Yes, yes, yes. What she said. Source: Re-thinking an Essay – After It’s Too Late
(written October, 2013)
In an educational exercise one October morning, I had been instructed to describe the day’s color. The word which immediately surfaced was lucid. That afternoon was no different: the individual leaves on the arms of autumn trees viewable in high-definition against the clearest blue sky, still dry air, and a sun nearly painful in its brightness, closer to white than yellow. With my mother in the passenger seat next to me, I turned left into the ten-car parking lot of the monument showroom. While our task of picking out the headstone for my recently-deceased father’s grave was…well, a grave one, our moods were as light as the Indian-summer day. I rolled my eyes sardonically, noting that instead of a concrete curb barrier at the head of each parking spot, there was a sample granite grave marker, complete with engraved names and dates. “That’s creepy. I feel like I’m parked on a body,” I said. She laughed good-naturedly: we had suffered enough, and our family was an irreverent lot, even in mourning. “Shall we take our coffee in with us, or leave it in the car?” She asked. We decided to carry our eco-friendly travel mugs inside; I had made it at home, strong and subtly hazel-nutty, and this chore could undoubtedly take a while.
We strolled casually towards the showroom door, taking in our surroundings: this would not be anywhere we’d visit often. Life-sized, bone-white statues of the Holy Family flanked the glass doors, while off to the left a grassy patch incongruously boasted a rough wagon, a slatted-wood cart on wheels, full of cascading flowers. The prairie meets Jerusalem meets the 21st century, where nearby a mega-watt digital sign runs a silent, solemn commercial of sober but satisfied faces. A highly-polished marker on the ground near the door revealed that the business was opened in 1969, the year I was born. The still-living founder’s face was etched onto the stone, and I imagined that this must be an eerie sight for his family. I reached for the heavy door and ushered my mother inside.
We stepped into a wind-chiming, welcoming store, devoid of any discernible scent, hushed but not cold in atmosphere. High-ceilings and full walls of windows made the space seem whitewashed on such a sunny day, almost cheerful. The first visible items were tchotchkes: “God Bless the USA” bumper stickers, Swarovski-crystal one-decade rosaries: “great for travel!” Pewter car-visor clips saying “Bless this trucker” or “Drive safely, someone loves you!” A bowling angel attached to a lapel pin came with a poem about getting closer to a 300 game. Further in, larger and heavier items began to appear: garden statues of St. Francis of Assisi, in his humble robe, gently regarding the birds and animals around him, and small fiberglass benches, designed to look like stone, just big enough for one seat and the diminutive angel perched on the armrest. Here, we were approached by a tall, handsome woman about my mother’s age with a gentle smile and a decidedly tentative “are you ready for any help?”
Since we were ready for help, having no idea how to begin the process of choosing our headstone, we introduced ourselves to Marie, who happened to be the wife of the founder. I decided against asking her if it was unsettling to see her husband’s face on what amounted to a grave-marker when she walked in to work each day. Marie led us with her outstretched arm across the store to an interior wall on which hung dozens of heavy granite rectangles, fully engraved with names, dates, etchings of photographic quality, hearts and flowers. The samples ranged from the size of a large book to the size of a small bed. Some had rough, geography-class-rock borders with quartz-like sparkles, while others were polished like a kitchen countertop with salt and pepper just beneath the glossy surface. Colors ranged from wet putty to the amber of rich Oktoberfest ale, to azure with milky, translucent chips, to the blackest black night, with or without the accompanying stars. Here, by some silent mutual agreement, we became solemn. Somewhere between the veteran’s insignias and the teenaged girl’s senior picture, scratched artfully into her eternal social-media profile picture, we adopted the hushed manner appropriate for those in the presence of the tenderest of souls: the too-soon departed. And isn’t anyone who is loved and missed taken away too soon?
Marie, in her conservatively leopard-printed cardigan and fashionable metallic flats (right up my mother’s alley!) expertly and quietly described our particular options: we couldn’t have a raised stone because my dad’s grave was in the first row near the road at the cemetery. That was fine with me – I had always associated raised headstones with horror movies and Halloween lawn decorations. I was in favor of a low-key, flush-to-the-grass marker. I made a joke about the word “flush,” because my dad’s gravesite happens to be near the restrooms at Holy Cross Cemetery. Marie threw her head back and laughed. We did, however, have size and color options. When my mom asked me for my opinion, I suggested that she choose what she thought Dad would like. Then, I remembered that this one four-inch thick slab of granite would mark the grave which eventually would hold both of my parents. “You’ll be under it too, one day, so pick whatever you think is pretty,” I said. My mom chuckled in acknowledgment as she sipped her coffee, surveying the sample wall, and she and Marie, being contemporaries, opined conspiratorially about stone colors, fonts, and graphics. I deliberately retreated, catching only fragments: Marie, her polished, square fingertips grazing my mom’s elbow and her nose wrinkled, “I hope you don’t like the gold lettering on the Norwegian blue, it just doesn’t look as nice,” and my mom graciously acknowledging that “you sure get lots of ideas by looking at these!”
Half an hour later, in an office with a sage-hued desktop constructed of the same highly-polished granite as the gravestones, we faced Marie as she stood over the left shoulder of a lanky young man in Ray-Ban glasses whose thin fingers raced across the computer keyboard, projecting a mock-up of our headstone onto the wall behind them. After we nodded and murmured our assent, Zack plinked the print button like an ebony piano key and left the room wordlessly. My mom had chosen all the specifics: color, font, a wedding ring with the date of their marriage to be etched in between the names Hap and Dolores, the sentiment “Together Forever with God” at the foot. After signing approval on the invoice, we spent at least twenty minutes chatting further with Marie as if we were long-time family friends.
We all agreed that we enjoyed drip coffee from the pot better than the now-popular K-cups. She and my mom showed each other photos of their grandchildren, a new generation of grandmothers pulling out their iPhones instead of school-photographs. Marie was elated to learn a Nordstrom Rack store had just opened nearby. We could have chatted for hours; we had fun. As she walked us out, back through the store which somehow struck the perfect balance between dignified and cheerful, we agreed to come back soon and shop for less weighty items. There were ornaments and freshly cut flowers for sale, memorial cards for pets and decorative blankets to be tossed casually over the back of a sofa. Racks of cards, religious and secular, stood sentry near seasonally scented candles in pumpkin-shaped glass jars. As we climbed back into my SUV, our empty coffee cups standing upright in my ample handbag, my mom thanked me, remarking in an echo to my own thoughts about what a positive experience it had been. “We’re doing really well,” I thought to myself.
Hours later, driving home alone from a group tennis lesson which had produced equal parts sweat and laughter, an inexplicable and immediate grief welled up inside me and burst forth into the approaching dusk as I sobbed, suddenly and wetly, at sixty-five miles an hour. I still felt that the day, the task completed with my mom, had been fun. But a practical voice in my brain reminded me that I had just picked out my parents’ headstone, and what an obscene chore that was. I missed my dad viscerally; more than that, I realized that at some point in my future, I would walk back inside that showroom’s heavy glass doors, alone or maybe with one of my sisters, to inform them that the final year of the second-deceased could now be engraved onto the Norwegian blue granite she had chosen herself on a lovely October day. I wondered if Marie would still be there, and I thought of good, strong coffee and my mom’s smile, and as I gripped the steering wheel, my knuckles white at ten and two, I wept in fat tears and keening sounds like a child; a child who has lost her parents somewhere.
Funny, when I started this blog years ago I used the word “musings” to describe it, but I’m not sure I have done that at all. I think I tend to use Facebook for my musings, Twitter for my criticism (most people I know in my age group and older are on Facebook so I can be meaner on Twitter and still not blow my cover), and Snapchat for…well, snapchat.
I avoid writing unless I feel I have the time and inspiration for a full, concise essay with a message and hook and an ending. Why? No one sees this anyway, for the most part! So I’m gonna MUSE!
Yesterday evening, I realized as I stood in line for fresh peach ice cream, a seasonal offering at Mitchells, that at that very moment when my husband and I were capping off a long day of sun, food, and cocktails in the searing late summer Sunday heat, a boy I went to high school with–and with whom my husband would eventually cross office space with–was sitting at a service to bury his 19-year old son who had committed suicide. We had visited with the family at the wake earlier in the day, not knowing what to do or say besides a hug, tears, and the promise of prayers. Being thankful for our mental health and that of our children, my husband and I, murmuring taboo words about what life would be like for this family now that every day would cease to be about managing the lifelong depression and emotional chaos of this boy. Realizing that on the day of his birth, they had a perfect baby and life was just beginning, and no matter what happened in the years after that, on one blissful day that baby was fresh and new like we all are once and nothing was “wrong.”
I wouldn’t look at the poster boards of photographs of the boys as a child. I didn’t know him, had never met him. I didn’t have waterproof mascara on. I was afraid of touching that place which I wanted to avoid.
And then, fully appreciating the possibly obscene juxtaposition of our day vs. theirs, we went off to enjoy Cleveland’s refurbished downtown areas, waterfront, dinner, drinks, ice cream. Celebrating our own fifteen years of wedded bliss, and bliss is pretty much an apt description of it. Why do some get so much on their shoulders, and all that has been on my shoulders, it seems, is the sunshine that I seek so fervently this time of year?
So why write when I have no pat answer or cute meme to punctuate these thoughts? Musings. I’m just musing. And that’s how it works.
And a few less important things that really take up room in my head: I want our local weather person to stop telling me whether to eat my meal on the patio or in the air conditioning. I want her to stop instructing children what weight jacket to wear to the bus stop, and for the sake of all that is meterological I want her to stop sharing recipes. Just tell me the weather. I can make the rest of the decisions on my own.
I think BlueApron or whatever this gourmet food delivery and recipe thing is called is stupid. How hard is it to go the store and buy the six items needed for a recipe? This is another reason why people hate Americans. I know I’m right about this, and I know you probably feel the same way about some things I do, like posting yoga poses and swishing with coconut oil and still having a land-line. But these are my musings, so today I’m right.
Now, after months, I wrote something. So now I’m free to go make a playlist for my noon yoga class, because I feel like that’s fun and this is work. Why, I’m not sure, because I get paid for the yoga and not for the writing. Which is another hilarious turn of events since my intention was not to necessarily teach yoga. But two great yoga jobs were tossed into my lap like a hot potato (vs. a football, because if you toss a football into my lap I will let it fall because I think football is mostly unnecessary in my life, but a potato (hot or otherwise) I will never let pass me by) and I am completely, unexpectedly energized by teaching.
Have a day. No pressure, it’s Monday. Open heart and no complaining.
“Beam me up…
Gimme a minute
I don’t know what I’d say in it…
I’d probably just stare, happy just to be there
Holding your face.
Beam me up…
Let me be lighter, I’m tired of being a fighter
A minute’s enough
Just beam me up.”
She fell in love with the song from Pink’s “The Truth About Love” album as soon as she heard it. The dramatic instrumentation, the tender, heartfelt vocal, the melody soft but strong with those minor keys of angst, building the feeling. She shared Pink’s song and the lyrics with plenty of people, because the song reminded her of profound losses: her sister’s baby, eventually her own father (…in my head I see your baby blues.)
The only detail that didn’t sit well in a song so perfect it always drew a tear and required a replay was the part about a minute being enough. What is that about? How could a minute be enough when you long for and miss someone so desperately, and then you get to be “beamed up” to see them again? A minute could never be enough.
Her dad is in her dreams, sometimes. Fairly regularly, in fact, but never the focus. His presence there is purely incidental: it is a holiday at home, so of course he is in the family room in his chair, or outside with the grandkids. She hears his voice in reply to someone’s question, catches a glimpse of him from the corner of her eye smoothing back his shock of white hair the way he always did. He’s there, as he should be, but in the dreams she is always conscious of the looming dementia. In the dramatic irony of a dream, she knows about the dementia because it has come and gone. She knows everything about it, about what’s coming, but he does not. She awakens troubled and anxious, vestiges of her sleep-self worrying that he is still driving but losing his sense of direction, still talking but sometimes seeing things. She’s afraid he will mention a puppy under the table or a bug skittering in the corner. In the dreams, she’s stressed, holding it all together and not sure what to do. But some part of her consciousness always knows it is a dream, because she knows how all of this ends. She simply can’t stop it this time, any more than she could in real life. The dream isn’t about him, so it doesn’t matter. She’s just dreaming, and he is there. Just like the pets and the kids and the occasional former co-worker or high-school classmate. Like intricate puzzles put together with a few of the wrong pieces, forced in awkwardly, dreams are.
One September night, still warm enough to sleep with the bedroom window open for the sleek purring body of her black cat to somehow relax into the tracks of the frame, she understood what it meant to be beamed up.
She dreamed, and this time it was just her and her dad. There was no context, no preface. They stood outside in the darkness facing each other, as suddenly as if they had both been dropped there like a slide from an old projector. Outside of what or where, she didn’t know, couldn’t tell. A place, a building maybe? They were a mere few strides apart, facing each other in the almost-blackness. In a fraction of a second she understood that this dream was different: he had already died, and he knew it. The dementia had come and gone again, and he knew it. And he knew that she knew it all. Revelation was instantaneous. They rushed to approach each other with arms open, no time to waste. He wore a shirt she didn’t recognize, the only thing that wasn’t familiar to her. They hugged, and her dad was once again the right size; the right height, a bit shorter than his youngest daughter in adulthood (he had introduced her around the dementia ward as “the tall one”) so her face was over his shoulder at the crook of his neck, the right density. His back and shoulders were smooth and strong and bullish, the way their dad had always been. Robust, immovable in a hug. He smelled like dad, the cloud of soap and toothpaste and shaving cream that had always breezed behind him as he rushed down the stairs, the last one to shower in a houseful of females. Somehow she could even see his tan in the darkness, sense rather than see the glossy blue-against-white of his mischievous eyes. They hugged strongly—tightly, but not hard, he was so staunch and she gripped the muscles of his back for emphasis. She knew this would be brief, and she rushed her tearful, joyful words, “oh, we love you and miss you so much!” And because she had always joked with him, added, “we don’t want to, but we do!”
He chuckled, still in the hug, unable to see each other’s faces except in mind’s eye, and said, “I know.”
Then they pulled back, still linking forearms but facing each other in this unnamed night-place. His smile was perfect, lighting up his face in its familiar jocularity, and he said to her, with just a trace of disbelief and humility, “I really love it here.”
Her heart spilled over to hear those words. She had already believed he was in a better place, THE better place, and it was what he had believed too. But to see him, feel him, smell him, and recognize the same wonder in his voice that she had heard him use in the past to describe a mountain, or a golf shot, or a talented child, or a great meal, convinced her down to her soul. She grabbed him again, sliding her arms around his shoulders and squeezing his meaty clavicles with her fingertips.
“I’m so glad,” she choked out near his ear. And she meant it. And she wanted him to know that she meant it. She was so happy for him, and she was desperate to impart the whole remaining family’s love and joy to him in what she inherently knew was a very brief opportunity. She squeezed him tighter, burying her face in him. He squeezed too.
She woke up.
Just like that, she was back in her bed at around three in the morning, her husband asleep next to her, her cat curled up and humming, the sounds of the night falling softly through the screen. The whole thing had taken no time at all. A hug, a few words. But now she could feel her dad in her arms. His voice and scent and warm, living skin lingered. She hadn’t hugged her dad that often when he was alive; she would be more inclined to chuck him on the shoulder, while he would have yanked a piece of her long hair from behind and then dodged her retaliation. She felt, for a moment, what she supposed could be called bliss.
The vestigial flavor of that dream lingers, and she deliberately goes inside her thoughts to enjoy it from time to time. She had her dad back, her real dad, tangible in her arms. And then one day, a couple of weeks later, her earbuds delivered that beloved Pink song while she was walking to one of her sister’s houses, to collect the mail or let out the dog, on a sunny, end-of-summer day. Now, it all made sense, and the lyrics didn’t leave her frustrated any more. A minute was all it took.
A minute was enough.
A conversation today with my sister prompted me to post this poem. I haven’t thought about it for a while. I wrote it in 1996, when I sat down with paper and pen and it flowed out almost in its entirety, fully formed. I definitely felt like a vehicle or a channel, because I did not have a hand in creating this–it came straight out in the pen. It was made into a framed print, a photo of which I have included here, and I no longer had it saved as a document anywhere. When I sat down today to “copy” it down, I still knew it by heart. Rachel’s spirit, or the Holy Spirit–but I humbly admit, not my own. I hope it comforts someone else out there.
From Rachel, on her first birthday
It is okay
To hurt, this day
For things I’ll never be…
But don’t forget,
Your world holds things
You’d never want for me.
Disappointments I will never have,
Pains I’ll never suffer
I will not fail
I will not fall
And we’ll never hurt each other.
By today, I may have walked
But would I have ever run?
By someday soon, I may have talked…
Would I ask of you, “how come?”
So there are many childish words
You never will hear spoken…
No, my heart was never whole…
But my heart was never broken.
I may not get to be with you
But I’ll never live in fear
You’ll never get to see me smile;
But you never saw my tears.
I lived from warm & loving womb
To a castle in the sky…
And there’s no need to wonder how
There is no reason why.
I paused here, not to hurt you
And not to say goodbye…
But just to put my angel face
Before this family’s eyes…
So now you have an image
Of the girl who would be me
For you are still not ready
To blindly set love free
Until the time when you believe
The things you cannot see.
Among the petrified plots, we found a few softer, rocky mounds in the grass, some marked and some not very well, and wondered if this was evidence of (relatively) recent burial. That was a haunting possibility, and I’m not ashamed to admit I gave a wider berth to those plots, walked more tenderly on the grass near them. Others, perfect rectangles bordered in stone, bore one headstone for entire families with names and dates listed one by one in chronological order. The names themselves charmed me, intoxicated as I am by all things Irish, and I once again felt like I was in one of my favorite literary works, this time maybe McCourt or James Joyce rather than Maeve Binchy’s kitchens and buses, but I was sobered by the knowledge that these names represented actual people. Characters who had walked this very ground, perhaps. Folks who had stood on the beach I had just left hours before. I don’t know you, but I acknowledge you, I thought. You may have been ornery, artistic, teenaged, or elderly, so I will spend this one moment witnessing that you were a person, completely unknown to me but now connected to me in the fragile, fleeting way in which we are all part of this same family of mankind. On a more intimate level, I take this moment to imagine you alive, because there is a reason God brought me here to this place in particular, to stand over your grave and look upon your name, silently hoping your rest is not simply peaceful, but blissful. Catherine O’Sullivan McKenna, who was preceded in death by her son Mike but not by her daughter Mary. Mary Briget Ferriter, three months old. As if each were alive briefly, standing next to me, I felt an impulse to reach out and bear witness to her life, appreciating the opportunity to have shared in it so many years later, from another dimension.
Surrounding the graves were the crumbling ruins of stone archways, walls, and tiny outbuildings. These were cold, foreboding, but softened by slick moss and ivy growing wildly. Day in and day out they stood sentry, usually with only the departed souls to see the wild yellow spring flowers cropping up in the clefts between weathered stone and any ancient mortar. What pure grace, “generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved” that I was allowed to share this moment with them.
‘Grace’, Komonchak et al (eds), Joseph A (1990). The New Dictionary of Theology. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan. p. 437.
It is no secret that I have a special mother; she has countless admirable qualities. She is a positive role model, an open-minded and open-hearted friend, a generous spirit. She tries to be a good person, on purpose, every day. She doesn’t like to gossip, but she does like to laugh. She loves shopping and shoes and chocolate, but at the same time she is not materialistic. She is always learning, trying new things, choosing to be productive every day when she wakes up, even after losing my dad last year. She was a fun mom to us: she once brought strappy Easter sandals to school recess so that I could wear them for the rest of the day with my school uniform because I loved them so much (luckily, that was before Instagram). She yelled at us when we bickered, she tucked us in at night, she bought our favorite foods at the grocery store, and she was always willing to be the one who drove our friends around. My mom was devoted to her children, and then to her grandchildren. She is a lady. Where I came from, I have no idea. I had to teach her most of the bad words she knows.
What is most remarkable about my mom is that she was never “mothered”. Not the way that we were. She was raised by her Polish-speaking grandparents who loved her and her sister, but she missed out on the more traditional mother-child relationship and nurturing. There were no sleepovers, and no one came to her school performances. She always said that the reason she knew how to mother, how to love, cuddle, advise, and provide security for a child, was from her Aunt Dot (my Godmother). Aunt Dot has been gone for years now, but as Mother’s Day nears again, I’m reminded about all the important ways in which we are mothers to each other.
Someone took the time to be a positive influence on my mom when she was a youngster, to show her fun and discipline and family ties. Aunt Dot spent time with Dolores and Midge, which is all that they really needed. I know how lucky I am to have the mother that I do, and I’m reminded of it often by friends and acquaintances who joke that they wish they had a mom like mine. That’s because my mom has mothered other people, as well. She mothers every friend of hers, every friend of mine, and most strangers whom she comes across. Despite having the gold standard in moms myself, I can’t help but reflect on some other wonderful women who have mothered me as well, in ways large and small.
Of course my sisters were forced to mother me, since I’m the youngest in the family, but they also put forth effort of their own volition. When I bounced my first check at around 18 years old, I found a twenty-dollar bill on my dresser, not realizing until weeks later my sister Coleen had silently put it there. And Judy still doesn’t make soup at home without bringing a bowl to my house. My best friend Steph got on a plane with her kid to fly home to visit me just because I was having an emotional crisis about fifteen years ago.
But even people who might deem themselves as ancillary in my life have made contributions that have truly shaped my character. My high-school cheerleading coaches, a mother-daughter duo themselves, didn’t allow us to miss practice, ever, without the punishment of sitting out a game. They didn’t let us talk to boys when we were in uniform, and I will never forget Mrs.Toth’s advice: “when you have a problem, whatever it is, talk to your parents. No one else has only your best interests at heart.” They were parenting us, teaching us how to act appropriately. A high school teacher who had formerly been a nun signed my yearbook and made a comment about me having inner dignity. Dignity? Me? (I guess the stress was on the word inner). But it has stuck with me. She was trying to tell me something, to lead me to follow the right thoughts. My childhood pediatrician told me, plainly, “Don’t be such a brat.” My co-worker Mary Helen made a big deal of my birthday even though I was in my twenties. My seventh grade teacher has asked me one thousand times over the years when I was going to go to college (I can finally shut that one up)! My co-worker brought me a rosary, blessed by not one but two Popes, from her visit to Italy. A friend of a friend at a jewelry party sat me down and told me, when my dad first got sick, that I must take feelings out of it and do what is best for my parents, even if they got mad at my sisters and me. Another friend sat all day at the hospital with us almost twenty years ago when my sister’s baby was having heart surgery. My next-door neighbor kept a key to my house on her windowsill, knowing how often I forgot mine. Another neighbor once climbed up a weeping willow tree to get me down. An insurance company representative brought me a gift card instead of business documents when I was having a bad day. My mother-in-law sends me newspaper articles that remind her of me; her sister is constantly handing me beautiful leather goods like jackets and boots, items she bought but decided weren’t for her. The lady at the library lowered my fine to whatever I had in my purse that day. Someone, somewhere, may have lit a candle for me and I don’t even know about it.
There are countless more instances, more than I could ever commit to paper, of women taking the time and effort to mother me, and others. My own mom is not perfect (just today, we had a role-reversal conversation, in which she apparently played the sulky teen):
Me: Why do you make me yell at you?
Doe: What now?
Me: There are two newspapers on your front porch. If you leave newspapers on the front porch, someone will think you are away and break into your house. How many times have I told you that?
Doe: Many times.
Me: I tell you to pick up the papers. And you say “I will!” But then you don’t!
Doe: I will.
Still, I don’t even want to entertain the idea of what kind of person I would be if I had not been blessed with the devoted, sacrificing, savvy mom that I have. But because of her, I do understand the importance of other sources of mothering, as well. I’m not advising anyone to discipline their friends’ children, because that would undoubtedly end badly. Let’s just take care of each other when we have the opportunity to do so.
I’m not a mom, but I so appreciate the opportunity to be a Godmother, a step-mother to adults, an auntie, and soon, a granny! Thank you for letting me sing to your babies, “ride” the MRI machine with them, hold their chubby hands, check their homework…even clean up their barf. Somehow, I also managed to be the adult on duty when someone got her first period. Thanks for that. I’m not a mom, and I’m in awe of all of you who are moms. May your children not grow up to embarrass you in print.
Happy Mother’s Day all!!