In the Raw

Today is the anniversary of my father’s death.

It has been three years since I wandered the hospital hallways, watching medical personnel fill out paperwork and answer calls, carrying on as if nothing had happened.

It is also one day short of another sort of anniversary: the discovery of a betrayal that left me so raw, I forgot to serve cupcakes for my youngest’s birthday. When I finally arrived–red and swollen–her teacher asked, “What happened to you?” There were no words.

Today is the anniversary of an anxiety attack I had while hosting the same child’s party several years later. To avoid making a scene, I hid in my closet as the guests arrived, giggling, downstairs—until I hyperventilated and passed out on top of my shoes.

I have witnessed life begin and end, graduated several times, ruined a relationship, lost a couple of pets and a friend. Even in years when nothing of much importance happens, early May is a time when issues of mortality, trust, achievement, love, and the great unknown hog pile me until I cry, “uncle.” It’s when my crust is thinnest.

For some reason–the gift of repression?–I’m blindsided each and every year. You’d think I’d have the foresight to write it on the calendar or something—though, what to call it?

This morning, the first thing I encountered was a short story which began: “I call my mom once a year, on the day she died.”

And that’s when I remembered–all at once, mid-way through my daily decaf. Life is short, people we love come, go, and disappoint, jobs are lost, goals may or may not be achieved. Somehow, it is possible to carry on despite this knowledge; that is what makes the sweet moments so very sweet, and the milestones achieved so precious. In the meantime, I will hold my loved ones close, listen more attentively, and stop worrying about things like jobs and dishes.

At least for a day or two.

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The Day After

Photo Credit: KFDL
Photo Credit: KFDL

How was it that life could bear to continue after the world had ended?
And yet, in the face of great tragedy, the question remained: “What’s for dinner?”

Equal parts numb and raw, Elaine meandered the aisles, staring at beans and milk and leeks and lettuce; seeing nothing.

A friendly clerk eyed her, asking, “And how are you today?”

“I’m—“ she began, but nothing more emerged. There was a reddening, a sudden wetness around the eyes.

“We are how we are on days like these,” he said–not unkindly–and he made his way back toward check stand five.

Ice Cream

Image from www.reddit.com
Image from http://www.reddit.com

Last year, I went home to watch my father die–though I didn’t know it until I landed.

We gathered round him to sing and reminisce; to hold his hand and each other.

Twelve hours later, we were arranging logistics, designing a bulletin, planning the memorial.

One by one my siblings hopped their flights to head home, but there were still a few hours before mine.

Raw from crying, my mother, brother, and I ran out of things to say. We found ourselves in a booth at Dairy Queen, eating a Blizzard, a Buster Bar, a slushie, wondering, what next?

You Gotta Have Art

Watercolor by Janet Mach Dutton.
Watercolor by Janet Mach Dutton.

For years, my mother kept a button exactly like the one pictured above tucked in a secretary desk in her bedroom. The desk was quite small and finished in country white, with an old-fashioned brass keyhole which was never locked. I would sneak into the room and unfold the desk, revealing all its odd treasures. My mother’s address book was kept there, bulging with notes and corners torn from Christmas card envelopes–so many that she held it shut with an oversized rubber band. There were also cubbies filled with neat little piles of precious papers, an empty jelly jar of dull pencils…and that button.

I looked at the button a lot. I remember its exact size and weight, the sharp barb of the pin. It was not the safety pin sort, but the kind that always protrudes, stabbing mindlessly at curious fingers.

When I consider it now, it is strange how much attention I paid to the little knick-knack. I suppose it looks impossibly mundane, but I loved it. You do gotta have art, I knew. We all knew. Between four siblings, we have studied modern dance, ballet, and theater, violin, piano, painting, photography, string bass, electric bass, viola, clarinet, drums. We got that message. And I loved the pun–“you gotta have heart”–another message taught repeatedly. But the pin’s motto had yet another layer for our family; my father’s name is Art.

We needed art and heart and Art.

I’ve been thinking about that button because my father would have been 85 today, and it is the first birthday to pass without him. As expected, I still need him.

I was a little tender already, then, when I took our three ailing foster kittens in for yet another vet appointment this morning. They have giardia, and though medicated, it’s not improving. One has eye infections, and one started bleeding. Caring for them has been nerve-wracking–they are so tiny, so fragile–and a pain in the neck. I never knew that diarrhea could be tracked up walls, on sinks, floors, doors, cabinets. Up the sides of the cat carrier. Matted in furry tails and feet and backs. How do you get poop on your back, my wee pals? Consequently, we’ve been laundering and bleaching the downstairs three times a day, and still can’t keep up. I shouldn’t have been surprised when the vet told me they would keep the kittens at the shelter instead of sending them back home with me. I should have been relieved.

Instead, I was shocked. My anxiety and love for the kittens, plus the frustration that I couldn’t help them, suddenly got confused with my overwhelming grief for my father, and I stood there, eyes welling over the exam table.

The vet smiled and closed the cat carrier. “Say goodbye to the kitties,” she said. “Nice and quick like a bandaid.” And that was it.

I walked out to the parking lot and sat in the car until I could see well enough to drive.

But unlike the proverbial bandaid, the sting has lingered all day.

 

 

 

My Father’s Compass

newspaper2010 sm
A few priorities: the newspaper, a snack, and a view of the lake.

When my father would visit, he had a knack for hunkering in with the MacNeil News Hour while my kids fussed and cried. I was usually busy burning something on the stove, entertaining telemarketers, arranging carpools, or hunting for very important lost items. I didn’t have a lot of time to chat. After wrestling the girls into bed, I would slump down the stairs, and Dad would glance up from his mountain of New York Times. “Say, have you read this editorial about inner city schools?”

I never had.

How I wish I had been able to stay awake then, to engage in conversation about something other than logistics and rashes. Later, when he couldn’t talk much at all, I felt such a tremendous loss. What I would have given–then, and now–to hear his thoughtful analysis, his historical anecdotes, even a little about the book he was reading. I have so many questions that remain, so many gaps which I long to fill with stories from his rich life.

But one cannot render a portrait of a man or a relationship with a macro lens, focusing on a single moment, of which there were two and a half trillion in his 84 years. Examining just one of these does neither of us justice.

Thankfully, there are other moments to cling to–moments that are easier to carry: the theologian on all fours, mooing, while my small girls shrieked and giggled. The tiny, illegible notes my father squeezed into the margins of mom’s chatty letters–notes full of the gratitude and humility with which he approached life. The time I called him on Fathers’ Day a couple of years ago. After a discussion of his day, the weather, Sunday dinner, he paused and I awaited his goodbye. He said, instead, “I wanted you to know: you are a blessing.”

I have been surprised and relieved to discover that my relationship with my father endures–grows, even–as I hear stories from friends, family, and strangers. They share glimpses I couldn’t see from my age or perspective. I am reminded that though his body has betrayed him, he has not been diminished by mortality. Instead, these stories add flesh to the bones I have known over the years.

Still, I will not pretend that I can see him in full. Who could? Yet here is what I know for sure. My father asked a single question repeatedly during his sojourn on earth: How then shall we live?

This was the question that guided his thoughts, his decisions, his direction. He believed we should take a look at what we believe to be good, right, or best, and use that as we go gently forth into the world. He forged a compass from his heart and faith, and as I try to follow in his footsteps, I find he is walking with me. He is alive in my struggles, my questions, and my actions. He is here, helping me as I choose what I think is best; helping me to set my own compass.

Today’s Plan: Free-falling into my Box of Grief

Link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/johntwohig/9728292503/
Link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/johntwohig/9728292503/

Forty-five days ago my father died.

Shortly thereafter, the following advice magically appeared in my inbox: “Free-fall into what’s happening.”

I didn’t want to do that.

I’ve been afraid to think or digest or write or talk or feel. Luckily, I haven’t had time to do so.

I could fill today, too–with my stupid, endless lists and obligations–but for once, I put wallow on the list.

I’ve tucked my box of grief into a corner and left it to fester, to rot, to multiply and mutate. it’s time to bring it out in the daylight and examine its contents.

My plan:

  • Write.
  • Drink lots of decaf and eat something lovely and chocolate.
  • Listen to beautiful, sad music.
  • Make something I like.
  • Go for a walk. Sit in a tree.
  • Watch a Very Sad Movie. Bring lots of tissues.
  • See what happens.

But first, let me move the car. Parking tickets are not therapeutic.