Category Archives: Life & Death

Remembering Dad

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Dad at Lemon Reservoir circa 1982.

My dad, my favorite amateur (as in, non-professional) grammarian, died last week at the age of eighty-six. Dad could, in one breath, chide me for ending a sentence with a preposition and quote Winston Churchill’s famous comment on pedantry. From my father, I learned both the love of language and the frustration of perfectionism.

 

As a child, I imagined myself to be more like my father than like my mother. After all, I had his big, dark eyes, his patrician nose, and sturdy, rectangular German face. I saw him as analytical, brilliant, and in his silence which I reflected much of the time, distant. He was affectionate and protective with me, but he was a man in his own head more often than not, a trait he passed on to his children.

Although Dad was always in thought, that didn’t prevent him from holding me next to him while he watched the BBC or Cronkite then later carrying me to my room and tucking me into bed. He was no “sit down to a play tea party” dad, nor did I want that, as I was the child that stayed in my room and listened to my 45s and read books or played alone most happily.

In my teens, this kind of arms-length parenting continued but I never felt unloved. I admired him and wanted all the more to be like him. I was going to be a scientist like him (with writing on the side). I was going to do it all right. I was going to make him proud of me.

You can see where that’s going, right?

I got pregnant (magic!) at eighteen and Dad and Momma were none too happy, but they gritted their teeth and we all got through it. On the other side of the turmoil was an amazing little girl with whom he immediately fell in love. (Look dad! No preposition.)

The shift in him, from man in his head to the man interacting with the world was subtle but visible. After my first husband and daughter and I moved home for a short time to get on our feet, Dad and Momma developed a strong bond with their first granddaughter and Dad softened. On one occasion, my older brother dropped by for a visit. Dad stood up, strode to my brother, greeted and hugged him for the first time in possibly years. My brother and mother stood with mouths agape.

Later, when I remarried, he not only accepted but loved and respected my second husband. In the long run, he respected my late-gained degree and would ask me biology and medical questions.

Another expansion of his awareness occurred years later, when my niece’s son was born and survived a harrowing birth. I spoke to him not long after. With a trembling voice, this longtime avowed agnostic told me, “someone or something kept [his great grandson] with us.”

Daddy spent sixty-four years with his one great love. After Momma died, he shuffled around the nursing home where the two of them had shared a room for some time. He died a little more than two weeks before the anniversary of Momma’s death.

Over the years, I have evolved to be more like my mother in many ways, both emotionally and physically: more chatty, more approachable, more padded around the middle. Yet I carry much of my father’s skepticism and contrariness with me. Over the years, Dad had evolved in many ways but toward the end he retreated, understandably, back into his own head where, I imagine, he and his wife were whole and happy again. When I spoke to him last he said, uncharacteristically for that curmudgeonly old grammarian, “I love love you completely.” I knew what he was telling me. That he was probably saying goodbye for the last time. I just thought he was mistaken.

I love love you completely, Dad. I will miss you always.

Emergency Salads, Tornadoes, and Permanent Cow Fixtures

As I drove to the store on December 30th, a woman in a fancy pickup (oxymoron on wheels) rode my bumper despite the fact that I was exceeding the speed limit by several mph. She passed me as soon as she saw the smallest gap, got one car ahead, and pulled into the same parking lot I pulled into seconds later. I daydreamed of asking her, as she picked through the produce section, if she had an emergency salad to get to. In my part of the world, however, such smart alek words can get you shot. I don’t say that lightly.

I decided at that moment that I wasn’t going to rush anywhere the rest of the day. I’ve never believed that there was any place I needed to go that was worth risking my life or someone else’s though I get impatient, too. The passage of time has weighed on me lately, but time on my mind doesn’t mean time to kill or be killed.

It’s true, the way we mark time is largely a human construct: days, weeks, hours, minutes. But months, seasons, lifetimes: Nature has foisted those on us. Since my mother’s death, the passage of days has been, well, a daily thought. An internal battle, even. It began during our time together in a tiny nursing home room those few days before she died.

We had some sweet, gentle moments: laughter, bad puns, a lot of hand holding. I’ve always been amazed by my mother’s hands. No matter the weather, the wrinkles, the dish loads, her hands were like the finest, lightest silk. Now they are ash and it is hard for me to grasp that. I sigh—she would have chuckled at that unintended pun. It’s what we do as a family: make bad jokes. It’s part of what makes us such a close family.

There were moments during which I allowed myself unpleasant thoughts. Cynical, I suppose. “Is this all there is? What did she get for all she did for us?” thoughts. Of course, that’s the angry view, the grieving view of the end. I had been grieving for much longer than the many months Momma had been suffering from dementia and a bad fall. I’d been grieving since she left Texas some seventeen years prior. I knew there was much more—more joy, adventure, choice—to her life than I was allowing. But in grief, those things look small while the hurts loom like dragons and disease. Thankfully, those thoughts were brief and mostly I reveled in my precious time with her.

I admit I’ve nursed those hurts all year. A digit change won’t fix that but perhaps Christmas Eve at Munger Place Church  and time with my daughter and her family has planted a seed.

I struggle with faith daily. Again, I don’t say that lightly. Each prayer, even “grace” before a meal, is an argument with this “creator” some people call God. At the same time, I can’t free myself form my belief that some sort of divinity has had major influences on my life that coincidence can’t explain.

Christmas Eve service at Munger was, no surprise, beautiful. Kate Miner’s love for her God poured out of her with each performance and I used up all my tissues dabbing my eyes. I know I seek that moment when in “O Holy Night” I will “fall on [my] knees, o hear the angels’ voices” and it was at this point in the service that I felt a weight lifted from me after almost a year of anger. Not because a divine presence came upon me. Not because I was suddenly healed. There was nothing magical there (except Kate’s voice). Instead, I realized I cannot stand up and be who and what I need to be without first kneeling and being humble to what I have been given. I must work with what the universe/life/God gives me rather than argue with those gifts, even when those gifts seem like curses.

What cemented this feeling was the remainder of the visit with my daughter and her family. After the service, we drove around to look at Christmas lights in the more affluent Dallas neighborhoods. In front of one house was a life-size, longhorn steer sculpture decked with holiday finery. Someone said, “I wonder where they store that in the off season.” My daughter said, “I think that’s a permanent cow fixture.”

It struck me as funny. Okay, adorable. At 32 years old, she’s still adorable. She’s always been beautiful and gentle like her grandmother. Time with her is so precious and like the rest of her family, she has the sharp and dark humor that binds us. I love every minute with her.

Two days later, December 26th, a horrific storm system struck the Dallas-Fort Worth area. We huddled in my daughter’s house where we lost power and listened to the tornado siren. Two major tornadoes struck and lives were lost while we had only some wind and scary lightning. Eventually, the power came back on, our adrenaline tapered, sadness set in, and we went to bed.

On the 28th, my husband and I returned to the bayou and a couple of days later, my daughter sent me a picture of the steer.

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I thought it rather sad—frippery and wealth completely unscathed while there was so much destruction in a small town of apartments, trailers, and tract homes not too many miles away. The events of this Christmas came as yet another reminder of the very lack of permanence, the randomness, the brevity, fragility, humor, unfairness, beauty, and preciousness of life.

Fall on your knees.

Here’s a link if you feel inclined to help the folks in North Texas: How to help.

Balloons and Blankets: Honoring My Mother

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Momma and Me (and my daughter). Galveston West Beach, 1983. Seeking and finding shark teeth.

My daughter had a lovely idea given that we were unable to have any kind of funeral or memorial for my mother. She suggested we have a memorial tribute to Momma in Galveston at the beach.

I let my daughter plan the event. She’s a great event planner. Not something she learned from her mother or her grandmother, mind you.

She made paper butterflies (Momma loved butterflies and hummingbirds), and wrote a beautiful remembrance for her grandmother which is not mine to share here.  What I can share is a couple of pictures relevant to the trip.*

My mother also loved poetry. She loved my poetry, even though I am not a poet.** Not just in that “unconditional parent love” way. She genuinely connected with my writing in a way no one else did. She’d get excited and show my work to my dad and her appreciation fed my spirit.

To prepare for the memorial, I looked around my house and tried to reconnect with my mother in a house she’d never physically inhabited. I dug an old crocheted afghan blanket out of my closet, smelled mothballs and time, and sat down to talk to Mom about it.

The Purple Afghan

The Purple Afghan

I didn’t sit down to write a poem but to write a letter. As the image of her patiently, meditatively, lovingly creating this oversized blanket perched in the back of my mind, the letter transformed.

It’s not Charles Wright or Maya Angelou even on their worst days, but Momma would have liked it.

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* We have since learned not to release balloons. Please do not release balloons. They kill wildlife, whether the balloons are biodegradable or otherwise.

*She had the same response to my brother’s poetry. He is a poet, whether he accepts the label or not.

For Momma – Letter

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It was when my daughter was in her most rebellious stage that I called you beyond tears, beyond rage, exhausted and hopeless. I apologized on behalf of myself and my siblings.

“For what, honey?” you asked.

“For all the crap we ever put you through–all four of us. Every stupid, selfish thing we ever did.”

You chuckled and told me there was no need to apologize. You said as you had said before, that you had always wanted to be a mother and you and Dad knew there were certain things that went with being parents.

I listened, shaking my head the whole time, and restated my feelings. “I know, Mom, but still…I’m sorry.”

You thanked me and assured me that the tough times would get better.

Of course, they did. Of course, none of the crap my child put me through changed how deeply I love her. In the years that have followed, she has matured into a woman of strength and compassion who mirrors her grandmother much more so than does her impatient and cynical mother. Apparently, certain genes really do skip a generation. It helps that my daughter spent a good deal of time in her formative years in the bright beam of her grandmother’s heart. She was exceptionally fortunate in that regard.

I don’t know why I didn’t benefit to the same degree that she did from your guidance except for the plain fact that you were, by necessity, tugged between four children and a spouse and all the stresses of modern life in mostly foreign lands. I did benefit nonetheless, such that when my child was born, nothing mattered more to me than protecting her. As she grew, I tried to follow your example where I could.

You left us on Thursday the 29th of January of this year. On Friday morning, I slept in as I often do. I dreamed one of my typically vivid dreams. In it, I drove the old ’78 Buick through flooding rains, narrowly missing several wrong-way drivers until I finally came to a safe stop at your house. I walked in to find you sitting up in bed, looking twenty years younger, healthier. You were singing to a young child who was both my daughter and my granddaughter. You waved your hands joyfully to the tempo of the girl-empowering Disney-esque song. You turned and grinned at me as I greeted you.

I awoke and felt held and loved and at peace.

So many times in my life you comforted me when I was in pain. When I was small and awkward and bullied. When I was struggling through my first marriage. When the Girl was in her I-know-everything-you-silly-parents stage. No small wonder you were there to comfort me Friday morning after you had to say goodbye.

This is Not a Lupus Blog (or I Could’ve Had a VP!)

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I hadn’t intended my inaugural post to include anything about lupus but such is life. I put off some medical stuff during the last two years, and I’ve got to deal with it now.

A fellow lupus patient once told me that since I could no longer work in the real world, going to doctors was my only job for the rest of my life. To her, if I approached it that way, it would be more palatable. I thought then as I do now — how sad.

I can barely bring myself to write about having an autoimmune disease some days for the sense of self-pity it implies. I don’t want others to think I focus on the problem rather than focus on being well.

I have been in remission for the most part since my husband and I moved closer to his work over eight years ago. I was gradually improving before that time just being away from my lab job and its stress, ultra-violet lights, and bench work. I was fortunate that I could work for my husband at home and rest often. Still, I see multiple doctors every year, even if just for an annual exam. I always come away tired, sometimes exhausted, due to the lab-like environment. If some new symptom crops up, and that happens now and then, I often find myself with a specialist and those doctors can quickly take over my life and send me into a flare with the conviction that something awful is wrong.

I walked away from an annual check-up yesterday with instructions to go to a specialist. In all likelihood, everything is fine but my reaction was to fall into an immediate depression at what might be to come.

I am not afraid of being ill. I am afraid of being treated like I am ill, of being dragged through a dozen tests, appointments every two weeks, and vague pronouncements of “it might be x, but we should check for y.” In the end, the likely outcome will be as it has been in the past, another symptom of lupus that can’t be cured but only managed and is not life threatening but annoying and painful. Even more likely, the doctor will throw up her hands and declare the symptom is probably caused by the lupus and will fade away after a few weeks or months. Meanwhile, for x months, I’ve been prodded, drained of many vials of blood, and forced to sit in rooms flooded with the UV light that makes me sick while they tell me “well, something is making you sick!” Yes, YOU ARE!

Faced with that eventuality, I went shopping.

I’m not big on shopping, mind you. I hate shopping. It puts me under more ugly lights and surrounds me with perfumes. I don’t even care that much about shoes but that’s what I did. I went and looked at shoes. Loafers, for God’s sake! I bought a pair of boat shoes solely in response to the pressure and guilt from the woman that brought me five pairs of shoes to try. I wouldn’t have purchased shoes at all if I hadn’t been thinking about that damn specialist. I’d much rather have a Vanishing Point pen from Goulet Pens.* Already the idea of wasting days of my life in doctors’ offices has me behaving in a way I don’t like to behave, buying things I don’t want from people I don’t need to please.

This is supposed to be my job? Where’s the part where I get paid? Where’s the reward for work well done? I’m not saying my husband’s job is Heaven but somehow paying someone else to make me sicker and more anxious than I was before I spent three hours in her office is counter-intuitive at best. It may be work but it sure as hell isn’t a job.

Is it any wonder that patients with chronic illnesses have so many tangential issues besides their original diagnoses? Between the drugs that damage parts of us while supposedly keeping us alive and the doctors that drive us batty trying to “help” us, we become people we were never meant to be.  And let’s be honest, some of those doctors see dollar signs when they see we are well-insured.

I’m not meant to be a lab rat or a pin cushion or a zombie wandering from one UV-flooded room to another or someone’s down-payment on a new Benz. My life’s work will not be a disease. I am meant to be writing, playing with my granddaughter, fishing with my husband at dawn and dusk, or hanging out with my kids on the lake.  That my life’s work!

On that note, let’s hope this will be the last you will ever read about lupus on this blog, God willin’ and the crick don’t rise.

 

*Not affiliated with Goulet Pens, just hopelessly addicted to their products and outstanding service.