Seven Years Gone

The stairs at Swallow Cliff

The stairs at Swallow Cliff

Last Sunday, I climbed all the steps of the Sears Tower. Maybe you’re sick of me talking about it on Facebook by now (touche!) but it really was something I am proud of doing. Collectively, my three teammates and I raised nearly $2,000 for the RIC and we trained relatively seriously for the event. Another wonderful side effect of our training was being on long car rides with Jaimi and Becca several times this fall, and getting to be outside with them in some gorgeous Illinois folliage. We did most of our training together at Swallow Cliff, a Cook County Forest Preserve. It’s home to a set of outdoor steps, 125 of them. We walked up and down them 8, 10, 12 times on our visits there: They are uneven and harsh on your muscles, particularly when going down them. We bonded over exhaustion and post-workout Starbucks and became closer as a result. After our last training session, I was driving us back into the city. Becca mentioned off-hand that her mom had been feeling down this past week, after a combination of major life events hit her simultaneously: She’d been told she would soon need to schedule heart surgery to repair a small valve leak, but also a close friend of hers died from cancer. Becca began to describe what had happened to the friend, and I felt a sick wave of familiarity hit me. She’d had a brain tumor, and it was a shockingly short illness. She was gone mere months after being diagnosed.

Mom holding me, then age two

Mom holding me, then age two

“Did she have a glioblastoma tumor?” I asked Becca, cautiously meeting her eyes from where she sat in the back seat. She nodded slowly. Most people who know me know what happened to my mom. It’s something I used to write about a lot, particularly when I was grieving. I don’t really anymore. I talk about it even less, not because I don’t like to, but just because it really doesn’t come up a lot. I can now tell stories about my mom and share memories of her without making other people feel weird about the fact that she’s dead. I was cripplingly unable to do that for a couple years after she passed, but now I can, and I do. It’s a learned skill, knowing how to not make other people feel uncomfortable about something terrible that happened to you. I don’t mind. I make up for it by having those rare, but beautifully soul-lifting, honest, heart-to-hearts with people my age who have lost a parent. In those, we know where the other is coming from and we aren’t afraid to truly feel it around each other. For anyone who doesn’t know, or is fuzzy on the details, my mom died seven years ago. She passed away after an eight-month battle with a brain tumor that grew, was removed, grew, was removed. She was diagnosed in February 2007 and gone by November, on the 11th — Veterans Day. Remembrance Day. Less than a month before my college graduation. She was 54, and I miss her a lot. Obviously in the months after she died I missed her because her absence was felt really strongly at the time. Now I rationally accept that she’s gone. I know that all I have to operate on for the rest of my existence are the memories of those 21 years I had with her, at least what I can still grasp. There aren’t going to be new Facebook statuses of hers for me to pore over or Instagram photos of her to relish because the source is gone. Instagram wasn’t even a thing in 2007. Her Facebook account was memorialized years ago. These days I just wish I could call her and share my life with her, the way my friends get to call their moms.

My mom received radiation to treat her leukemia when I was four.

Mom received radiation to treat leukemia when I was four.

Like Becca with her mother, whose friendship I have always enjoyed hearing about. That day in the car, passing through downtown in a blurry mental fog, I told Jaimi and Becca the short version of what happened to my mom. I asked Becca if she knew if her mom’s friend had had radiation at some point earlier in life, and she said she wasn’t sure. I thought about the conversation later and realized it had felt nice to talk about my mom, and that it had been a while since I thought about what had really happened to her. A week later, Jaimi and I were at Becca’s. It was the night before the Sears Tower climb and we’d planned a potluck dinner of carbs, protein, and veggies. After we ate, we watched a movie Becca had wanted me to see, called Truly, Madly, Deeply. It’s a British movie with Alan Rickman, who plays Juliet Stevensen’s dead husband. Becca had admitted it was a bit maudlin, but I was wholly unprepared for how I was going to react to that movie. It’s not sad the entire time, by any means, but it was upsetting enough to me at its start and end that I was choking back sobs on her couch hoping she and Jaimi didn’t notice. I liked it a lot and it’s a beautiful movie, but I was a little glad when it was over because I just felt so strange about it.

Jaimi and I ran a 5K to support the American Brain Tumor Association in April.

Jaimi and I ran a 5K to support the American Brain Tumor Association in April.

A little while later, Becca mentioned that she’d asked her mom, and learned that her friend did have radiation at some point. I nodded in what I hoped was a casual way, and walked out of the room. I just lost it and burst into tears in her bathroom. I did my best to recover convincingly and walked out a few minutes later, but no one was fooled. Becca gave me a huge hug. Then so did Jaimi. I held them tight while still feeling slightly stupid. But they would have none of that. Becca made us tea and we sat. I talked and talked and talked about my mom, her cancer, her death. I wanted to tie neat little bows on sad stories and found that, as it’s always been these seven years, no such bows exist. I spilled my guts and ugly cried, but they listened without fear. I am not sure why that movie struck me the way it did, but I know I’d been thinking about my mom a lot because of this upcoming anniversary, and also about Becca’s mom’s poor dear friend. It hurts a lot but it’s still so good to take the time to think about her. She really would be thrilled with my life right now, and I know that. She was a writer and reporter for our tiny town, and loved listening to audiobooks in her car on the way to work. She loved coffee and Cadbury cream eggs and NPR and the BBC and Paul Newman. We aren’t so different these days and I am proud to become more and more like her.

My mom had this quote taped to the bottom of her desk drawer as a reminder. I think about it a lot.

My mom had this quote taped to the bottom of her desk drawer as a reminder. I think about it a lot.

Losing her at 21 was just such a bite in the ass. She was a pretty private person and I was a bratty teenager. By the time she died I was only just starting to come out of that stage in life. We really got cheated, both of us. Just, all of us. My brother and sister-in-law missed out on showing off their two little daughters, and they in turn won’t get to know their bad ass grandma. I’m so thankful to my stepmom for being there for them, and for us. I’m glad I have my aunt to talk to and ask questions I’d be asking my mom right now about being a grown-up lady with concerns. It sucks, it sucks, it sucks. I can’t tell you it doesn’t. I can’t make you worry less about it happening to you. If it does though, I will be here for you. The club gets bigger all the time. I am spending the annivesary of my mother’s death doing things I want to do and/or need to do. These agenda items will range from getting a flu shot and some doctor facetime to writing while eating my mom’s favorite Pepperidge Farm cookies and toasting her with a fancy coffee beverage. I’ve never really found a set tradition in terms of how to honor her on this day, and so it’s changed every year. I think I just need to be fine with that and do whatever feels best year to year. She was a wonderful person and I hope she’d be proud of me and our family. I’m not sure what she’d have thought of my agreeing to climb the Sears Tower, but I know she’d love visiting me here in Chicago.

Update, 11/12/14: My dad had the following to say about this post yesterday:

I have one correction. The glioblastoma tumor is an insidious many-tendriled thing that cannot be totally removed. Parts of it remain in the recesses of the brain and then regenerate quickly. Despite its mellifluous sound, Glioblastoma is the worst word in the English language. The best word is Benign, but we didn’t get to hear that. You have been tragically denied an adult relationship with your mother, but you were not denied her love and approval.  I know she would be as pleased with you now as she always was.

My coffee-loving mom. London cafe, 2005

My coffee-loving mom. London cafe, 2005

Advertisements

Ohio, in Four Parts

A couple days before I left for Ohio, I worried about where I’d sleep the night I hit town. I knew I wouldn’t see Columbus until 11 or later, since I was leaving right after work from the suburbs, and I didn’t want to make my aunt and uncle wait up for me especially if I ran late due to traffic. Tuesday night I realized I could call in a favor with my high school friend Randy, who lives near OSU’s campus and who’d stayed in Chicago with me a couple weekends ago with our friend Shawn on their way across the country.  He said by all means, come stay, so I crashed on his couch Thursday night.

The next morning we went to get breakfast at Tim Horton’s (!) before we separately drove down to southeastern Ohio – me to Pleasant City to see Owen and Jamie, and him to Caldwell to stay at his dad’s house for the long weekend. It felt silly for us to make the same ~90-minute drive in our own cars, but I needed mine all weekend and couldn’t leave it in Columbus.

Pleasant City

I missed my nieces so much – I was supposed to see them over Memorial Day weekend, but I got sick a couple days before my trip and had to stay in Chicago. I ran up to their front door and my older niece gave me the biggest hug.

tea_partyMy dad and stepmom had brought a giant picnic lunch for us all, and I was happy to see my mom’s brother Alan had made the drive down from Cleveland to see us all. We played badminton and corn hole (because, southeastern Ohio, of course) and watched my two nieces run around in matching July Fourth-themed outfits.

My older niece insisted we have a tea party, so Jamie set out cookies and milk while my niece carefully served us. She beamed at me the entire time, and I couldn’t help but beam back.

My nieces are already so clearly different, even though they are so little. My older almost seems to speak for the younger, who seems content playing on her own quietly while staying out of trouble. They are both so smart and interesting, and I loved getting to be around them. I stayed with them that night, after giving out a summer’s worth of birthday gifts, since Owen’s was July 1 and my older niece’s was June 17. We went for a walk on a paved trail near a neighboring town and my brother talked about his plans to start running again. Everyone at the picnic was incredulous, but seemingly impressed, that I’d managed to run an 8K two weeks prior.

After the girls went to bed the three adults in the house watched the Lego movie, which I unabashedly enjoyed. I crashed on their couch and Jamie made us all breakfast Saturday morning.

Dover

grandpa-meI spent day two of my Ohio vacation splitting time between family and friends, leaving Owen and Jamie’s for our grandfather’s house in Dover. Grandpa had hoped to drive down on the Fourth of July to join our picnic, but he hadn’t slept well the night before and had to cancel. Talking to him in person works best, as the phone can be hard for him to hear me (I talk too fast and my laughter interrupts him). I decided to go see him Saturday for lunch.

We drove to a place he likes in the neighboring town, New Philadelphia, but it was closed. We settled on Dover’s Bob Evans and ordered right away. While we waited for our food, we talked about traveling. I love listening to him talk about all the places he’s been, in the U.S. and abroad, and I try so hard to remember the small details of the things he liked best in case I get to go see them for myself someday, so I can tell him about it.

At some point while we waited he brought up politics, which made me cringe, because it’s the one thing we can’t make the other see eye-to-eye on, and I know arguing with him will only upset him. My dad and his two brothers deal with this dissonance in a variety of ways, and mine is to smile, nod my most non-committal nod, and delicately try to change the subject.

I was just about to excuse myself for the bathroom when he changed the subject himself:

“Let me ask you,” he said. “Have you been out to see your mother’s grave lately?”

For a second, I almost wished he’d gone on more about Obama.

“No,” I said, hesitating. “I haven’t gone in a few years. I don’t get much comfort from it.”

“We’ll go after lunch,” he said. Decision made.

I hoped he’d forget and end up driving us straight home, but when we passed his street I knew there was no getting out of it.

mom-graveI’d been to see my mother’s grave twice since her inurnment service in March of 2008, when family and friends, including Brittany and Adam, came to Dover that spring when the ground thawed. That was when, on what would have been her 55th birthday, her urn could be buried in the place that had marked her life and her death for the last six months.

Later that year, a Columbus friend made the long drive with me there, and after I sat at her graveside and felt nothing, we turned around and went home. Three years later, in the fall of 2011, I took Kevin there so he could see it, and I hadn’t been there since.

Grandpa pulled up the car in front of his wife’s grave, my grandmother’s, which sits five or so away from my mom’s. He stayed in the car and I could tell he was trying to give me some privacy. I stepped out of his car’s passenger side and walked to my mom’s headstone, which also bears my dad’s name – with no date of death, of course, but jarring to see all the same.

I stood there awkwardly for a moment, feeling my grandfather’s eyes on my back, and eventually sat down in the grass a few feet in front of it.

“I know you’re not here,” I said flatly. I paused, then added quietly, “I miss you.”

I  didn’t know what else to do, so I took a photo of the headstone, even though it felt oddly invasive. I stood up and walked away, before stopping at my grandmother’s grave. Grandpa still sat in his car, window down.

“I always liked her epitaph,” I said to him from his own grave.

grandma-epitaphHer stone, which also has my grandfather’s name, says over hers: “My journey’s trinkets will be words.” It was a line from a poem she wrote a year or two after being diagnosed with cancer, but eight or nine years before she actually died. It was called “Epitaph Me.” She was a reporter and writer as well. I never knew her, as she died in June of 1991. It always sounded like she and I would have had a lot to talk about, the way my Uncle Brian and I always do when we see each other.

“Is it strange to see your own name on a gravestone?” I asked my grandpa as we drove away.

“A little,” he admitted. “But I’ve already got my epitaph picked out: ‘Pull my finger.’”

I told my grandfather I loved him before I left, and he didn’t say it back, but he said it to me the next day over the phone without prompting, which was possibly a first. Our family has never been big on “I love you” but I wanted him to hear it that day, even if it felt a little strange.

Caldwell

I left my grandfather’s house and headed to Caldwell, my hometown but no longer my home base, since my dad sold the house I grew up in last fall and moved to the town where my stepmom owns a home. Most of it looked more or less than same as it did at Christmas, as it did last year, as it did when I was in college and in high school.

It’s comforting.

That said, parts of it really have changed, especially during the workweek. The oil and gas industry took off two or three years ago in that area. A third hotel is in talks for the small, formerly one-motel town, and a brand-new Days Inn opened just this past spring, on State Route 821 by the old, now-shuttered DANA plant.

noble-cty-courthouse

The Noble County Courthouse

I’m told parking on the town square, which centers around the Noble County Courthouse, is much harder to come by these days, with developers and oil and gas reps staking out property claims in county records each day. Growing up, the biggest employers in the county were the plant and the prison, the latter of which was built in the 90s and brought state jobs to a rural area. When the prison came, so did a handful of chain fast food places, including the Arby’s, where I got my first job in high school, and where Brittany worked while putting herself through her first college degree.

Now everyone is trying to get in on the oil and gas boom, before it busts. The third hotel in question is a point of outrage for locals, as it will sit within feet of one of Noble County’s two elementary schools. Brittany and Adam’s daughter will start kindergarten there in the fall.

Randy drove me out to see the Days Inn, all shiny and new. He told me he’d heard several TVs had been walked right out of the place before it opened, to my surprise. It stands out, next to the ages-old armory and the old plant.

I stopped by the local grocery store to get something for a picnic out at Wolf Run. I went in to get berries, but saw a meat and cheese tray that had a $3.99 sign above it. I laughed to myself because the same Hormel tray would be at least $9.99 at a Jewel in Chicago, so I grabbed it instead. At the check out I was surprised to learn it was actually $13.99, a large mark-up instead of a discount. I felt foolish for thinking that everything was cheaper in southeastern Ohio and paid it anyway, writing it off as an idiot tax.

Randy offered to drive me to the picnic since he was going too, and I separated the cheeses, ham, and pepperoni from their plastic bags and lined them up in sections next to the Ritz crackers out of their plastic sleeves. I forgot I’d done so later in the car and tilted the whole thing sideways, mixing it all together anyway.

“I hope this doesn’t offend the many vegetarians who I’m sure will be there,” I joked to Randy.

Randy, my one-time high school boyfriend, drives a new car he just got, and I laughed when I realized it was a standard car and not an automatic. He’d driven a standard all through high school and I kind of loved that a decade later that small detail hadn’t changed. He offered to let me drive, which I waved off.

“You tried to teach me in high school, remember?” I said. “We fish-tailed all over a gravel back road.”

We went to the wrong spot at first for the picnic, so I let him talk me into driving the less-than-a-mile journey to the right place. I stalled his car seven times and swore the entire time, as he laughed and somehow remained calm in the passenger seat, just as he had ten years earlier.

We didn’t stay more than a couple of hours because I needed to get to Brittany and Adam’s, so I rushed us back to town. From the passenger seat I realized I’d left the meat and cheese tray, which had barely been touched in favor of homemade burgers and potato salad.

“We can go back,” Randy offered, but I declined.

“Brittany wouldn’t eat it anyway, since she actually is a vegetarian,” I said.

Brittany decided to become a vegetarian at age 19 after PETA visited her Intro to Ethics class. All through high school I’d joked that she was a vegetarian in denial, since she never ate meat and swore she didn’t like it, so her decision years later was one that made sense to me.

I spent that night with Brittany and Adam and our friend Cindy, talking until 1 a.m. before realizing we were old and tired. We got breakfast in Cambridge in the morning and I headed back to Columbus from there.

Columbus

I can never spend as much time as I want in every place I want to in Ohio whenever I go home, so one aspect of my Ohio life always ends up getting neglected. This time, it was Columbus. I got to town around 2:30 Sunday afternoon and went to see my aunt and uncle’s new home for the first time. They’d sold their Clintonville house, the one I’d always known as their house, the first day it was on the market, for above-asking price. They scooped up a smaller, but big enough, house in a neighborhood closer to where I’d first lived when I moved to Columbus.

I visited with my uncle for a while, and then my aunt, and then drove to the ‘burbs to get dinner with a couple I know from college who’d graciously agreed to meet up with me on short notice. I felt tired after, as if the last three days of running around had suddenly caught up with me, so I went back to my family’s house. I got in a short video chat session with Sarah and Stef, as we’ve tried to do on Sunday nights since Sarah moved, and listened my middle cousin Brett talk about music with his 20-something friends. After they left, Brett played “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea” in its entirety for my aunt and uncle, who’d just purchased tickets for all three of my cousins to go see Neutral Milk Hotel in Columbus later this month.

spinellis

Spinelli’s Deli in Italian Village, Columbus.

I left Monday morning for home. I stopped at the deli that is by the old apartment I shared with Doug and Chandra, for the first four months that I lived in Columbus. I got the same breakfast sandwich I would treat myself to back when I was a broke reporter, one who was just feeling the thrill of living in a city for the first time, and the simple pleasure of even having a neighborhood deli to walk to in the morning. It was my Columbus version of Beans and Bagels, I guess, the coffee shop in my current neighborhood, where I still sometimes go on weekend mornings to get a variation of that same breakfast sandwich.

I drove home. When I stopped for gas somewhere in Indiana, I saw my brother had posted a copy of “Epitaph Me,” my grandmother’s poem, to my Facebook wall.

epitaph-me-poem

Even though I made good use of my time in Ohio, I didn’t see everyone I wanted to, or even get to let everyone I should have know that I’d be there. Sorry for that. I do hope to see you next time.

The third year

The ceiling at Not-Marshall-Fields

As it so often is these days, Nov. 11 was the anniversary of the day my mom died. She’s been gone for three years now, and that number is only going to get bigger despite my best efforts. I’m getting further and further away from her, and sometimes I’m afraid of the things I might forget. I’d planned on spending the day by myself in a strange city, letting myself be melancholy and fantastically over dramatic with my musical choices, not telling anyone here what Thursday was. Fortunately, I changed my mind and mentioned the anniversary to Christina on Tuesday night, during one of our long, gut spilling conversations. She offered to keep me busy and distracted that day, and I took her up on it.

She asked me if my family had visited Chicago; we had. What about Chicago reminded me of my mom? I knew right away it was Marshall Fields. Even though it’s not there anymore, and it’s been replaced by the department store company I work at now, I have thought about my mom a lot with this new venture. I associate department stores in general with her, but I definitely have a memory of being at Marshall Fields with her, and her buying some of those famous Frango mint chocolates. Those at least are still around, so we decided to go to Not-Marshall-Fields (as Christina so affectionately calls it, like a true Chicagoan) and buy a box. She offered to take me on a tour of the city on her day off, and gave me a book to start in preparation. I spent the next day making a major dent in “The Devil in the White City,” a fascinating book about two important men living and working in Chicago in the late 1890s.

We went on our tour Thursday morning and hit Not-Marshall-Fields. Christina kept her biting indictment of the State Street store’s current tenant (and now, the folks giving me a paycheck) to a lull, and we went on a wild hunt for this ornate ceiling Christina remembered seeing a long time ago. We couldn’t find it right away, and for a while we were afraid Not-Marshall-Fields had unnecessarily removed a beautiful Tiffany-style ceiling. At last, we found it: an interior ceiling on the fourth floor in the women’s department. It was stunning. Christina breathed a sigh of relief.

We picked up a box of chocolates on the way out the door and headed to Miller’s Pub, an Irish pub on the same block as the famous Palmer House. We had lunch and headed north on Clark to a Christina-described hipster area with a ton of vintage clothing stores. We stayed out all day and headed home just before dark.

I was too busy to really take time to reflect, but I am okay with that. It wasn’t like I was intentionally pushing down my feelings, like I’d done for two years after she died; I was just living my life on a day mostly like any other day. I can think about her when I choose. I don’t have to disrupt my life and take a whole day to be sad.

I miss her, but I really do think she’d be pretty excited about my life right now. I think she’d think it’s pretty awesome I’ll be working at a department store and getting a sweet employee discount. She’d be proud of me for doing what I want with my life.

Coming out on the other side of grief

I think I just graduated from grief counseling.

Or at least, I will not be going anymore, after going nearly every two weeks for the last six months. My counselor, Karen, and I agreed that I have come a long way in that time and that I don’t need come back. Which I guess means that I’m all better now? Not necessarily. It just means I’ve come out on the other side of grief, in one piece. Some things can never be fully restored, just like things will never go back to how they were before my mom got sick in February of 2007. But I’ve learned I can survive it.

You don’t get over a loss, you get through it. And you can either embrace the grief and let it take you over, or you can avoid it for two and a half years and shut down when it threatens to be brought up again and interrupt your life. I don’t recommend the latter strategy, personally. Six months ago I would scarcely allow myself to think of my mom. The rare blog posts I wrote about her were exhausting and draining and painful and ugly and torturous to write. Tears usually streaming down my face, I wrote instead of spoke; And I’d always feel a little better after I wrote them. I could talk about what happened to her but I couldn’t let myself get emotional, because once that door opened it was out of my control.

I can talk about her now. I can tell you I miss her but I can also tell you a funny story about her and laugh about it. I can admit she was a lousy cook without feeling like I’m besmirching her memory.

I decided to go to counseling after Brandon and I broke up. I was already a hot mess, and Brandon’s parting words were his suggestion I go. Instead of being offended, I promised I would. He and I had talked about couples counseling but by then I already knew we were beyond that and simply not right for one another. He was worried about my unwillingness to talk about my mom, preferring instead to break down and self destruct alone, in the middle of the night, while he slept. But on the other hand, he just kind of stopped asking about her after a while. We were both at fault when it came to our Great Communication Breakdown.

My dad went to a counselor in the months after my mom’s passing. I hated his counselor. I didn’t agree with anything she told him; she put him on a grieving time line and once it had been a year since my mom died she told him it was time to get rid of her stuff. I fought this tooth and nail and I couldn’t understand how my dad could do something like that. To my mom, to me. For a long time, my dad and I were on the same page. We would call each other and talk about her. We cried. We screamed at each other. We had more fights in the weeks after she died than we did in my four years of high school. We were not in a happy nor healthy place but by God, we were there together.

Then he got better. He moved forward and I stayed in the same place. There I stayed, for months.

I told him over breakfast back in March that I was going to go. He was incredulous as to why I needed to see a therapist and asked what was wrong. I told him I didn’t want to talk to him about it and that was why I was going to talk to someone else.

“Is it Mom?” he asked.

At the very mention of her I broke down, crying into my pancakes in one of Caldwell’s three restaurants.

“Then you should go,” he conceded.

My dad has been seeing a woman named Lee Ann for almost a year now. She is a wonderful, smart, kind person and she really seems to get my dad. He obviously still misses my mom but he hasn’t let her death keep him frozen in time, in grief. I did. I felt like I was betraying her by letting go, by accepting this loss and God forbid, moving on with my life. I felt like I had to go on missing her forever, or she’d be forgotten. She wouldn’t want that for any of us, and I really believe that now. Today I can take comfort in the belief that she would be proud of me and my choices. I try to think about honoring her every day with the words I say and the decisions I make and go on with life, knowing she’d be at peace with what’s transgressed since her passing.

She would be a wonderful, loving grandmother to my little niece and while it of course pains me to know Hannah will never meet her, I am am sure she’ll grow up hearing all about her. We can’t be afraid to talk about her just because it hurts; and I’m learning the more I talk, the less it does hurt.

Celebrating their lives

Last night I was hanging out with Joe and Jessie and she was talking about a 5K event Joe ran in remembrance of Jessie’s dad, who passed away in March. She was talking about how emotional the event was, which is understandable because the wounds of her loss are still so fresh. She’s in what she is calling a season of grief and I won’t forget how lost that can make you feel.

Something she said last night triggered a memory I’d completely buried somewhere in my mind. I have to share it, even though now, years later, I can see how sad it is. But it’s important.

I don’t know how old I was– either in junior high, or maybe a freshman in high school. My mom and I used to sing together at various events, like Marietta’s annual choir performance of “The Messiah” with the orchestra, or in this case, a choir in Caldwell that rehearsed for a few weeks in order to sing at the local Relay For Life event that spring.

I don’t know what songs we sang, but I remember thinking during our weekly rehearsals how pretty those selections were, and maybe one in particular. It was a long time ago. But the night we finally performed, I got really emotional, thinking about my mom, and how she’d had cancer herself but lived to be there to sing at an event memorializing those who hadn’t been so lucky. I remember literally crying while singing, and after we were done I went off by myself and cried so, so hard. My mom found me sitting on the ground and somehow she knew exactly what I was thinking. She assured me she was better now, and we had nothing to worry about.

Of course, years later, those comforting words are no longer true, but they were then. I am glad we had that moment together and I wish I had said more. But maybe I didn’t have to with her.

She was sick the first time, leukemia then, when I was four or five and by the time I understood what a terminal illness was she was out of the woods. I do remember a couple of occasions as a kid or teen when I really did stop and profoundly feel and think about it, and I just marveled at how lucky my family was that my mom beat such gloomy odds. I think I remember hearing a figure of something like a five-year life expectancy, and I’ll be damned if she didn’t stretch that out to 17. Thank God she didn’t go before I was ten, because I’m absolutely sure I’d be a different person.

Rilo Kiley, “The Angels Hung Around”

I been had and I been held
With the ghosts at bay
I been oaked and I been doped
And carried away

I been charred and I been scarred
On my own face
But I never thought I’d see you as I did today

Till the angels hung around
Till the angels hung around
Till the angels hung around
As they carried me away

I been clubbed and I been snubbed
By the dogs of LA
And I been burned and I been learned
In the same city

I been whored and I been gored
I been less and I been more
But I never thought I’d see you
As I did today

Till the angels hung around
Till the angels hung around
Till the angels hung around
As they carried me away

You were stuck in the badlands
Acting like a bad bad man
I been photographed and painted up
And I been in love only once

And I feared the best and loved the worst
And insisted that I go first
And watch your eyes as they poured
And I never really loved you more

And I never thought I’d see you
As I did today

Till the angels hung around
Till the angels hung around
Till the angels hung around
As they carried you away

And they put you in the ground
When the angels hung around
And the angels hung around
As they carried me away

To everything, there is a season

Let’s break it down by numbers, shall we?*

  • Number of miles I’ve driven in the past 36 hours: 208
  • Times I’ve unexpectedly burst into tears in that time: 27
  • Cups of coffee: 9
  • College friends I’ve seen: 8
  • Funerals I have attended: 1

*These are approximations only

It has been an emotional day, friends and readers. I drove up to Huron, Ohio after work and arrived 2 and a half hours later to see my dear college friend Jessie and her family, whom I was unfortunately only speaking to for the first time. Jessie was well composed, and yet very honest about what she was feeling and thinking. The cold, dreaded thoughts I thought about my mom, her body, where she was now — Jessie not only thought them too, she vocalized them.

Maybe I grieved wrong? Maybe you’re supposed to be able to say those almost unspeakable thoughts out loud and that’s how you get the demons out and free yourself from them?

Jessie’s dad’s funeral today was a lot different from the few others I have attended. People actually got up and spoke and shared memories about her dad, and they… they laughed. There were amusing anecdotes, loving stories and regaling jokes that you could tell were particular favorites of the teller shared at this service. Every one of them made me wish I had known Jessie’s father. He sounds like an amazing person.

What surprised me most is that Jessie herself spoke first, sharing a funny story about her dad making her change clothes before going to the mall with some friends when she was in school. She told it in a way that showed a lot about his character and his beliefs as a father. She admitted she and her dad butted heads, and Lord knows the same could be said for me and my dad, because I believe still that I take more of my personality from him than my mom.

And here I am doing something I’ve been trying all day not to — bringing this story back to myself, to my experience, to my loss. I don’t want to do that to Jessie. Her loss is not equal to my loss, nor is it unequal; they are incomparable. I cannot pretend to know exactly how she feels this week. All I can do is remember how I DID feel and try to remember what small things brought me comfort at that time. I was comforted by hand-written letters from the sincerest of well-wishers. I was comforted by kind words from those I rarely spoke to, the ones that came out of the blue and yet were completely on point. I was comforted by hugs, honest looks of consolation. I was comforted by spending time with the members of my family I had left.

I wish all these things onto Jessie and her family. I found that, even though I have kind of been in a similar boat, I still didn’t know what to say to her mom or her brothers. I can’t imagine how those who have not felt the loss of a loved one feel when they walk up to someone who has. The truth is, there are no words. There aren’t any words that will miraculously bring that special person back, you can’t say anything to change what happened or how they feel. I guess all you can do is let them talk. If they don’t want to talk, and I know all about not wanting to talk, or rather being unable to, check back later. Don’t give up on them, I suppose.

Jessie and her youngest brother recorded a song together a couple nights before the funeral. Her brother played guitar, and she sang “Hallelujah,” that Leonard Cohen song, better known for the Jeff Buckley version popularized by the movie “Shrek.” When I preface it like that, it sounds silly to admit this, but I completely lost it when I heard it today at the service. It was so beautiful. I heard Jessie sing for the first time last year and was floored. This was no different. I seriously want a CD of her singing.

She took the time to make that recording and write something to say about her father at his funeral. All I did for my mom was sit there in front of a casket while a preacher spoke. And I barely recall it. Was I so motionless, so numb, that I could do nothing to honor my mom that day? On that note, it helps if you know Jessie; she won’t sit down for two seconds if there is something constructive to be done. And I’m pretty sure she ate nothing but a granola bar yesterday, and that was while getting her hair done.

I came to see her last night, and stayed with a family friend of hers. This morning, with a couple girls we both knew from college, we went to the service together. I just wanted to sit with her and hug her the whole time. She was so strong.

But it’s in the weeks to come that she might need a hug, a hand-written note, some kind words and some honest looks. I am still in shock that this has even happened. Who knows what that means she’s feeling. No one knows but her.

I drove home alone today, driving down a two-lane highway listening to oldies music. It was a beautiful day for a drive, and a great opportunity to spend some time with my thoughts. My thoughts are of Jessie and her family today. My thoughts are of what she and her friendship mean to me. It was a wonderful drive and I know it’s hard for Jessie to find anything enjoyable right now. I am hoping that time comes, and when it does, she feels the full magnitude of it all, and feels her dad’s presence.

Our greatest fear realized

One of the people who supported me the most when my mom was sick needs my support now, and the support of others. I have talked about Jessie’s generosity and good character before and she is still a close friend I see at least once every couple of weeks. I’ve written a lot of praise about her but it still doesn’t quite do her justice. I can’t really explain to you just how far Jessie will go to help someone and comfort them; you just have to know her.

Her dad died suddenly last night. Her parents had just gotten back from a cruise a day or two earlier. They’d never been on a cruise before, and Jessie was telling me how much fun they were having when I met up with her Thursday night. Can you imagine? I can’t tell you about suddenly losing a parent, only very slowly losing one. So I can’t comprehend the shock of receiving that phone call – it’s a horrible, sickening thing to imagine that makes my heart ache just thinking about. It’s our greatest fear realized. And Jessie is honestly the last person to deserve such a painful event – not that anyone really deserves it, of course. But especially not her. Jessie was not only there for me when my mom was diagnosed with cancer; she checked in on me and my whole family throughout the worst nine months of our lives.

And she stayed. That’s the important part.

I called my dad last night after I heard the news; something about hearing about the loss of a friend’s dad made me want to call mine more than ever, and he reminded me that Jessie knew better than most what it would take to help me through our loss. She was still there after all the visitors went home, the chicken casseroles and cards stopped coming, and the phone stopped ringing. That’s the loneliest part of grieving, months later, and in the moments when you find yourself alone and it’s suddenly almost unbearable. Jessie seemed to have a sixth sense about that kind of despair and knew when to check in and make sure I was doing okay. And if I wasn’t, she could handle the weight of my grief when I couldn’t. She still asks about my dad whenever we meet up for coffee, and I’m not sure they’ve ever spoken.

You don’t get over it, you get through it. And it’s my turn to help her get through this. I am so sorry for her and I have a feeling I know what lies ahead of her. Two years ago I only knew a couple people around my age who had lost a parent. I remember I wanted to talk to them more than anyone else. I’m not sure Jessie will feel the same, but I want to be there for her somehow.

My mom’s parents

My brother, sister-in-law, niece and I visited my grandparents in Cleveland yesterday. They are 97 and 95 and until this year, they lived in their house where my mom grew up. Now they are in a nursing home but they are still who they are. My grandma is having trouble with her memory, but she knows it, which is comforting and a little sad at the same time. Yesterday she and my granddad met Hannah, my niece, for the first time. My brother and I admitted we were a little reluctant about the visit, because we were sure it would be in no way fun, but it was actually a really amazing day.

Hannah meets the great-grandparents (emphasis on "great")

We all woke up early on Sunday morning and piled into Owen’s car, made the two-and-a-half hour drive to the east side of town and got there around 10:30. My uncle met us at the nursing home and gave my grandparents printed sheets of paper that said the date, all of our names and our relation to them. He also made us all name tags. These proved to be very helpful and saved my grandma from some embarrassment. Also, my granddad is very deaf so reading was probably a lot easier for him then listening.

Jamie showed off Hannah to them and I went over to sit by my grandma.

“And you are Mary’s daughter?” she asked me. This information had been omitted from the print-out sheet from my uncle and once she asked the question I was afraid she’d ask it repeatedly throughout our visit.

“Yes,” I told her.

“And how long has she been gone now?” she asked me.

“Two years,” I said, holding up two fingers.

“Oh, two years,” she repeated.

And that was the only time my mom, or her absence, was mentioned. My grandma did, however, ask how old Hannah is every few minutes. “Five months,” Owen and Jamie told her patiently. We sat in a visiting room together and enjoyed watching my grandparents interact with Hannah. We got tons of pictures, at my dad’s request. He really wanted to make sure they got to meet the baby and now they have. I wish I had talked to my granddad more, but he is hard to talk with since he is so hard of hearing. But he seemed to enjoy the sugar cookies we brought with us from Cheryl & Co., so the visit was not without its perks for him I hope.

My grandma’s hair is all different now, and my granddad has different glasses. They are in wheelchairs but they can still walk, kind of. They are the oldest people I have ever met and I know there are people younger than them in worse shape. The best part of the day was when uncle asked my grandma if she wanted to play us a song on the piano. He helped her sit on the bench in the sitting room, and she asked what she should play. He suggested “America, the Beautiful,” and she played it. I filmed her playing the piano last Christmas, when they were still living at home. I had no idea she’d still be able to play a year later, since her memory was starting to go even then. After she finished a couple songs, I asked her if she knew any Christmas music. It turns out she knows all Christmas music. She asked for titles of carols, and one by one played them each upon request. She struggled to come up with song titles on her own so we just kept naming them for her. She couldn’t hear me say “Joy to the World” so I used what little piano knowledge my mother made me learn in lessons and played the first few notes of the song in the key of D. It was then that she knew the song I meant, and she played the rest far better than I ever will. My granddad hummed along loudly as she played.

I had never been so happy to see my grandparents. They were ancient even when my brother and I were little, so we never really got to know them the same way we know my dad’s dad, who is in his early 80s. My mom’s dad has always been deaf (although very jovial and witty despite this) and my grandma has never really been terribly warm with us. A lot of my memories of her are her telling me how to wash my face properly and how long to brush my teeth, and since I was a picky eater, I remember not liking much of her cooking. She gave us very random Christmas presents, commonly the free things she had been sent by the many charities she donated to as thank you gifts, things like calendars and paper weights, or strange mail-order gadgets from catalogs we’d never heard of. But, she always made sure she had our favorite kinds of ice cream or cookies for dessert and she never forgot our birthdays.

We are each others’ last biological links to my mother and I feel like I saw her yesterday, in a way. Maybe my mom would have grown old and looked like her eventually, had things ended differently. And maybe my grandma feels like she saw her, too, in me. I like to think that’s true.

Hannah was a hit, not only with my grandparents, but with all the nurses, orderlies and other visitors there yesterday. Jamie held her most of the time, since that’s when Hannah behaves best, but my grandma held her for a little bit too, which was nice.

Whosthatguy?

As we got into the car to leave, I turned to look at Hannah in the car seat behind me.

“You were a hit, kid!” I told her.

“But I think Grandma upstaged you a little bit at the end,” Owen said.

So true.

Friday the 13th has nothing on Wednesday the 11th

Spending the day with Dad was a good idea. I’m glad he asked me to come down. The local authors meeting was pretty cool. I got to talk to other writers about my work and it felt good to have people listen and at least look interested, and they had some advice to give me on how to sell a screenplay. I can’t decide which screenplay to start first, the hotel one or the college one. I think both ideas would be fun/funny enough to keep me interested, and I have decided I want to have ten pages of one of them written by next Friday. I have scattered scenes written for both, but neither script has an opening scene at this point. Is it okay if I don’t start at the beginning? Too late. I want my laptop back. I’m going to have to borrow Brandon’s and take it to Cup O’ Joe for hours on end, like I did to finish “Beacon Alley” last winter.

All in all, Wednesday was kind of a good day. I probably didn’t need four hours in a car by myself, but I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself the whole time. Sure, I listened to a lot of music that made me think of my mom, including the song I posted yesterday by The Weepies. But I also listened to other music that cheered me up, like Guster and No Doubt. On my Facebook status that morning I posted a line from a Jordin Sparks song, “Tattoo,” a pop song that I am pretty sure isn’t about anybody dying, and I listened to Pink’s “Who Knew,” which I am pretty sure is. So what, I like pop music. Sue me. “Tattoo” came out around this time two years ago and it made me think of my mom then: “You’re still a part of everything I do; You’re on my heart just like a tattoo.” The Pink song came out around that time as well, and I can barely stand to listen to it: “If someone said three years from now, you’d be long gone, I’d stand up and punch them out, because they’re all wrong… I’ll keep you locked in my head, until we meet again.” On the way home, I listened to that My Chemical Romance CD, “The Black Parade,” which I got from Dennis last year. It took me by surprise at the time; somehow it made me feel better when I first heard it, and it still did on Wednesday. I remember I kind of poured my heart out to Dennis back then and he was really cool about it. So, thanks to Dennis for letting me ramble on via e-mail when I was in a new city with a new life and a big issue to come to terms with. And for all the awesome music, of course.

I read my entry from last year’s experience and I can see I fared much better this year. They say that first year is the hardest, which I can now say to be true, in my case. I got a lot of nice e-mails and notes from people who were thinking of me that day, and if you were one of them, I thank you for it. It would be awful to me if Nov. 11 came and went and no one remembered. I expect down the road it will be easier but these first couple years, it’s nice to know other people are remembering and thinking of her.