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

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.

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.