My mother told me numerous times when we would talk about death or when someone in the family “went to God” that her own mother used to say “think of the living” when trying to figure out how to manage the myriad complex emotions, drives, urges, repressions, and crap that goes on in a person upon hearing the news that no one ever wants to hear.
“The living are the ones who are in pain. The departed feel no pain, they are in Grace,” Mom would explain. Grief is exhausting.
Last week, I wrote about my parents-in-law, and the day I first met them and tried to encapsulate the nearly quarter of a century I have known them. I wrote that post on Sunday, it went “live” online Monday. My sister-in-law read that post to her father moments before he was trolley’d off to an MRI. An MRI that would be his last, as Fate has it, and a singular and final moment of cogent consciousness they would share before he departed this earth.
That afternoon, my house phone rang with the news that Daddy-O was in a radically new and grave condition. My husband rushed home almost four hours by car, from the camp-out he had just begun with our youngest son the day before. He arrived in time to join his siblings and mother for his father’s final hours. I was teaching a yoga class, a restorative one, when I received a text from my husband to call him for an update.
After the class, I went home to check on my sons and headed to the hospital, for the end was near and I wanted to be with my husband to help him through it. I also wanted to bid farewell to an amazing man, one who showed me time and again how he embodied gracious living, kindness, patience and true gentlemanliness. True to form, Daddy-O lived that way until he died.
How did he do this? He simply waited. He waited until his beloved was ready for him to leave. He waited until she was taken care of: her feet, back and neck propped and rested; her form nestled in and under blankets in that frigid hospital room. Her hand holding his in a defiant and loving way, never truly “ready” to say goodbye. His passing was glorious and awful at the same time. I wept and shivered with sadness, sapping myself from the reality of what just occurred while at the same time praising God for my father-in-law’s legacy and many kindnesses.
There were no wails or outbursts. He wouldn’t have withstood it anyway. It wasn’t that emotion was not allowed, because he was a very emotionally available man. It was that grief is … exhausting, and the long and weary road to his final days had taken a toll on its own. I know he would urge us to conserve, to breathe and to accept. That’s who he was.
Are We Ever Ready?
I can think of a million things I need to do before I let myself relax. Walk the dog, sort the mail, fill the trash, wipe the counter, feed the kids, read a book, write a lesson plan, call a friend, write an email, check in with my father, fold some laundry.
Yesterday, we went sailing with longtime friends. Before we drove off to meet them, the house was in disarray (somewhat more than usual due to the flurry of life and death in the last few weeks) but the dogs were fed. I did not do my usual, “one more plate!” into the dishwasher and pressed Start or wipe down the counter before leaving. That could wait.
These friends — we were with them the night before my husband and I were engaged (and they knew the whole time, the stinkers) and we’ve been together for many of life’s huge moments. We are godparents to each others’ kids and we were in each others’ weddings. She was my first call when Mom died. She was my first call after Daddy-O passed. Our husbands often wax rhapsodic about taking off in a Winnebago one of these years to tour the nation, so it was absolutely the norm that they celebrated my FIL’s life at the Mass and later at the reception. Being on the water, away from terra firma and all her gravity was so satisfying. My shoulder and back pain of late completely evaporated.
It was a busy day in the harbor. The weather was spectacular and once we broke from the shore points and land masses, the winds picked up.
Floating on the Chesapeake Bay with absolutely no expectations other than a slight nagging in the
back of the head forefront of the mind about the kids and their safety, but overall: nothing weighing us down, was exactly what we needed.
School of Life and Death
My children have looked back on this academic year that has passed and they sneer. The day before school began, they lost their grandmother Mimi (my mother) and the day before school ended, they lost their grandfather Pop-Pop (my FIL).
“What we learned this year, did not come from books,” my middle son said, stretching his arms overhead and looking at the floor.
“This year sucked,” said my oldest, with no shortage of disgust.
They had to grow up a bit faster this year. My oldest ended up telling my brother of our mother’s death. “That sucked big time,” he said and will likely say for the rest of his days. When he learned that his Pop-Pop was nearing his own journey, he said, “I’m not telling anyone anything this time.”
Between the “bookends of madness” a friend called it and continued, “were these pockets of life crap that you had to endure,” she said, alluding to the weirdness of friends who’ve fallen away, bullies at school, as well as some other stuff. “What a shitty year,” she said.
It has been shitty. But it’s also been great. I have to allow the truth of this: we had good moments peppered in this year too.
It hasn’t even been a full 365-day year for us yet but it has been layered with beautiful growth and moments filled with opportunities to enrich the lives of the living. Even though we severed ties with some people, we deepened and enriched our ties with others. That’s where death is completely amazing: it cuts through the garbage for you and you learn to put not only your own life first, but you learn to put first that which matters most. My husband and I each have fancy letters we can put after our names now as he earned certification in project management, which is a nice boon to his resume and I finished my yoga certification and started teaching. In fact, I just wrapped up my first 12-week session the night Daddy-O died, so that’s a bittersweet moment for me.
“Do you actually earn money by teaching yoga?” my mother-in-law asked sincerely a couple weeks ago. She and I laughed at the question, and I said “Yeah. I do. It’s not a ton, but it’s ‘mad money’ — I use it to pay for the kids’ haircuts, treat them to Starbucks or light car repairs or maybe buy a nice thing for myself…”
“Mad money, Tom… do you remember that?” she said, smiling as she leaned into my father-in-law. He smiled too.
“Oh yes! I remember it.” He said, leaning in to her, that small gesture speaking private, untold tales.
“We still stash it away, Daddy-O,” I said with a wink. Not that my husband has ever given me a real reason to stash away funds for the moment I decide in anger to split the scene.
So I think of the living. I am one of them, as are you. We struggle at times, don’t we? We don’t have to be grieving to struggle; but sometimes we don’t recognize we are grieving. It doesn’t take a death of a human in our lives to shake us to our cores and have us hole-up and cocoon for a bit.
I think of my mother-in-law and her children and grandchildren for whom this loss is so deep and profound. Despite the fact that Daddy-O’s illness “prepared” us and we had the advent of time and health occurrences and complications to ease us into this most unpleasant of states, we were not really ever “OK” with it.
I have had two distinct — I feel like a cad for even mentioning this, for every life and every death is so completely unique and to be revered in its own space — experiences with losing a parent. My mother went suddenly with cardiac arrest and felt no pain (this is something I learned this year — I didn’t know the difference between cardiac arrest and a heart attack) but I knew intuitively that something was changing in her. My father-in-law passed quietly, peacefully, surrounded by loved ones in a hospital bed.
There is no “preference” for me. They both tore me apart. With my mother, I was able to tune-in to the intuitive messages I was receiving weeks before and I could spend some time with her on the phone and we could have some nice chats. With my father-in-law, I was given the gift of time and medical knowledge to help ease me into those final moments. I was able to actively grieve before him and accept (with great defiance) what was happening. Not everyone has that opportunity.
My mother showed me that death shows up no matter what. My father-in-law showed me that even though it happens no matter what, we can face it and let ourselves let it happen despite our many objections.
So if the point of life is to live it, that means feel all it — the ups and the downs, then live it we must. I won’t say “good” or “bad” anymore (or I’ll try to stop saying that) because what I’ve learned is that what I think might be good, could be seen as bad for someone else. It’s all a matter of perspective.
I decided yesterday on the way to the Bay to read Tina Fey’s memoir, Bossypants and I’m so glad I did. She is one of my favorite writers and performers. She is reminding me, even in her passages about her scar on her face, that not all memoir writing needs to be deep and intentionally profound. That when we just let life roll-out from us, when we sit with kindness and objectivity (as much as possible, some moments are easier than others) and when we actually learn from someone else’s perspective (that they are totally deluded or just have a kinder spin on things) that we can tell a more whole story.
Fey’s book is making me laugh out loud. She’s my age. Her recollections of style, music, popular culture and news are taking me back, moment by moment, to those crazy grisly days of prepubescence, full-on puberty, teenagerdom and I guess on to the rest (which I haven’t arrived at yet because I just started it).
I mentioned some of her humor to my husband this morning and he asked me, “Do you have any humor in your memoir stuff?” and I said with great relief, “Yes. I wrote extensively about rolling around unbuckled in the back seat of my grandparent’s car, a US Navy destroyer called the Oldsmobile Delta 88. My grandpa would take these sharp turns at 25 which would slam me into his black wooden canes or one of my brothers when we would kill time waiting for Mom during an appointment… And how its upholstery made my thighs itch when I wore shorts.”
I also wrote about when I must’ve been in fourth or fifth grade when NY State law changed to allow “right on red” and how we as children were thrust head-first into a public awareness campaign as pedestrians and the defenseless because the law had ushered a new death threat from the driving populace… my grandfather a robust member therein. Ironically, it was his wife who told my mother to “think of the living” which is something he likely didn’t do much of while taking those hard turns in his land yacht…
It’s all of life, and the living, that we can keep in the forefronts of our minds when remembering our dead and how much they affected us when they were alive and truly living.