Everything else, Grief, Writing

Going, going… gone.

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It seems our life has become filled with pets to varying degrees. We’ve got three dogs now. My mom – who tolerated us kids having dogs when we were small but never enjoyed them on any level – has a dog. My daughter and her boyfriend have a 30 gallon tank filled with fish, including one named Ted who is pleasant enough as long as he’s fed regularly, but doesn’t mind gobbling up his small friends if the fish food sprinkles don’t arrive on time.

My brother was an avid animal lover, and couldn’t resist taking in one that was in need. Over the years he’d had cats, dogs, a parrot named Wilma, pygmy goats, rabbits, pigs, ducks, chickens, and I can’t even recall what all else. When he got sick last year, he had a cat and seven dogs. Realizing he was becoming too frail to be able to care for them, he made the heartbreaking decision to rehome some of them, including his own special dog, Beau. My daughter’s boyfriend had hoped to take Beau, but his landlord squelched that idea. However, a pastor friend of my brother’s offered to take Beau in, and that was nice, because he still had opportunities to visit with him on good days. They also had to rehome two of the chihuahuas, and their pit puppy, Jade.

They kept my sister-in-law’s tiny chihuahua, my nephew’s little shih Tzu, and their elderly family dog, Ellie Mae. The chihuahuas were able to find a new home together, which was great. Jade, the pit puppy, went to a friend’s home, and though she was hesitant at first, eventually recognized they were her new people and settled in.

I called my sister-in-law last night to wish her a happy birthday. It was her first one since we lost my brother, and I figured it’d be an especially difficult day for her. In the course of conversation, she mentioned how sad she was about Jade. The last I’d heard of Jade, she’d been doing well in her new home, so I asked what had happened. Apparently, the electrical wiring in the house caught fire, and though the couple were able to rescue their baby from the blaze, they were unable to reach Jade in time, and she perished in the fire.

Some of my brother’s dogs I’ve known since they were pups. I didn’t know Jade well and really had no connection to her. My brother’s family lives a couple of hours away, and Jade was just a baby dog when they had her, so I never got the chance to bond with her. But hearing she’s passed hurts me with a strange, sharp ache. It’s like another little piece of my brother has disappeared, and I hate it. It’s nobody’s fault. The fire was a tragic fluke, and I certainly don’t blame anyone for Jade’s death. Still and all, that pain is there.

Trying to hold on to all the memories is like holding my hand beneath a faucet and trying to catch all the water. Of course the memories are there, but there are so many, over so many years, that the more recent stuff gets shoved to the front. It makes me feel kind of frantic, like I’m losing my family all over again.

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a book about living with grief. It would be a compilation of pieces I’ve written during and after the deaths of my siblings. I don’t know if anyone would actually read it, but it feels like it might be cathartic for me, and I like the idea of having a tangible something with these precious memories in it. I was reading through some of the posts from when my sister died a few years back, and came across one detailing the moment she left this earth. I had written that with four of her children there, and my mom, my aunt, my sister’s ex-husband and her two little dogs perched on her bed, there hadn’t been much space. I had grabbed on to my sister’s ankles as she took her last breaths. Just to touch her skin. So she would know I was there. It was the only part of her I could reach in the crowd.

I had forgotten that. Or maybe I didn’t forget, but the memory was shoved to the back, less urgent than the others.

I don’t want to forget those little things. I don’t want these tiny pieces to float away.

So I think I’m going to do it. Tentative working title is “Grief in my Pockets.”

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Everything else, Grief

The Burden of the Beast

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I forget sometimes. Even though I know the beast; in fact, have known it now, for  many years, I forget. It comes slowly. Quietly. I watch for it, I memorize its stealthy steps. I plan ahead, how to handle an attack.

I feel its breath on my neck, its heavy weight on my back. I ignore it. I fight it. I run from it.

Still. The beast comes.

It comes in the night, invading my dreams with visions of grotesque accidents, twisted bodies, loss after loss after loss. Some mornings I write the nightmares out in a spiral notebook, just to get them out of my head. Sometimes the dreams are so terrible, I cannot bear to conjure even a faded image of them on paper. Me – a fantasy and horror writer who delights in writing about gristle and blood and death.

The nightmares are too much, even for me.

It’s inside me, pulling my nerves so taught they vibrate. Leaving me so agitated, my skin begins to itch. I absently scratch at my arm or leg and BAM – oh, hives.

This pattern repeats so often, I should know it like I know the back of my hand. Still, it catches me off guard.

Clenching stomach. Headaches. Fatigue.

Why am I so tired? I whisper to myself as my eyes flutter shut in the middle of a workday.

Why am I so tired? I ask my husband, when the alarm goes off in the morning and I feel like I haven’t slept at all.

Why am I so tired? Over and over and over.

And then I remember. The beast.

When people think about anxiety, they often imagine the five second panic attacks shown on television. Watch the character swallow a Xanax. There, now. All better. Life goes on.

The reality is that anxiety is so much more. It affects the entire body. It affects sleep. Work. Hobbies. It affects eating. The ability to relax.

Anxiety affects everything. It is fucking exhausting. I know it, yet I keep forgetting. Every time. I get so frustrated with myself.

It’s been mentioned to me that I seem to be “dwelling.” I don’t feel like I’m dwelling. In fact, I feel like I’m fighting to keep pushing forward. Some days are really difficult, but still, I get up. I work. I write about grief, depression, and anxiety quite a bit, that’s true. Not because I’m dwelling on my losses – because I’m still working on processing them. It’s not an experience to get over, but an experience to learn to live with. I am still learning.

Sometimes words come to me and I feel compelled to get them out of my head. This happened a few days ago, so I put them out as a Facebook status. I got quite a bit of feedback on that post, people messaging to tell me they felt the same way, or thanking me for the words. I’m going to share them here, as well:

“There will be times in life when it feels so cold and dark you think you can’t take one more step. This is it – the one thing in life you just can’t get through.
But you can. I know you think you can’t, but you can.
Right this minute, you may be in the coldest, darkest ditch, overwhelmed by the wind that threatens to topple you.
Please take this knowledge and hold it tight; bury it deep in your heart –
The sun will shine for you again. One day, you will hear yourself laugh and be startled by the sound of it, but recall what a beautiful feeling it is to laugh. One day you will be struck by the simple beauty of a butterfly or a newly blossomed flower. One day there will be words in a random song on the radio that strike a sense of recognition through your soul, and you will know that somewhere, someone else has felt the same way you feel, and it will spur you forward.
Take these tiny moments in. Allow them to be a balm for your raw edges.
The sun will shine for you again.
You just have to keep getting up.”

These words encompass my feelings over the last year. It has been dark. Some days, it still is. But colors are becoming bright again. Music is enjoyable again. There are tiny moments in each day where I feel grateful to be breathing. Grateful for my life. I can create. I can laugh.

Some days, the beast still comes. Even in happiness. Even when I’m determined to enjoy myself. Even when I focus on peace.

I believe this is my new normal. I can accept that. The more I get up, the more I choose joy, the more I create, the smaller the beast becomes. But I’m not certain I will ever be free of it.

I can live with that. I am strong and can carry that burden. And on days that I can’t, I’ve learned to ask others to help me bear it.

In the middle of October last year, we drove my brother and his family to Nashville. It was his wish after we learned of the severity of his diagnosis. On the drive back to Michigan, he wanted to stop in Kentucky at the Mammoth Caves. He remembered our parents taking us there when we were small, and he wanted his son to share in that experience. As it happened, after several busy days in Nashville and the drive to the caves, my brother was too ill to do the tour, but he insisted we take his son and go.

We honored that wish. It was an eerie feeling, stepping down into that cavern. Our group was maybe twenty people, I’d guess, plus the tour guide. We walked cautiously in the dim light, turned a corner, and lined up, as the guide requested, along a sturdy rail so he could tell us about the history of the caves. Part of the way through, the guide asked everyone to put their cell phones away. Then he turned off the remaining lights.

The darkness was overwhelming. I could hear breathing all around me, but saw nobody. Not even my hand in front of my face was visible. Logically, I knew we were safe enough. But after several silent seconds in that blackness, my heart began to pound. Icy fingers of fear crept up my spine. The beast was there, pressing down on me, shortening my breaths.

But then I remembered, we were really just a few feet underground. If I held the rail and followed it back the way we had come, in less than a minute, I’d be back outside in the light.

The sun had not disappeared. I’d just moved away from it.

With that knowledge, the burden of the beast lessened.

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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Grief

Keep Yourself Busy & Other Secrets about Grief

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Grieving makes others uncomfortable.
That’s the truth of it. That’s why we hide it, we crack jokes, we eat extra mashed potatoes instead of sharing our pain with others. The constant refrain from those who mean to help is always, “keep yourself busy.”
I’ve been keeping myself busy. The first month after my brother’s death, I found tasks to occupy myself for five minutes. Then another five minutes. I never let my mind rest. When I started to think of my grief, I started another project. I put together a short story collection and published it. I crocheted gigantic shawls to give away (seven of them, I think). I tried to finish my current manuscript. I read book after book. Anything to keep my heart and mind too busy to think about this catastrophic loss.
I made myself smile for others. I heard myself cracking jokes and getting others to laugh.
I struggled to stand beneath the crushing weight of the things I couldn’t say. The things I couldn’t let myself think or feel.
I hoped if I kept pushing myself, I would get back to “normal” faster. I berated myself for bad days, for being slow, for hurting, for not being able to keep up with everything I needed and wanted to do.
While I’ve never been the type of person to care overmuch what people think of me, for some reason I worry they will think I’m not getting over grief fast enough. As if it’s some kind of marathon and I’m the one two miles behind everyone else, sweating and gasping for air. But don’t bring me my inhaler guys, I’m fine, I can do it, don’t worry about me. It’s just a little asthma.
Just a little death.
Just a little grief.
I don’t want to burden anyone else. I don’t want them to have to feel this constant heaviness, the lethargy, the foggy mind. So I try to keep up the appearance of healing while inside my soul feels like it’s been scraped raw and God is dumping salt on me.
It’s like covering a half-baked cake with frosting and sprinkles.
Speaking of sprinkles. Here’s a story.
My therapist had me make a sand art mandala in memory of my brother. I made a big, colorful flower. At the end of my session, we dumped the sand into a clear plastic dish. She told me to hold on to it until the spring, then let the sand go in a nearby body of water. I brought it home, set it on the table in the kitchen, halfway forgot about it. Until my 15-year-old son mentioned he had gotten up in the middle of the night to fix himself a snack and by the way, Mom, those sprinkles you left in the dish on the table tasted terrible.
People ask me how I’m doing. I say I’m fine.
After all, it’s been over two months since he died. Two years since my mother-in-law died. Four and a half years since I lost my sister. Nearly nine years since I lost my dad.
Of course I’m fine.
I’ve pulled myself up by my bootstraps, like we are supposed to do. I carry on. I keep myself busy.
I don’t cry in front of others. My burden isn’t theirs to bear. They’ve got their own.
I’m not certain what they are, because they’re keeping frosting and sprinkles all over their own half-baked cakes, too.
We don’t discuss grief because people get uncomfortable. To examine grief out loud is to accept a loved one is actually gone. It means we accept others we love will one day leave us.
It means one day we will leave those we love.
Instead, we talk about anything else. The weather, the roads, the holidays, the kids, what we’re putting in our Insta Pots tonight.
I’ll tell you about my dog’s recent surgery and her recovery in minute detail. (cruciate repair, she’s doing great) I’ll tell you about the puppy we got our daughter for Christmas. (a Jack Russell and Havanese mix, he’s ridiculously cute, he apparently has a bra fetish, he’s white with one brown ear). I’ll tell you about the next book I’ve got coming out, what I’ve recently read, what my personality type is according to the test I took (INFP, which totally makes sense).
What I won’t say is that every day my body hurts as if I have the flu. I can’t concentrate on anything. I am unable to follow the plot of anything on television. Nor can I follow a book plot – I’ve been reading mostly non-fiction books about dogs lately. I won’t say that my sleep patterns are so jacked up that I fall asleep, wake up at two in the morning, my mind races until five, I fall back asleep just before the alarm goes off. I push myself through the day by promising myself I can take a nap later. I think about sleep constantly. I won’t say anything about the nightmares I have, that I dream of finding dead bodies in my closet, or piled on my basement floor, or in the backseat of my car. I dream about my family members dying, one by one. Or that my dogs are all diagnosed with a terminal disease. I won’t say I eat ice cream to stop myself from thinking about being sad, or that I’ve gained ten pounds this month, or that my attention span is so short, I type for five minutes, crochet five minutes, pick up a book for three minutes, then rotate them all again. I won’t say how many days it’s been since I washed my hair, or that when I do wash it, I often forget to rinse the conditioner out before I turn the water off. I won’t say how many days the shirt I’m wearing has been laying on the bedroom floor. I won’t say how often I have anxiety attacks when I’m around people – but I haven’t gone to my writer’s group in months. I dread the thought of picking up milk at the grocery store. And I would do nearly anything else in life if I never had to enter a Walmart store again.
I won’t say how long it’s been since I’ve been able to write anything of substance. I’m 5k from finishing my next book, and am afraid I never will.
I won’t say how hard it is to fathom life without so many of my family members around.
But that’s okay.
I won’t tell you I’m grieving. You won’t tell me you’re grieving.
Grief makes people uncomfortable, and we wouldn’t want to do that.
How’s the weather over there, anyway? Read any good books lately? Many potholes in your neck of the woods this winter? And hey, what flavor of sprinkles did you put on this cake?

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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Grief

Four Weeks, Nine Days

Time is weird when you’re grieving. Untitled design

It seems at once too slow and too fast, and feels like it’s moving through water.

Churning.

It’s been two days shy of three  months since my brother was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.

It’s been four weeks and nine days since he died.

I count time like this now. Each minute, each day, each week, I remind myself I’ve made it through another one, and am strong enough to get through the next.

“Stay busy,” everyone tells me. “Keep your mind occupied.” So I do. I haven’t missed a day of work since I went back after the funeral. I’ve put out a new book, a collection of horror shorts. I’ve made five gigantic shawls and one miniature one. Most I’ve given away. It helps my anxiety to have something to do with my hands, so I haul my bag o’ yarn with me everywhere. I make dinner. I shuttle my kids around. I text friends. I try to read, but the truth is, I’m having trouble focusing. My mind drifts, and sitting still is such an uncomfortable sensation, I can barely tolerate it. I hosted Thanksgiving at my house this year. It was different and sort of quiet but we made it through. I miss watching the TV shows I used to enjoy, but I can’t seem to follow the plots enough to grasp what is happening, so I stopped watching.

My therapist says I need to give myself permission to rest. I struggle to understand how to put that into practice. I have forgotten how to let my mind be quiet. If I don’t keep it constantly filled with projects and sounds and plans, grief hits me so hard and so fast I can’t catch my breath.

At first, I feared I’d lost my words. I tried to write, but nothing came. But about  a week ago, I worked on When Knowing Comes, and I thought if I could just write one good paragraph, that would be great. It took me a while. First I typed a few words, and then a few more. Rearranged them. Deleted. Rewrote. Then all at once I had two paragraphs worth keeping. Then a solid thousand words.

I released Consumption with zero fanfare in November. I didn’t have the strength at the time to contact reviewers & bloggers. Last weekend I spent a Saturday working backwards, contacting bloggers to see if they’d be willing to review the book I surprise-released a month ago. Some were really nice about it. Most remained silent. I don’t blame them. It’s not their fault I dropped the ball. They don’t know what’s going on in my life. As far as they’re aware, I’m just another author with no regard for their time. I’m really grateful to the ones who responded, though. It means a lot.

For the most part, I’m learning to cope with the anxiety attacks. If it comes on slow, I can use the breathing exercises I’ve been taught to stave off the worst of it. Sometimes, though, they hit when I’m in the middle of a store, or driving to work. I’ll have a cart full of groceries and out of nowhere I think, “There are too many people in this store. There’s not enough air for everyone.” Even though I realize it’s illogical, the thought won’t leave. And before I know it, I’ve broken out in a sweat, my heart is hammering, my hands are shaking, and I’m stuck there in the produce aisle, hoping my ice cream doesn’t melt before I can pay and get out of the store. The week before last, my son texted me at work “lol my school is on fire.” I was so instantly panicked! I was able to reach him by phone and the kids were out in the parking lot, the fire was just in a bathroom (some kid dropped a cigarette in a trash can full of paper), and everything was under control in minutes. But I couldn’t calm back down all day. It’s days like those I realize how  much more amplified the anxiety has become. When I realize it’s in control of me instead of the other way around.

Sleep is a crapshoot. I fall asleep most nights but wake back up at two a.m. for no apparent reason at all and remain that way. Grief is a kind of exhaustion all its own, but sleeping less than three hours a night just makes it worse. I stare at nothing in the darkness and try counting backward from one hundred in an effort to trick my mind back into sleep. It never works, but I keep counting.

Counting backward. Counting days. Counting through anxiety attacks.

Marking time.

I’m still here. I keep getting up. Keep showing up. Keep working. Keep writing.

It’s been four weeks and nine days.

I’m still counting.

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Bits and Whatnots, Grief

Metamorphosis.

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I dreamed about you last night.

It seems so long since you’ve been gone, and I feel like such a different person without you here.

There is a strange sense of numbness when a loved one dies, and it’s a blessing really, I’ve always thought. It’s that numbness that leaves us able to plan a funeral, and sit through a funeral, and take care of necessary paperwork and other awful things that signal the end of a life. It’s that numbness that enables us to keep getting out of bed, day after day, taking kids to school and making dinner and washing dishes and setting up appointments.

It’s that numbness that keeps our bodies going while our souls are weeping.

But I’ve noticed that since you’ve been gone, that initial numbness still hasn’t gone away, and I find myself lacking the ability to care about so many things that used to seem important.

I think to myself, “I should care about this,” but inside, I feel absolutely nothing.

Sometimes I attempt to trick myself into it with a “fake until you make it” mentality, but so far that doesn’t seem to be working so well.

And it seems as time goes on that walking away from the things I no longer care about becomes easier and easier.

It isn’t that I don’t care about anything, not at all; it’s simply that my focus seems to have narrowed considerably, and whatever doesn’t fall within that narrow scope feels now like a waste of time and effort. And if it’s such a waste, why bother in the first place?

What does matter? Family, home, writing. A few friends that are truly worth the effort of friendship.

I deliberately seek out what brings joy, or ways to bring laughter to others.

Beyond that, the rest of the world could fall away and I would not care at all.

So then, is this evidence that depression is again rearing its miserable and familiar head? I don’t think so, not really. I don’t feel depressed; I’m not sad or angry, not constantly fatigued or in tears.

Or is it simply that the raw horror of losing you has stripped away pretense, and left me with a clearer picture of what is worthy of my love and attention?

I don’t know.

I don’t know, and I feel like something precious and valuable has been broken inside me for a year and a half, and I don’t know if there is a way to fix it or even if I should try.

I used to care about and worry about so many things I often felt each new day was a burden of overwhelming pressure, and I would undeniably fail in the mad attempt o get it all taken care of, so that I felt constantly caught up in a whirlwind of frantic need.

But now even time feels slower, and if I can’t get it done, will it really matter? I take on less, expect less of myself, and worry less about achieving the approval of anyone else.

And I don’t know that it’s really wrong, to feel this way. What concerns me is the worry that this numbness may one day overtake everything, and if it does, what then?

Embracing detachment is easier, for certain. I hold on to what matters most with fierce determination, and I will not let it drift away.

At the same time, I feel as if some part of me that used to be important has drifted away while I wasn’t looking, and I don’t know how to get it back.

I dreamed about you last night. You were still sick, but whole enough to hug without worrying your thin skin might tear, and I couldn’t feel your ribs through your shirt.

But I heard your laughter, clear as a tinkling bell, and I could smell your minty gum and your perfume and underneath it the smoke of your cigarettes.

It’s been a year and a half since you’ve been gone, and it still feels like I’m waiting for the punch line to a very bad joke.

Bits and Whatnots, Grief

The Heat, The Rain, and The Long Road Home.

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It’s been just over a year since that day last summer.

That whole week was hot, the kind of sticky heat that lingers on your skin
even after you’ve gotten out of it. We’d walk outside for a bit, then come
back in and drink water bottle after water bottle. Beyond the heat, the
water helped replenish the tears we’d lost and fill our empty bellies. None
of us had been able to eat.

Ever cried in an unbearable heat? It’s strange. Somehow the sun licks away
the saltiness before it ever reaches your mouth.

I’d made my husband take us to the store to buy new dress clothes. We
smiled or barely shook our heads as our daughters twirled from the fitting
rooms in summer dresses, as if we were choosing something to buy for a
school dance instead of a funeral.

She isn’t even gone yet. But she will be. And when it happens, I don’t
  want to have to think. I want everything to be ready.

At the house, the motions of everyday chores took on an overly loud
quality. Mom spent hours each day making my sister’s favorite foods. Mashed
potatoes. Macaroni salad. Summer cake with fruit and vanilla pudding.

My sister couldn’t eat much, really. End stage cancer does that to a
person. But that’s what mothers do, you know? They feed their children.

There were minutes, sometimes hours, when her lucidity left us vying for
attention, and we’d take reluctant turns talking with her or holding her
hand. None of us wanted to lose a moment of recognition or shared smiles,
but there were what, eighteen of us? At least. We had to be fair.

Outside, the sky was perfect summer blue, the clouds fat and white.

Inside, my sister was sweating, though her skin was cold.

We’d been at Mom’s for five days. Friday, my sister was awake and somewhat
jovial, joking with my daughters about trashy TV shows. A calm vibe hung in
the air. We could’ve remained in that limbo forever, I think. Cautious but
steady.

We left for just a little while, running necessary errands. We weren’t far
or gone long, but a heavy sickness sat in my gut. “We have to go back,” I
urged my husband. “Something’s wrong. I feel it.”

The temperature was rising. Heat distorted the air, the way it does when
you look through campfire smoke and everything seems just a little off.

I sat with my sister. She was sleeping, but I held her hand. Through the
window, I saw shadows of summers past: Wet drops from the sprinkler.
Melting popsicles and red rings around our lips. Splashing in the clear
blue water of the pool.

It was the part of the night when one day quietly melds into the next. I’d
dozed off on the couch, and my husband was shaking my shoulder. Wake up.
  It’s happening.

Her breathing was short and shallow, with long, frightening pauses in
between.

My nephew rubbed her arm and sang, “Rock me Mama, like a wagon wheel….”

My daughter rushed from the room, and came back carrying my sister’s two small dogs, arranging them on the
bed near her feet.

My mother said, over and over, “I love you. I love you.”

My little boy rubbed circles on my back and said, “Keep breathing, Mama.
In your nose and out your mouth. We’ll be okay if we just keep breathing.”

Wailing stuttered in my ears, prickling my skin.

We fell asleep on the living room floor after it was over, because of course it had all been just a
dream.

When we woke, the heat wave had broken.

Then came the summer rain.

Bits and Whatnots, Grief

Cut

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Today makes eight months and 16 days since you left us, and I did something today I never expected to do.

I cut my own hair.

I had decided to just let it grow and never cut it again, or at least not for a long, long time.

I guess I thought it would be some act of remembrance; a sign of my mourning, like in the old days when the grieving wore black for a year.

Nobody else but you has cut my hair since I was fifteen, and my friends and I would come up to the cosmetology school for manicures and cut-n-colors.

I was so proud of you, watching my big sister learn these new skills; watching you laugh with your fellow students while my friends and I got pampered at discounted prices.

You graduated at the top of your class the same year I got married.

You graduated at the top of your class while working full-time, raising five kids as a single mom.

You were my hero.

And I remember the way your hands felt in my hair, quick and confident, as you brushed and separated and snip snip snipped at the curly mess on my head.

As you were brushing and snipping, we’d talk about the kids: yours and mine and activities and sports they were involved in and awards they’d won and recent report cards and who the kids were dating now and which kids were learning to drive.

And usually my little guy would run into the kitchen and say something that made you crack up laughing, and you’d have to stop for a minute to sit down or take a sip of your Sunkist or put your hands on your knees when you laughed so hard you started to cough.

You’d always say, “He’s so funny! My little booger-butt.”

Donovan’s first baby haircut was done in your old kitchen, and Brennan’s first one was in mine.

You trimmed the girls’ hair for the first time at my old house, just before they each started kindergarten.

Remember how Brennan would cry and say the tiny bits of hair that fell down his neck burned his skin, and we would need someone to sit with him and feed him fruit snacks until the haircut was over, and then we’d pick him up and run with him to the bathtub and stick his screaming, squirming little self in the water to get the hair off?

We were both so grateful when he finally outgrew that.

You were over to do family haircuts the day we adopted the little yorkie, and you sat on my couch and held her tight, squealing over how small and pretty she was, that wiggly little two-pound thing. You held her up to your chest and rested your chin on her body, closed your eyes and smiled.

The last of us to get a haircut from you was John. You were exhausted and couldn’t figure out what you’d done to make your shoulder hurt so much, but you offered to come cut his hair so he’d look good for his job interview. That was almost exactly one year ago.

The boys had their first haircuts at a barber shop last summer. They were nervous wrecks, and Brennan watched the barber in the mirror the entire time to make sure she was doing it right.

I took pictures of the big event, even though the boys were eleven and thirteen. Still. It was a big deal for them to sit in that chair and have someone else do what you’d always done for them.

The second time I took them for haircuts, we went to a different shop. This one was bigger and a bit fancier than the first, and they had those giant sinks with the space cut out in the front to lay your head, you know? Well, Brennan noticed them and demanded his hair be washed in one because he’d read on the sign out front “Shampoo and cut $15” and he said he wanted Daddy’s money’s worth but really he just wanted to feel cool and have his hair washed in the big sink.

He was so funny. Your little booger-butt.

Savannah bleached her hair blond in the fall because she told you she was going to and you said you liked it. Olivia helped her with it. It did turn out really cute. You were right.

Savannah was almost-sixteen the first time she had her hair cut in a salon, just before school started last year. I took a picture of her in the big chair, too.

She hated the entire experience and said the stylist didn’t listen and it was all wrong and she refuses to go back. So for now, anyway, she has vowed to never have her hair cut again by anyone else.

She’s planned to take cosmetology in Skills Center year after next. She’s always wanted to be like you.

Olivia hasn’t had her hair cut in over a year and a half. She wanted to grow it out for senior pictures and now that those are done, it just keeps growing longer.

I think she is just nervous about letting anyone else cut it. She gets anxious sometimes. More often since you died.

I’ve teased her about it, but the truth is I don’t want anyone else to cut my hair either.

That was your job, and I don’t think anyone else can fill your place.

At first, we couldn’t get our schedules to match up so you could cut my hair. Then you were so exhausted after work, you’d fall asleep as soon as you got home.

Anemic again, you thought, and started taking iron pills.

Then there was the pain in your shoulder, and it hurt so much I couldn’t bear to ask you to do it.

“When my shoulder gets better…..” you said.

We’d get together then.

But it didn’t get better, and now you are gone.

I’m trying to remember, and I think it’s been longer than a year and a half since you last cut my hair.
Probably closer to two years.

So I wasn’t going to cut it, but there are inches of dry, split ends and no matter what I do, it looks a mess and I feel like you’d be disappointed in me if I leave it that way.

I looked up a tutorial on how to cut layers in hair, and it said to just put wet hair up in a ponytail and cut.

That’s what I did. I had to use regular household scissors because I don’t know where your haircutting kit is. It might be down in the boxes in Mom’s basement, or somewhere packed up at Big W’s house.

If it turns out okay, maybe I’ll buy a pair of my own haircutting scissors.

I don’t know.

Anyway.

I was really missing you today when I saw those couple inches of hair hit my bathroom floor.

I wished we were in the kitchen again, drinking Sunkist and laughing about our kids.

Bits and Whatnots, Grief

The Way Things Used To Be.

 

So many things have changed since July 27, 2013.

I worry more about my mother.

My mother worries more about me, with a tremble in her voice.

I have more nightmares. Horrible, vivid nightmares.

I dream about my remaining siblings dying. About my mother dying. My children. My dogs.

My husband.

Their deaths are gruesome.

I dream about my close friends disappearing without a trace.

About adopting a new dog; bringing it home, naming it, loving it. And then it dies.

When my alarm buzzes in the morning, my blankets are on the floor and the cases have been ripped from my pillows.

I have come to dread the night.

And my child dreams. She wakes up crying, unable to catch her breath and unsure if the reason is asthma or anxiety. She runs to the living room and checks the dogs, feeling all over their tiny bodies for any hint of a cancerous lump.

My other daughter is just angry. All the time. Every day.

Every night.

When my husband or children are more than five minutes late coming home, I immediately imagine they’ve been in a terrible accident, and then stand in my living room arguing with myself over the stupidity of my worry.

Even as I peer through the window and down the road for any sign of our vehicle.

This winter has been riddled with colds, and anytime I sneeze or cough, my mom shows up with money to shove in my hand and pleas to take myself to the doctor.

“Catch it early!” she says, followed by a hard swallow. “Catch it early and you’ll be okay!”

Because my sister did not catch it early, and my sister was not okay.

And I see the difference in our family doctor, and I remember how she wept when my sister died. If my children or I go in for an asthma flare or a sinus infection, her face pinches up as she examines, quickly firing off questions like Do you have worsening pain anywhere? Night sweats? Random fevers? Have you felt any lumps? Have you checked for lumps? Let me check.

It’s different now.

Because we are now A Family Touched By Cancer.

And that makes everything change.

I notice the difference when I know a friend from long ago — when we were melodramatic teens giggling over boys and clothes and dances — is now battling her second round of cancer. I want to reach out, I want to connect and do something to help, to make it easier.

But I sit paralyzed.

Because I don’t want to see cancer anymore.

I close my eyes against tear-jerker commercials begging for money for bald children, fighting for their lives and losing their childhood innocence and can’t I give just a little of my paycheck for them?

I grab the remote and change the channel.

I can’t. I can’t bear to see it. Or touch it. Or hear it.

I am selfish.

I notice the difference when I stand weeping in a Wal-Mart with a skein of yarn in my hands, wondering at the tears slipping down my face; the burning, choking sensation in my throat.

I think and think and count the days and finally it strikes me. It’s the twenty-seventh of the month, the anniversary that somehow my tears remembered but I tried to forget.

My tears never forget.

I see a tall, thin women in a store; long blond and brown and meticulously straightened hair hanging down her back. I see a brightly colored, peace sign bag swinging from her shoulder and my heart catches and stops for a second and I think Oh! Charlotte is here!

And I take two or maybe three steps and then I remember.

I used to visit my father’s grave. I would cry and leave a poem I had written and I’d notice the cherry cough drops or a crushed Bud Light can left by one of my nephews and I would smile a little bit.

I haven’t gone since we buried my sister next to him.

I cannot bear to see her name on a headstone.

It was too soon.

And I wasn’t ready.

Everything has changed. Every bit, every piece of life has changed.

And sometimes I just really miss the way things used to be.

Bits and Whatnots, Grief

Stuffing, Veterinary Liniment, and Other Holiday Delights

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On the outside, it seemed so much the same. I was thankful for that. I’m a fan of sameness.

Routine. Tradition.

I dislike big changes.

As a child, I cried when my parents changed the kitchen wallpaper or traded in the old Station-wagon for a new one.

So it stands to reason that on this day, this year, this first major holiday without my sister, my entire soul craved routine.

Carefully, I asked my mother what time we would be eating.

1 p.m.

Good. Same as in years past.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Carefully, I considered recipe choices for what dish I might bring and in the end, decided on the same pineapple cake with homemade cream cheese frosting that I’ve taken every year for at least ten years.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Carefully, we made snacks and hung out with the kids the night before, our own little accidental tradition that has come about over the years – this celebrating big holidays on the eve of the actual day – mainly because the actual holiday is so fast and crowded and loud and it can be hard to pay attention to each of my own four kids during a giant family meal, and also because I’m a lazy mother who would rather make snacks and play Aggravation or Sorry! than spend hours making an identical dinner to the one my mother will make the next day.

This year, it was a little different because there was a new boy hanging about. I can’t say he is my teenage daughter’s boyfriend, because evidently that’s an archaic term that is no longer groovy or hip to bandy about, but I suppose I can call him “The-Boy-My-Daughter-Exclusively-Holds-Hands-And-Hangs-Out-With-Whose-Facial-Piercings-Give-My-Mother-Tics” without dropping any points on my Cool-o-Meter.

He seems like a nice boy.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Carefully, I rose early the next morning to turn on the Macy’s Parade, and began preparations for cake baking. I had time the day before to do it, but intentionally left it undone, because I usually make it the morning of Thanksgiving, during the Parade, and this was no year for change.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

The snow was falling prettily, dusting the roads and grass and the mountains of leaves in my unkempt yard that I haven’t bothered to rake up and it all looked rather picturesque as we pulled out of our drive.

Carefully, we stopped at the local gas station to pick up two newspapers; one for us, one for Mom. Something my husband started doing years ago, when my Dad was still around, and after the big meal had been eaten and Mom’s fancy gold-plated utensils washed, and the desserts sat forlornly on the table, warm and messy from attack, we would spread out the papers and look at the ads and detail which sales might be worth fighting for.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Carefully, we maneuvered the somewhat slick, old dirt road that led to Mom’s house, the one we all grew up in. The house my father died in. The house my sister died in.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Carefully, I swallowed hard as I realized ours was the only vehicle arriving for Thanksgiving dinner.

Usually, there are so many cars pulling in on a holiday morning, some of us have to park in the road.

This year, the white blanket in Mom’s driveway was untainted by tire treads.

Carefully, I blinked hard and fast and bit my lip, really hard.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

But the smells were the same. Turkey, stuffing, gravy, biscuits, green beans with mushroom soup, all mixed together and wafting from the side door as Mom leaned out to greet us, the scent getting caught up in the bitterly cold air and drifting up my nose all at once.

The sight was the same. Mom dithering back and forth, back and forth, worrying over the pots simmering on the stove, ordering the carving of the turkey, wondering aloud if anyone else might show up.

The fancy Christmas tablecloth was on her large, wooden table; golden silverware tucked into little poinsettia pockets; the good, glass dishes overflowing with tossed salad and deviled eggs and every other traditional Thanksgiving delight.

She was smiling because one of my nephews had called and he and his girlfriend were able to come.

Back turned to me, she announced, in a slightly wavering voice, a change this year: instant potatoes.

Potatoes.

Mashed potatoes were my sister’s particular dish. Every year since I was a little girl, Mom would boil a giant pot of potatoes and then they would sit, mushy and waiting, for my sister to arrive to add the butter and milk and do the actual mashing and whipping them into fat white clouds.

So this was different. Mom just boiled the water and added some milk and the instant flakes, stirred them up, and rubbed her age-weathered-but-well-manicured-hands together as if swiping something crumbly and sticky off them.

It worked out okay. They turned out pretty well.

For instant potatoes.

And this year, she remembered to set the timer for the biscuits, and did NOT burn them.

I’m kind of used to the toasty bottoms.

But I realize I can’t always have my way.

It sounds ridiculous. I know.

This year, we did not pray over the meal. Nobody mentioned it.

Nobody gave thanks for anything. Not that we were ungrateful.

It was just exhausting enough, smiling and trying to keep some balance.

My nephew and his girlfriend sat across from us, and he joked about being 23 years old and finally getting moved up from the little kids table.

At the head of the table where Dad used to sit, was Mom’s Canadian Boyfriend. She’s been seeing him for a couple of years now.

It used to be that there would be at least 20 people present for any holiday, and quite often, more than that.

This year there were eleven.

That might sound like a lot, but considering seven of them came in my vehicle, not so much.

So we ate and cracked jokes and complimented Mom on her cooking and passed the stuffing and gravy and cleaned it all up and washed the dishes and then set out the desserts.

There were so many desserts, and so few of us.

But we plowed through them, like the steadfast soldiers we were.

We sent the kids to help carry up the heavy boxes of Christmas decorations and Mom’s tree, while the adults sat in the living room and sorted through the newspaper ads.

By some unspoken pact, we seemed to all avoid the family room, where my sister’s hospital bed used to be.

At least for most of the day.

Mom kept repeating to me, “We have to do this. We have to make memories for the little kids. We just have to do it.”

And we did.

Mom boxed and bagged up the majority of the leftovers for us to take home.

The Canadian Boyfriend gave me a hug and a bottle of Veterinary Liniment and told me to rub it on my knees and injured back and it might help.

I’m still trying to figure out if that was some sort of passive-aggressive insult, or an actual gift.

We gathered our crew together and left a little bit early. My husband had seen an ad for a TV he wanted to try and grab at Best Buy. Ours has been broken for about a year now.

In general, I am adamantly against shopping on Thanksgiving.

But hey, I guess it’s a year for changes.

The new TV is nice.

The leftovers were tasty.

I’ve not yet tried the Veterinary Liniment.

At any rate, we made it through.

Carefully.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Grief

A Man Named Danish

These posts about my sister, about the journey we took together during the time she was diagnosed with lung cancer until we lost her, are coming out in spurts and starts. There is no logical order to them (maybe one day I will go backwards and put them all in chronological order), but for now, they are coming out as they need to, in fits of hiccups and tears and sometimes even laughter. I hope somewhere in the path of these puddles of words, I will find some stepping stones toward healing.

 

I thought it was strange, because the building shared a driveway with the college I’d been attending for close to three years, but I’d never gone inside. I’d seen the people driving in and out of that lot many times over the last few years, and never stopped to wonder what was going on, how they were doing, what diagnosis they may have just been given. I never stopped to think if they were coming from radiation, or chemotherapy, or if they’d just been given 3 months or 6 months or a year to get their lives in order before their predicted death.

I never stopped to wonder if they were swerving as they pulled out of the lot because it was the day their hair started coming out in handfuls. Or because they’d just been vomiting in the bathroom of the dismally colored building. Or because they’d just learned their insurance wouldn’t cover the medication necessary to prolong their suddenly shortened lives.

I stop and wonder now.

I’ve been inside that building, and now my view is altered.

We rushed in the rain to arrive on time. It was the end of a Michigan April, and the rain was cold and sleety and hurt the skin a bit when it pinged against a bare hand or neck or cheek. Mom, my sister, her ex-husband, my brother, his wife, and me. We checked for directions on the maps plastered on the wall just inside the door, shivered a bit because our clothes were still a little wet, and took the elevator up to the correct floor. The waiting area was enormous, and white and cold, and felt a little bit like an assembly line: check in, show card, sit down, wait, get weighed, vitals, sit back down, wait for the right name to be called. Everyone there was in the same little rickety boat as us, everyone there was either waiting for a storm to break or had already received their forecast and were now awaiting directions on how to batten down the hatches and sandbag the house.

We all held some variety of liquid caffeine in our hands. None of us had slept the night before.

Mom crossed her right leg over the left and swung, swung, swung her right leg like a clock pendulum.

We tried to begin conversations but most of them died out within just a few seconds. The only talk we seemed able to keep up was the breaking news from the night before, about the man named Ariel who had kidnapped and held 3 women in his basement for years on end. The women had been discovered and rescued, and this was a safe topic to continue on with because none of it had anything to do with cancer.

“Terrible! Just terrible!”

“Really. A monster!”

“How was it that nobody saw them? Why weren’t they rescued sooner? “

“They say his son didn’t know anything about it.” (This was from my mother, and she sniffed with a kind of superiority about it because obviously it made us quite a lot better than THEM, and if the Universe had been run by HER, snakes like that would be dealing with a diagnosis of cancer instead of our family, who had never kidnapped anybody and held them in the basement.)

Finally, a nurse in childishly colored scrubs came out and called my sister’s name, and the way she said it made it sound like a question. “ Charlotte? Savage?” And then again, fast and altogether, “CharlotteSavage?” And the six of us stood and trooped along, single file, in the narrow hallway, down to the room.

There was not enough space in the exam room for all of us to sit, so we deferred to my sister, who we now thought of in our minds as “THE SICK ONE” and my sister-in-law, who was still using a cane to walk since her terrible car accident a few months before, and our Mom and gave them the seats. The guys squatted rather awkwardly on the floor and I leaned against the giant, cold window sill and my Mom jumped up and offered to let me sit down and I said no because, well, because she is my Mom, and also because it seemed somehow wrong for me to sit down and relax my legs at all when my sister had cancer.

We waited for the doctor and again, we tried to talk about something, anything really, but there just didn’t seem to be much of anything we could say.

What we all wanted to say, but couldn’t, was, “It will be okay.”

Failing that, there were just no more words to throw out into the airless room.

We waited. Time passed so slowly, as if each second was minutes long; each minute, at least an hour.

I often think in pictures, and so while we suffered through the interminable wait, I imagined what this physician would be like. I expected him to be tall and lanky, as many oncologists on television medical dramas seem to be. I expected a grim face, a gaze filled with pity. An appropriately hushed tone of voice. In my mind, he’d be wearing scrubs – perhaps fresh from a surgery – with tired, deep blue eyes that were crinkled at the corners and a white lab coat with his name stitched across the upper left corner.

I imagined he would resemble Dr. House, with a slightly less caustic personality. And perhaps a British accent, because wouldn’t that be hot nice to listen to?

A sharp knock on the door interrupted my imaginary-doctor-rendering, and we all stood up quickly, brushing at nothing on our clothes so we would look nice for the man who held my sister’s life in his hands.

He walked in with confidence, this petite Asian man in faded blue jeans. He was balding, and his face was wide, open and honest. In lieu of a lab coat, he wore a somewhat wrinkled button-down shirt, and when he sat down, the hem of his jeans came up just enough to reveal black leather biker boots with silver chains.

He introduced himself as Dr. Danish, and I instantly loved him.

I trusted him immediately, solely based on his biker boots and the fact that he was named after a tasty breakfast pastry.
He didn’t question the amount of people crunched into the tiny, white square of an exam room; instead, he remarked on the beauty of such a support system, and – gingerly stepping around the maze of extra legs and shoes and purses — walked around the teensy room, shaking hands and introducing himself to each of us. We answered in turn as if auditioning for parts in some small-town play.

“Hello, I’m Danish, and you are…”

“ Mary. Sister-in-law.”

“And you, ma’am?”

“Valarie. Mother.”

“And.”

“Glenn. Brother.”

“You sir are her -”  Here Danish guessed at what was the most likely choice, then left his question dangling, mid-air.

“Wally. Ex-husband.”

Breakfast Pastry blinked. Twice.

“Come again now?”

“Ex-husband. Yeah.”

“OKAY THEN!”

Danish turned to me, and I found myself clasping his cold but firm (not at all sticky) hand and stating my role:

“Valarie. Little sister.”

I’m not sure why I added that word, “little”. Was it really necessary? At thirty-eight, am I anybody’s “little” anything, anymore? But that has always been part of my own identity; I am Charlotte’s little sister. Charlotte is my big sister. It’s just always been.

Breakfast Pastry navigated back to where my sister was sitting, in a small chair at the end of the row that also held my sister-in-law and mother. He shook Charlotte’s hand gently, and invited her up to the exam table as if asking her to dance. I sat down in the seat she had vacated because my mother told me to. The seat was still warm.

This man, this Danish man in his black biker boots, explained the size and location of the tumor (we had graduated far past “spot” or even “mass” by this point), and told us about the way it had already eaten (he actually said that, “eaten”, as if the tumor was a living creature with sharp teeth) through three ribs and part of her spine – the T3 – and had spread to one lymph node in her chest. Because of the size (that of an orange, which then made me think of an orange with vampire teeth inside my sister) and location, the tumor was inoperable. He left that word, “inoperable” sitting in air the for a few minutes, so each of us could pick it up and examine it for ourselves, turning it this way and that, getting a handle on the meaning of it.

Charlotte cleared her throat and said in a very small voice, “So, what can we do?”

And Breakfast Pastry explained about pain medications to help with the agonizing pain in her shoulder, and he talked about an appetite stimulant to get some weight on her, and he talked about a PET scan, and he told her to eat more, and he said this was “fightable” and it was worth going through chemotherapy and radiation.

Danish said if she wanted, he could write her a script for medical marijuana, and Charlotte darted her eyes to our mother and shook her head quickly, “No thank you!” because even though she was in so much pain by then she had to sleep sitting up in spurts of 20-30 minutes and could barely move her arm, she didn’t want to disappoint our mother or agree to something Mom would find inappropriate.

He looked at my sister with her long, long hair and said, “You understand your hair will all fall out, right?” and she swallowed hard and said, “Are you kidding me?” and he said, “No, it will all come out and you will be bald, and you need to be ready.”

She swiped at her eyes and under her eyes and blinked several times and said, “Okay.”

He said, “Stay positive.”

Then he was gone, and I think we all felt a little let down, like something bigger should have been happening, because we expected him to tell us something magnificent, and as much as we all liked him, we were deflated because although he had said quite a lot, he never said, “I can fix this.”

And he never said, “It will be okay.”

He never said, “You aren’t going to die.”

So we pulled reassurance from the words he had given us, words like “positive”, and “fightable”, and we said that we liked him because he wasn’t uppity, and because he was like us, and had chains on his biker boots so he had to be a good guy.

And we all left together, our little big group of despair and hope; we walked back out in the chilly April rain, and I wished I had brought a sweater, and I wished I had brought an umbrella and I wished my sister didn’t have lung cancer.

We went out for breakfast again, because that was our normal thing to do, and it was nice to do something normal, and we talked about the same things over and over until Charlotte started to cry as she moved the food around on her plate in circles with her fork, and we all handed her napkins and sat quietly and awkwardly and tried not to cry, ourselves. http://wp.me/p3vrHA-1D

Even though it was a different restaurant and a different day, my eggs again tasted like sawdust and I forced myself to chew them because my mother wanted to see one of her daughters eating, and I watched the rain splash against the windows of the restaurant as I went over and over and over the entire appointment in my mind, trying to remember something good to hold onto.

I searched and searched inside my mind, reaching for something positive and tangible, but instead all I found were cobwebs of words and when I reached out to catch them, they crumbled into sawdust in my hand, just like the wooden dust of eggs in my mouth. http://wp.me/p3vrHA-22