difference in the world. She is pure and authentic.
And just like that, my son is saving lives in his profession as a paramedic. He responds to people’s worst nightmares; accidents and overdoses and violence, guiding them through crises, ministering to body, but also to mind and spirit. His medical skills combined with his compassion make him a calm force and a steady presence. He’s a husband and provider and soon to be a parent. He’s smart, caring and making a difference in the world; he is eager and energetic.
This is how I know it to be: life flies past in a moment. And still, I take it for granted. Still, I assume there will be 25 more years until the realization hits; we don’t know what lies in the days ahead. Just like that things do change. And I am brought up short. I’m in awe of the gift of my family. My family, here, now, together.
We posed in front of the giant tree, me in the middle, surrounded by the ones I love the most: Jeremy with his arm around his wife, Carly holding her beautiful belly and within it, our grandson; Melissa seated in front of her girlfriend, Jey, whose hands were placed gently on her shoulders; the little girls at our feet in their Christmas pjs, and Steven, my partner, my love, standing ever-present behind me.
Just like that it’s 2014. I can’t stop or even slow down time, but I can hold on loosely—I’m not letting go. I can take it all in and savor it and relish it. And I guess I can go ahead and take the tree down.
Grief lives in our house. Among the furniture, between the windows and the walls, it sits, thick and unmoving. Grief rides heavy on my chest. I can’t get a good, deep breath these days. It weighs down my husband’s shoulders and molds his features. Grief seeps into our nights of restless sleep and dreams of forgetting, of waking, and then remembering.
We lie on our bed listening to the falling rain. Wet, fat drops pelt the windowpane and punctuate the silence. He curls up behind me, concave where I am round; our bodies fit together, pieces of a puzzle. In the stillness, the edges between us dissolve. I fade into him, absorbing his substance. A crack of thunder sounds. I inhale sharply to pull the air into my lungs. He draws a deep breath in through an open mouth, his chest heaving. With a sigh, it rushes out. Together we breathe our mourning. There is comfort in our solidarity and we close our eyes to accept the brief respite.
It occurs to me that my father-in-law will never hold his wife this way again.
If anyone could cure cancer with sheer will and devotion, it would be him. He will not leave her side. He sits, he stands, he paces. He drinks coffee and more coffee. He questions the doctors and the nurses and the therapists. He hopes against all odds. He isn’t ready.
He sleeps in a recliner pulled up next to the hospital bed. He covers her hand with his and they talk in the dead of night, recounting their fifty years of shared memories. He helps her try to hang on and when it becomes clear she cannot, she helps him try to let go.
Until a year ago, the only loved ones I’d lost were my grandparents who had lived full lives into their 80’s. I still miss them dearly and lament their passing, but tragic death, to those young and taken too soon, by illness or accident had not yet entered my experience. Within a span of a few months, loss hit hard, lodging painfully in my sternum. Three deaths. My friend from childhood, my brother’s son, my sister’s husband. And now, my husband’s mother.
I can’t bear it, but somehow I must stay present to witness. This is the gift I can give my family by marriage. I am wife, I am daughter-in-law, I am sister-in-law. But my own crisis is significant. I am losing a mother, too.
I was twenty-eight when I met her. Newly divorced and unable to travel to my own family far away, I faced my first Christmas without my young children. My closest girlfriend insisted on taking me home to the bosom of her Midwestern family. Depression had me in its clutches. Morose and self-absorbed, I tried to decline. I wanted to retreat from the world at large and immerse myself in desolation, but she wouldn’t have it and dragged me across the country to Missouri.
I had never been anywhere east of Colorado, and all I knew were the clichés I’d heard. Friendly, kind and generous, the stereotypes of folks from the heartland held true, but more than that, these people radiated joy that spread to all within reach. Misery didn’t stand a chance when infected with their sunny optimism. In a noisy house full of activity, my senses were barraged: the smell of delicious food, the comfort of homey Christmas decor and quaint antiques, the resonance of children’s voices playing and adults laughing and talking all at the same time. My future mother-in-law welcomed me to her home, without conditions, without judgment. She simply loved me for being myself, a self she barely knew, but loved because her daughter loved me. I’d landed in a Norman Rockwell painting and it felt like being wrapped in a warm blanket after coming in from the cold.
I was teased for my wild hair and tie-dyed shirt and Arizona ‘accent.’ I gave as good as I got, though, imitating my future father-in-law’s Missouri dialect. “Well, now, you gotta take and go on past the ray-road tracks, that-a-way you’ll run right into that rest-runt. I tell you what, have they got great Eye-talian food. Jim-in-ey!”
We gathered around the large table as plates of turkey and ham and stuffing and potatoes were passed. I listened to stories from the past, each memory more outrageous, each teller louder than the last, boistesrous laughter erupting between the words that flew back and forth. We played board games until midnight and imbibed in PaPa’s famous punch, a delicious concoction of fruit juice, soda and what I’m fairly certain was an entire bottle of Southern Comfort. And on Christmas morning, when presents were doled out, I was handed more than one with my name on the tag. Gifts bought for me. And not just any gifts. How this woman knew exactly what I would love I will never know. The startling gesture touched me deeply. Can you fall in love with someone instantly? How about a whole family? They had me at “Welcome to Missouruh.”
My connection to her continued through the darkest time of my life. I felt doubly blessed to have my own mother to soothe my heartache and another mother figure who healed me unknowingly, simply by being herself. More visits and conversations allowed me to observe her ways, her smiling consistency and unflinching positive outlook, her effervescent energy. I came to know her well, and as they say, to know her, is to love her.
Three years later, as much a surprise to me as to everyone else, I discovered the love of my life right there in this family. Her only son, the brother of my best friend, proposed to me and I became a legal in-law, but I was already hers. I grew in devotion to her like Ruth to Naomi. “Whither thou goest, I will go.” She loved my children, and not just the Kent babies that came later, but those she inherited, my big kids, scooping them up and adding them to her brood like they’d been there all along, too. We were family.
Over more than twenty years and across hundreds of miles, we shared happy, contented times, and the inevitable tough times brought us closer still. But, this? This is beyond tough. The worst has happened: Mom is the heart of this family and losing her is unthinkable.
When the call comes it is unexpected and triggers a panic we try, and fail, to suppress.
Steven’s sister, my best friend, Traci says, “You need to come. Now.”
With palpable urgency we throw things in suitcases, cancel appointments, and take the girls out of school, making the interminable drive to St. Louis at 80 mph. Reeling from shock, we don’t speak, but in our racing thoughts, we reach for anything to steady the lurching shift that’s thrown the world out of sync. Mom was okay just last week when they sent her home to recover from an arduous stem cell transplant. Even if she had a ways to go, she was definitely on the mend. But, now we know. The transplant didn’t work. Her body did not respond the way we’d hoped. For fourteen months the cancer attacked her viciously, resisting treatment after treatment, sometimes with near-fatal reactions. How unfair, how goddamned cruel, that now, after all she’s endured—transfusions, surgeries, hospitalizations, procedures that should have granted, if not a cure, at least more time, how devastating that she is left with this abrupt, horrifying end. She is only 69. As she said, “I was supposed to have more time.”
The reality hits when we reach the hospital. She is going where none of us can follow. Nearly everyone has come and Mom is surrounded by the ones who love her most, all three of her kids, middle-aged now with kids and grandkids of their own, her brother and sister, six of her eight grandchildren, and friends who have traversed the decades. Disbelief rocks us as we grope for meaning in this brutal certainty.
Compelled by prescience, though exhausted, she will not rest until everyone has been seen, the wrenching goodbyes a sacred ritual.
Special permission is granted to our young daughters to visit and when they enter shyly, she touches and kisses them. With heroic effort, between wheezing breaths, she helps them understand what’s happening.
“Remember when MeMe said everyone has a time? It wasn’t time before but, well, it looks like it’s MeMe’s time now.” Her frail voice breaks and she pauses. “But it will be okay. Somehow it will be okay.”
They bend over her, careful to avoid the central line and oxygen cannula, for the last hug they will have. And after they’ve left, she weeps for the first and only time, utterly bereft, inconsolable.
Later, her girlfriend of more than forty years braces for their final farewell, putting a smile on her face before walking through the door.
“Hey, gal. Whatcha doin’?” she says in a casual tone.
“Well,” Mom says, weakly, barely audible. “Looks like I’m kicking it over.”
Bantering constantly, regardless of the situation, that is what they do. It’s how they say, “I don’t know what I would have done without you this year,” and “I don’t know what I’m going to do without you for the rest of my life.” They part not with ‘goodbye,’ but ‘see ya later.’ It’s not until Mom’s beloved friend is down the hall and around the corner that she finally lets go, collapsing into her husband’s waiting arms.
I’ve waited my turn, respectful of the pecking order. But I need to see her. I need her to know how I feel, but there are no words to convey everything she means to me. For Good from Wicked plays in my mind along with the memory of sitting next to her at a live production of the Broadway musical—my birthday present to her—as lyrical voices resonated in the acoustical glory of the Fox Theatre. If I dared, I would sing to her,
I’ve heard it said That people come into our lives for a reason Bringing something we must learn, and we are led To those who help us most to grow If we let them And we help them in return It well may be, that we will never meet again In this lifetime So let me say before we part, so much of me is made from what I learned from you You’ll be with me like a handprint on my heart Because I knew you . . . I’ve been changed for good
Instead, I sit quietly by her bed, willing my love into her awareness as she lies sleeping. Suddenly, she opens her eyes and sees me. All that’s between us shimmers in the air. “I love you, Lisa Kent,” she says intensely. The blessing washes over me. “I love you, Linda Kent.” Tears are in my voice. She knows. She knows.
Her goodbyes complete, the dying process begins in earnest. As pneumonia rages, her heart races and her breathing becomes torturous as her body fights for each inhalation. A sip of water to a parched mouth, soothing balm to cracked lips, a cloth to a fevered head, these only ease her suffering briefly.
“Rest now, Mom,” her oldest daughter, Lori says. “Just go to sleep. We’ll be right here.”
But in between fretful sleeping and waking, she struggles to tell us one more thing. Barely able to form the words, she manages to utter, “I want us to stay a family.”
She’s worried that without her we will drift apart, let conflict come between us. She is adamant, and rightly so that we respect her wishes.
“I want you to love each other and be happy.”
“We will, Mom,” we say in unison.
“Promise?” she pleads. She must know we will take care of each other before she can let go.
The nurses move around us now as we keep vigil. Confined to a hospital room, a waiting room and a hotel room, perspective shifts radically and the minutes and hours lose meaning. Has it been three days or a week? A surreal bending of space and time becomes our existence; there is no longer a world outside this place.
My husband won’t leave. By her bedside, he quietly holds her hand as she sleeps fitfully, though it’s excruciating for him to watch his mother suffer. She stirs and asks in a panic. “Where is Steven?” though her hand is still encircled in his, their long fingers cut from the same pattern.
“I’m right here, Mom.” He strokes her cheek with the back of his hand. Reassured, she relaxes back into the pillows.
As the hours drag on, each time she wakes, finding herself trapped in a body wrecked by disease, her anxiety mounts. “Unplug me,” she says, though she is not on life support. With courageous acceptance, Mom is ready to go, leaps and bounds ahead of us.
Soon, the sedatives and pain meds help calm her as the separation begins. She drifts somewhere between here and . . . not here. She’s stopped talking, retreating.
Dad sits on the edge of the bed and leans in close. “You are the love of my life,” he whispers. “You’ve fought so hard.” He brings her hand to his lips, bowing his head. Sobs wrack his body. “Wait for me, I’ll be there soon.”
I cannot bear it and turn away from the intensely private moment. My hand covers my mouth and my eyes search for my husband’s. We look to his two sisters and an unspoken message travels between; we surrender to the swelling tide of anguish.
The next morning, Traci pushes the bulky hospital bed and the attached monitors and machines away from the wall and angles it toward the window. The rising sun streams in. Peaceful music plays quietly. Tranquility eases the tension for a blessed moment.
With her last bit of strength, she lifts her heavy eyelids a fraction. With incredible will, she lifts a shaky hand off the bed a mere few inches before dropping it. Through the small slits, her eyes are cloudy and seem unfocused. Yet as we watch, we swear her gaze moves slowly from face to face, tracking, lingering on each one of us. An electrical connection pings back and forth. She is here. But she is going. Soon.
It happens in a whisper. Dad and Lori have left, telling her they’re just going to grab some lunch. Kissing her forehead, he says, “I’ll be right back. See you in a minute.”
Steven, Traci and I, continue our watch in silence, together, but apart. Sitting in a chair, I rest my head in my hand and start to sleep, to dream. For days now, her fight to breathe has become increasingly urgent. The loud, rhythmic sound churns, a biological instinct for self-preservation. It’s become the background noise, a soundtrack to dying. As I drift further, something pulls my awareness back, as if I’ve been tapped on the shoulder. The lack of the repetitive churning sound slowly enters my consciousness. Then, abruptly, I wake up. Watching, I see her take a quieter breath. Then nothing. Awareness descends synchronously on us all and we spring to the bedside.
We wait and there’s another breath, easier this time. A pause. A softer breath, almost a sigh. A longer pause. Then another breath . . . that becomes . . . her last.
Traci sobs and cradles her mother in her arms. Steven lays his cheek next to hers. I run for the nurse and hear my husband cry, “You were the best mother I could ever ask for. I love you so much.” Down the hall I hear Traci wail like a child.“You held me when I came into the world and I will hold you as you leave.”
The nurse confirms it is happening and removes the oxygen mask. His hand on her chest, my husband feels her heart stop. We all feel it when she lightly, elegantly lifts from her body and glides away.
An ephemeral gap in the storm appears suddenly, allowing brilliant light to bleed through the wooden blinds and warm my face for a moment before dark clouds converge, a pall returning. I roll over to face my husband. Eyes closed, he is motionless, yet within, I can feel his disquiet. I sense the vibrations of pain coursing through his body. His mother has died. And where did she go? I can’t find her and it frightens me. She is gone, slipping the surly bonds of earth despite our desperate longing for her to stay. I know she no longer suffers. I believe she’s with the angels now, yet the cavernous void in her absence can’t be quantified.
I cup his cheek and smooth his brow. He opens his eyes to look at me and I see . . . her eyes. He has his mother’s eyes. I see her in his cheekbones. And in his smile. He has her generous nature and tender heart, too. And brilliant mind. And love of cooking. I’m acutely aware how he came from her.
My spirit soars with this epiphany. My babies, they came from their father, who came from her. Like Russian stacking dolls, they too, are part of her, shaped by her influence, molded in her image. She lives on within them; everything she was and everywhere she was from.
From small towns and familiar neighbors and grandma next door. From gas at 21 cents a gallon and no indoor bathroom and a washing machine hooked up on the back porch. She was from the chill on a fall morning in Kansas as leaves blew along cracked sidewalks, and from laundry hung on the line to dry in the spring sunshine. From playing board games inside on snowy days and riding bikes outside until dark.
She was from an absent father and an unstable mother. From a younger brother and sister to look after and from growing up too quickly. From babysitting at ten and working at Tasty Freeze at thirteen for $.75 an hour. From a dance club out of town in an old warehouse and cherry vodka and Jan and Dean and Ricky Nelson.
From an office job at Pittsburg State and a handsome fraternity boy from the university. From young love they said would never last. From a little white house and domesticated bliss and round babies that bounced on her knee. She was from washing dishes and washing out diapers. From friends who became family and raised each other’s kids, who made their own fun on a Saturday night when money was tight.
From the Kool-aid house where everyone wanted to hang out with the mom they wished was theirs. She was from “I’m gonna come down there and spank some butts!” and “Get outta that, dinner’s almost ready,” and “Be home by midnight and don’t drink and drive.” She was from “You can be whatever you want to be,” and “I’m so proud of you.” She was from motherhood first and everything else second.
She was from crockpots and homemade macaroni and cheese and chocolate cake and Christmas braid. From birthdays and Easters and Valentine’s Days cards with cash inside. From shopping year-round and finding the perfect gift for the perfect person. She was from boundless generosity.
She was from cross-stitched samplers and Precious Moments figurines and Longaberger baskets. From Christmas trees in the living room and in the family room and in the kitchen and in the bedroom, decorated with ornaments that aged with her children, each marked with the date and holding the memory of that time. She was from Santas: on the hutch, the shelf, the table and the stairs. Old World Santas, Black Santas, country Santas and ceramic Santas. She was from Santa himself (played by PaPa) coming in through the back door on Christmas Eve with presents for the little ones. She was from trash bags of torn and crumpled wrapping paper and delicious aromas and bellies too stuffed to move.
She was from a house bursting with laughter and life and noise, from her dream of a large family come true. From shouts of “MeMe!” followed by torpedo hugs around the waist. From special weekends and movies in the living room and Barbies and arts and crafts and baking cookies. She was from beautiful hands and gentle touches and soft hugs. From open arms for everyone who crossed her threshold. She was from acceptance and judging no one.
She was from hard work and dedication. From eye-glasses and fittings and appointments and patients and co-workers who loved her, from knowing everyone in town. She was from rising before the sun and falling asleep in front of the TV.
She was from retirement and Grandparent’s Day at elementary school and dance recitals and choir concerts and softball games. She was from best friends and vacations in the Smoky Mountains and Tybee Island and Santa Fe. From two couples, best friends, traveling the country and shopping at the Lake. From coffee on Saturday mornings and growing old together.
She was from signature perfume and Pandora charms and Land’s End sweaters and scarves from L.L. Bean. From new recipes and new bedspreads and new rugs. From gardens and bird-feeders. She was from Mid-West Living and O Magazine. From bookshelves and bookshelves of books. From Kindles and laptops. She was from photos on Facebook and photos hung on every wall.
She was from spending her entire adult life as wife to her husband, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. From forgiveness and steady calm in stormy seas. She was from dignity and grace and long-suffering.
She was from pink ball caps skewed to the side to cover her balding head and Relay for Life and incredible courage in the fight for her life. From comforting others even at the end of her own journey. She was from “Everything’s going to be all right,” and “I love you so much,” and “I’m ready to go.” She was from pure love.*
Memories and impressions of my mother-in-law flood my senses. The sting of death remains, but losing her is impossible: she’s here. My breath rushes in and I’m filled with the Essence of Her Presence. I exhale . . . then begin to weep. My husband’s arms lock around me quick and tight. Even in his own grief, he understands the depth of mine. He will hold me as long as it takes.
Grief lives in our house, but so does joy. The world without her will never be the same, but the sun will come up and the days will go by. The children will keep growing and a new life will join the family when our grandson is born in a few months as we more to come as we remain a family. We will laugh and celebrate and dream. And when remembrance overwhelms us, we will cry and rail and grieve again. There is no escape. We are powerless to circumvent mourning. I can’t bear it, but somehow I will, by leaning into the grief and feeling it in my bones, by going about living our robust lives and by knowing that the two are not mutually exclusive.
Mom wants us to be happy. She told us that in her dying wishes. She loved the song, You’ll Be in My Heart, by Phil Collins from the movie, Tarzan, which serendipitously came out the year our daughter, Sydney, was born with Down syndrome. The lyrics speak of the protective and nurturing nature of a maternal figure. I think she wants us to know she’s still here, loving us, mothering us. And I believe if we listen, if we just look over our shoulders, we will always find her.
You’ll be in my heart Always, I’ll be with you Just look over your shoulder Just look over your shoulder Just look over your shoulder I’ll be there always”
“Mom, do you have a pencil and paper I can have?” my daughter, Haley asked as we watched the ring-tailed lemurs leap from tree to tree at the San Francisco Zoo. “I need to write something down.”
Our vacation this year — part sightseeing, part family reunion — took us on a 5,000-mile adventure that included 4 flights, 3 hotels, 2 rental cars and 1 beach house. My husband, Steven and I took our two youngest, Sydney, 14, and Haley, 10, braving airport security and mass transit to do something we love: travel.
I scrounged in my purse, finding a pen and a grocery receipt, and handed them to Haley then watched as she walked over to a placard and started writing. Peering over her shoulder I read:
We are burnt by the fire we have started
Proverb from Madagascar
Madagascar’s deforestation, largely the result of slash and burn agriculture, is resulting in the rapid destruction of the lemurs’ habitat and has rendered the primates endangered.
Intrigued, I asked, “Why do you want to write this down, sweetie?”
She didn’t hesitate, “This is a good thing to remember because when you make bad choices you’ll always be affected by it. You’ll always get consequences.”
What goes around comes around
When I was growing up, my mother was fond of saying, “What goes around comes around,” something I didn’t quite understand then. Looks like my daughter gets it already. Smart girl.
We drove up the California/Oregon coast to join my mom’s side of the family for a rare reunion. There are three sisters in her generation; all single and living alone. In preparation for this momentous occasion, they went through albums and storage boxes of old photographs and sent me scads of them, some faded and torn, dating back more than a hundred years. I sifted through them, selecting the best ones to create a slideshow.
For hours I worked, mesmerized by the sepia tones and black and white images of decades past and awed by uncanny family resemblances. My great-grandfather in his 20s looked shockingly like my brother at the same age; a genetic blueprint stamped across time. The photos held the energetic charge of ancestry brought to life in cryptic storytelling. At 50, for the first time I felt deep stirrings, sensing my lineage as a gossamer web linking me to strangers. As though the double helices in my DNA vibrated in recognition of my people.
The similarities are not only physical, but in what we’ve chosen to do. I come from a long line of artists, musicians, writers and teachers, from brilliant minds. We are creative souls and passionate innovators. Yet the pedigree is rife, too, with mental illness, addiction and abuse. While the photos tell tales of triumph over loss, inspiring hope, behind the camera lie stories of pain and suffering, often at the hands of loved ones. I cannot deny the dark reality of my origins, but bringing the past into the light to examine allows me to see where I come from. And moreover, who I’ve become in spite of it. Or perhaps because of it.
The double helices in my DNA vibrated
Our family reunion provided the perfect opportunity to take a closer look. A kaleidoscope of personalities and interactions, the few days spent with some of the people I love most on this planet can best be described as . . . intense. Being together after many years apart was indescribably sweet and heartwarming. The conversations and tender reflections, just as I’d envisioned, elevated and strengthened our bonds. But patterns springing from old injuries triggered strident reactions. The tension born of control issues and power struggles — dynamics all too familiar — began to threaten the happy tone of our gathering.
At one point, I ran away. To the beach. I found a trail and followed it up a mountain, working out my thoughts to the pounding of my heart. Pumping my legs and lungs, I breathed in the cool air. By the time I emerged on a steep cliff overlooking the vastness of the ocean I’d gained perspective. In front of me was the big picture. Gorgeous waves sprayed white foam as they crashed against jagged rocks below, the sound, both powerful and calming at once. The lush pines growing along the sheered edge reminded me of the place Mom and I scattered my Grammy’s ashes.
Freedom in compassion
In solitude I stood. The wind whipped at my hair. My apprehensions lifted, dissolving, blowing out to sea. I was left with a peaceful quietude and a clear mind so I could hear the voice that said, “Separate the worth of those you love from the way they behave.” Here was my salvation: In my compassion for my family I found freedom for myself.
Terri Cole, licensed psychotherapist says, “When you analyze the family belief system, you can begin to see that much of what you experience as ‘the way it is’ is just the way it was in your family of origin and that you can choose a different way of seeing yourself and your potential. Once you understand how it was, you can decide how you want it to be.”
What goes around comes around, but does that mean history must repeat itself? I think not. “When you know better, you do better,” said Maya Angelou. Can I put the fire out and stop this generation from burning the next? The answer is a resounding yes.
Though conflict was inevitable, the visit was also interspersed with priceless moments to cherish: combing the tide pools and watching the kids play in the waves, making breakfast side by side, singing with a guitar around the campfire. And the highlight, dimming the lights to take in the slideshow. My intention was not to glorify the past and hide its shadowy secrets, but to illuminate that which holds us together amidst our brokenness. It was my gift, a love letter to my family.
A love letter to my family
Years of memories passed across the screen; lifetimes told in pictures. In a cacophony of noise we watched. Shouts of recognition and celebration. Squeals of delight. And tears of mourning and regret. We reached out and held hands. We held each other. We forgave each other.
Like I said, intense. But, profound. And pivotal. Because the cycle is broken with my generation. We are no longer burned by the fire that was started ages ago and our children will never know the scars our parents bore.
Back in the Bay area, after our trip to the zoo, my little family enjoyed dinner at a local bar and grill, comfortably seated in a high-backed wooden booth. Haley finished first and got squirrely. She needed to use the restroom, but had kicked off her shoes. She dove down and her denim-clad bottom piked above the table. Her bare feet followed, their blackened soles flailing in my face. Before I could stop her crawling on the floor, she cracked Steven’s shin with her head.
Bad choices get consequences
“Ouch!” he startled, rubbing his leg.
“Haley, get up here, now!” I said peering under the tablecloth.
She popped up, breathless. “But I had to get my shoes!”
Steven lowered his chin to level his best “listen-to-me” look at her. “This behavior is not okay. Where are your manners? We take you out to a nice restaurant and this is how you act?”
She listened, taking her licks. At that point, living out of suitcases and eating in restaurants was taking a toll on us all.
“Tomorrow night, you’re having a burrito from the gas station!” he finished, exasperated.
I looked at her repentant little face, thinking he might actually be getting through to her.
“Come on, I’ll take you to the bathroom,” I said, sliding out of the booth.
As we walked down the hallway, hand in hand, I reminded her of the quote she’d copied earlier and her own interpretation, when you make bad choices, you’ll always get consequences.
She leaned in conspiratorially and with an expression that said “the joke is on Dad,” she whispered. “They don’t even have burritos at the gas station!”
Captain Higgle’s ‘Rainbow Ship’ made its maiden voyage in my living room last weekend. Constructed from an enormous cardboard TV box and every kind of tape known to humankind, Sydney and Haley designed their pirate ship with only a little help from Dad. Sails of giant foam squares attach with duct tape to the handle of a push broom forming the mast. A cut out drawbridge lowers from the helm onto the gangplank engineered from plywood and risers from Mom’s Reebok step.
My girls imagine vivid landscapes when they make believe, acting out stories and fantasies of all sorts. Household items become props as they set the stage for their dramatic improvisation. Haley crawls on her hands and knees, sniffing and licking at two bowls; one of water, the other, cheerios. “I’m a newborn black lab,” she says.
Flying over New Mexico on my way to Phoenix, I peer through the airplane’s small window, taking in the vastness of the red rocks below. I’m going home to the desert. To the funeral of my brother’s son.
People in my life keep leaving. They move away or change. Or die. Sometimes they stop answering my calls. Abruptly, they’re just gone. I don’t know why this keeps taking me by surprise or why the blow to my heart doesn’t diminish with its recurrence. I’ve been collecting losses and abandonment along my path like souvenirs on a trip.
I can’t seem to find my way through the loss. Pain, heavy and suffocating, has set up residence in my chest. Not long ago, one sister lost her husband to cancer. Around the same time, a close friend died from suicide. My heart–the organ that pumps my blood and the seat of my emotions–hurts from so much grief. And now, this precious boy, not yet 21, is gone. He was only eight years old the last time I saw my nephew. Maybe it was I who abandoned him.
And so lying underneath those stormy skies She’d say, oh, I know the sun must set to rise.
Paradise by Coldplay
~For Richard, Heidi and Gabriel~
It was Sunday afternoon. The weekend that seemed to stretch out enticingly before me on Friday was, for all intents and purposes, over. I sat on the couch, mindlessly surfing Facebook, playing Angry Birds. I had the ‘Sunday blues,’ that restless dissatisfaction that strikes around 5:00 p.m. when the realization that a weekend filled with relaxation and leisure is just not going to materialize. This happens frequently. My days get filled with grocery shopping, running kids to activities, projects at home, work issues, and other mundane tasks. My fun time gets relegated to Saturday night after the kids go to bed and I pass out halfway through a movie.
I felt a shift coming in the weather foretold by the pounding headache that stormed my skull. Sitting alone I looked out the window at the gathering clouds and malaise settled over me as I thought with a sigh how the girls would be home shortly. I’d have to get up from this couch to start the nighttime routine: wrangle up dinner, corral kids into the shower and herd them to bed. I’d go through Friday folders (Sunday night folders, let’s be real) and look ahead to everyone’s schedules, gearing up for another busy week.
But that was all before I got the news that my brother-in-law had died. Just 45 minutes earlier, while I was lamenting the end of the weekend, he’d taken his last breath and given up the battle he’d waged to the finish. Though he and my sister were separated, in the end, their differences didn’t matter. The strife and tension between them healed spontaneously on his journey from this plane to the next. When cancer took over his body, she took him into her home. She tended to his dying and in the process found forgiveness. Her focus was on creating lasting memories for her son, their son. He is seven, my nephew, much too young to lose his father. And his father, much too young to lose his life.
Richard suffered in pain and struggled for every breath. He had not come peacefully to his death. The denial tortured both he and Heidi. When his agitation became too great, the meds gave relief and he drifted in a morphine-induced fog. My sister lay down with her husband, pressing her body to his, her mouth to his ear.
Bless Mommy and bless Daddy who come each time I call.
God bless the folks I love, God bless us all.
Lyrics by Tom Murray, Music by Tony Burrello, 1953
I took a quiz once to define my priorities in life, listing the three possessions I would save if my house was on fire. The answer was the same then as it is now; family photos are numero uno on my list. And two and three as well, since I would lug through the flames as many albums as I could drag or throw. Now, in the digital age, our collective family history is conveniently stored on my hard drive and I imagine in my panic, I might heave my iMac out the window. It may seem like dramatic heroics to rescue mere two-dimensional images, but these visual reflections of the past not only warehouse and catalogue individual moments, but also activate and develop the negatives in my memory, bringing the people, places, and times surrounding those moments back to life, in vivid 3D Technicolor. Pictures tell stories. Pictures reveal secrets. Pictures frame truths. Irreplaceable homages to what has been and never will be again, they are priceless.
Lisa Pullen Kent is a writer, yoga teacher, musician, and passionate lover of people. She writes on parenting, marriage and the sacredness of the ordinary in everyday life. She lives in Columbia, Missouri with her husband and their two youngest children, one of whom has Down syndrome.