Monday, January 21, 2013

Would You Like Your Milk in a Bag?

My mom's death last month hit me harder than I thought it would. I didn't expect it to call up the little girl in me the way it did. And, I have many loving and supportive family and friends in my life, so I could feel myself healing. I was being very conscious and intentional about what my body needed and how best to give that to myself. In fact, this past Friday night, I drove up with my best friend to spend some time in nature at a cabin in the woods. We had a delicious dinner, built a fire, and settled in for the evening. Then Michael called. My black lab, Max, was sick. He had diarrhea then vomiting and could not walk up the stairs after going out to pee.

That night when I arrived at the emergency animal hospital, I learned that Max had a cancerous growth larger than a grapefruit in his abdomen. That's why he was losing weight; something we had noticed in November when we had him washed and cut. The growth had pushed all his organs aside. There was no room for anything in there but the tumor. He was in extreme pain. The vet said this wasn't uncommon in these larger breeds. Said she'd seen it before. Surgery wasn't really an option.

It was without hesitation that I made the decision. Not even a month earlier, I watched my mother suffer in horrible pain. There was no way I would let Max suffer any longer than he had to. So we let our beloved Max go. My friend and loyal companion for more than a decade, I said goodbye.

The hours that followed have been full of tears. The grief of losing Max re-opened the grief of losing my mother. She was the first person I thought to call that night. Then I remembered I couldn't call her. There are so many little seemingly mundane things that remind me of my loss, things that bring up the grief again and again, raw and palpable. This afternoon I went to the grocery store to pick up a few items to bake cookies. Baking. That's a good sign. Anything creative, actually. And baking is creating. Birth, death, and birth again. Not to mention the fact that fresh baked cookies are comforting to me.

So, I pick up my items and wander aimlessly around the store... drifting, really. I notice that's what I'm doing and make the conscious choice to check out and head home. I place my basket on the belt as the cashier totals my purchases. Another young woman begins bagging, and as she places her hand on my gallon of milk she says, "Would you like your milk in a bag?" I freeze. A string of thoughts runs through my brain. You see we've always saved the grocery bags. Years ago our vet advised us that since the dogs used the same spaces over and over to poop, we needed to clean up after them every time to prevent them from getting pinworms. We have been intentionally asking for our gallon of milk to be bagged because we used those bags for the dogs. The topic of dog poop may sound gross to you, and it is, but in that moment I remember Max, and how I wouldn't need the bags for him anymore. I remembered my Max, and I said "yes."

After all, we still have Sasha. She is Michael's dog. Michael got her about 4 years ago because he said, "I want a dog to love me the way Max loves you." That she does. She has been a healing force for both of us, and I am grateful. But, she's not my Max, and I miss him. He would be comforting me in the grief of my mom.

It's late in the evening for me. Tomorrow is an early day back to work after a long weekend. The long weekend where I said goodbye to my beloved friend, Max. As I crawl into bed and lay my head on my pillow, I hear the thump of his body in my memory as he curls up and drops into his place on the floor beside the bed. "Good Night, Sweet Max. Sweet dreams, Buddy. You're the best dog. I love you."

Monday, January 14, 2013

Brave Bitch

Mom made this shirt and proudly wore it to receive her blood transfusions at the hospital.
4:55 a.m. another work week. The grief is shifting, moving through my body. Yesterday, I noticed I did more of the small, mundane tasks without thinking like loading the dishwasher, preparing a meal, putting in a load of laundry. Those simple tasks had been more than I could bear. In the first days, it was a success to eat, bathe, sleep.

This past weekend, I drove to Chattanooga to receive love and support from a group of close women friends. They offered and I accepted. You may read those words and not consider how huge that is, but I implore you to consider it. Our society does not do well with these kinds of things. We rush over it and through it and applaud ourselves for how much we can do on our own, how much we give to others, not to ourselves. We are extremely uncomfortable with receiving help and support. Our culture judges silently suffering martyrs, but we breed them without realizing our part in it.

So, when these women offered to hold me, tell stories, sit with me in silence, or whatever I needed, I accepted. I asked for something called a “woman boat”. The women sit on the floor in a way that their bodies, all in a row, make a sort of cocoon shaped boat or canoe. When I arrived at my friend’s house she had already set up a sacred circle. She had sage for smudging, a candle on an altar on the floor, and other items. I was grateful she had remembered these things and had thoughtfully created a sacred space for my healing. We smudged, and the smell of the sage was comforting to me. I told them what I wanted to do. That, in itself, was a big deal. I asked for what I wanted. I wanted to sing. Now, I don’t consider myself a singer in any way. I like to sing, just like my mom did. But I knew my voice was full of tears and I felt a little self-conscious about the act of singing a capella there all by myself. But my mom loved to sing, no matter what, full out, just 'cause. She loved to sing whether she knew the lyrics or not, and if she didn’t know the words, she happily made them up. So I sang in honor of my mom. I sang the songs I sang at her bedside when she died. I sang songs that reminded me of her. Then I was ready for the woman boat.

To set up the “boat" takes some doing. The women need back and knee support to stay in this position. Furniture needed to be moved and set up. I made the very conscious decision not to help. I didn’t move a single piece of furniture. I put no thought into how it might best work. This was a conscious choice. You see these women were there for me. I consciously received. I listened to my body and noticed what that felt like.

I have been in the place of those women. I have been one of the women who make the woman boat. I have heard on countless occasion women speak words of discomfort about receiving; “You want me to crawl in there? But I’m afraid I will hurt you. I’m too heavy. Are you sure you’re okay? I’m just worried about your knees. Are you sure you have back support?” I have watched and listened to women go through this struggle countless times. Now it was my turn. I heard all the same worries in my own head and had to chuckle as I shared them with these women. They too laughed a knowing laughter as I crawled into the “boat” of women and lay there in their arms. If one is comfortable with it, women will place their hands on your body. I trust these women deeply, so they placed their hands on me.

Sometimes the women will sing, or say chosen words of comfort and nurture. But for me, I wanted to talk about my mama. I spoke of the good and the not so good, the beautiful things about her and the not-beautiful. I cried and I laughed and I cried some more. At some point in the process, my grown daughter came in. She looked extremely uncomfortable seeing me there grieving in the arms of my women friends. But I want her to know, I want all of you to know, that we are empowered to create the life we want, the relationships we want, and the love and support we want in our lives. We do not have to suffer in silence. It is a good thing to be vulnerable. It takes great courage and strength to allow oneself to be seen, really seen. And there are abundant gifts in it as well. I know.

Later that night and the next day when I thanked these women for showing up for me in such a profound and healing way, they spoke of how I had been there for them in so many ways, and they were giving back what they too had received from me. It made me aware of the cycle of giving and receiving. It seems all too often we are most comfortable with the giving and not so much the receiving part. But the cycle is incomplete, stagnant and unmoving, if we do not have both.

I know my grief is still fresh and raw in the death of my mother. I know there are many more layers to process, to feel. But I can say that I trust myself with my own healing. I trust myself to ask for help and to receive love and support in a profound way. It takes courage and strength to be vulnerable, and I am a courageous and strong woman. I know this because I am my mother’s daughter, and she was a proudly self-proclaimed “Brave Bitch.”

Friday, January 11, 2013

What I haven't yet said...

My youngest sister, Billie, flew back home to L.A. last night from Miami. It seems the final close to mom's parting, all of us going home to get on with our lives. Billie was the remaining sister still in Miami after my mom’s passing. I haven’t written down yet what it was like, that experience of being with mom while she breathed her last breaths. I will do that now so I will have it somewhere… just in case I forget. [Did you notice that? Did you notice that I called her “mom” and not “mama” as in my earlier posts? I am growing myself back up.  Slowly.  Gently.]

Mom had struggled with Leukemia (AML) for about 3 years. The doctors were amazed at how she fought the disease and even came back from it for a short while in the beginning. But in the end, with a fractured vertebra in her back, aching joints and pain all around, she was too tired and hurting to fight any longer. A woman who once was a voracious reader, and got great joy from devouring book after book from her regular trips to the public library, she lost the desire, will and strength to even read. She was one who valued the quality of life. She had my father both had living wills and did not want to linger unnecessarily in their transition from this world.

I remember when my dad was coming to the end, he had suffered greatly from the effects of Parkinson’s. It’s a horrific disease. They lose the ability to swallow and eventually starve to death. But I remember when the doctor spoke to mom about a feeding tube for dad my said with great intensity, “I won’t do that to him!” For her to delay his death with a feeding tube was more cruel than the disease itself. When mom’s pain became too much for her to bear, she finally said, “I think it’s time for Hospice.” There is more to the story, but for now this is what I will tell:

The last night in her condo was an extremely difficult one. Early in the morning hours, mom was transported to the hospital where she could get the relief from her pain that she so desperately needed. Her oncologist, and a kind and understanding doctor Clark in the emergency room, made it possible. We told Dr. Clark we wanted no diagnostics, nothing. Only stop the pain and make her comfortable. Our faces pleading… desperate. Dr. Clark said, “Our society is in denial about death… I’m in denial about death. If she were my patient and she came in with this sound in her lungs, I would intubate her right now. I understand what you want. We will make this happen. We will make her comfortable.” He called mom’s Oncologist and after the phone call, turned to me and gave a thumbs up. My whole body relaxed. Finally, finally mom would be relieved from her suffering.

They gave us a room and we all stood round her taking to each other, to mom, stroking her face, holding her hands. Her facial muscles had relaxed since the pain medication. Her eyes had remained closed since she had left her condo. She seemed to rest peacefully except for the sound of her lungs. We all waited…

At one point as I thought of her letting go and crossing over, I remembered the lyrics of a folk song I had heard James Taylor sing, The Water is Wide. “The water is wide. I can’t cross over. And neither have I wings to fly. Build me a boat that can carry two, and both shall row, my love and I.” I began to sing there, standing by her bed with my sisters and brother all around. My brother came and stood beside me. He joined in. I sang another, a Carly Simon song. It was a song mom and I played years before in 1991 when I drove her to treatment. We drove her little Miata convertible. The refrain is: “Life is eternal and love is immortal and death is only a horizon. And a horizon is nothing save the limit of our site, save the limit of our sight.”

My siblings and I started talking about other songs and songs Pinky liked. She loved to sing, and when she did not know the words to a song, that never stopped her, she delightfully made up her own words. I believe it was my sister Billie who said mom loved Amazing Grace. So we all stood round singing Amazing Grace to her. On the last verse, at the end, she opened her eyes one last time. To me she looked as though she was seeing something far off that we could not see. Something on the other side perhaps. Whatever that might look like. Billie said, “Hey mama!” We all began to say out loud, “Goodbye, Mama. We’ll see you on the other side!” And smiling with tears streaming down our faces, she then closed her eyes and breathed a few more breaths. They became more shallow and farther apart until finally they stopped, and she was gone. It was an extraordinary experience. It was an honor… an honor to be there in her life and in her death. It was an honor to know her.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

What Grief Looks Like

Last night I didn’t get much sleep. This morning I’m moving more slowly than usual. Yesterday while teaching, I received a text from a close friend of mine who lost her mom not too many years ago. She had read my blog post “Mama”, and said she “cried and cried”. She said “I’ve texted the girls and…” The girls she is referring to are not girls at all really. They are close friends; grown women who seek to be more intentional and awake in how they live their lives. She had called on them to surround me with support. She was “rallying the girls” for me. She planned a sleepover. I am reminded of the girl-word “slumber party.” She said, “We want to be with you, tell stories, hold you, sit with you in silence if that is what you need.” Wow. I felt so loved, so surrounded by love and support and healing friendship that I burst into tears standing at my desk at school. My poor little first graders were coming in at the time. I used it as an opportunity to speak to them about my loss. I assured them that I was taking good care of myself and how comforting it was to have good friends. A little boy raised his hand and asked, “Good tears then?” “Yes", I said. "Good tears because I feel well loved and supported by the people in my life”.

I was ‘off’ in my work though. In that same class, I was talking about an upcoming lesson. They sat in silence looking at me. A kind and loving parapro who attends with that class walked over to me while I was teaching and gently took both my hands in hers, spoke to me in a loving tone and said, “Ms. Julia, this class has already completed that project. They took it home before winter break”. I stood there looking stunned and let it sink in. She opened her arms and said, “May I give you a hug?” I smiled and said yes, receiving her love and support. All day went like that. It seems my brain is trying desperately to catch up with my body.

This Friday I am accepting my friend’s offer. I am going to Chattanooga for love and support from “the girls”. I am infinitely grateful for the relationships in my life. Today I take it one step at a time. I am patient with myself and my own time-table of healing. Today I can lean on the support of loving friends and family.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


Journal 1-7 
My Mama died on December 27th,  just 11 days ago. I can hardly believe it. How can she not be here any more? It feels so strange. I used to call her in the mornings on the way to work, back when she was feeling better. On Wednesdays she would say something like, “The weekend’s almost here!” all cheerful like because she knew I was looking forward to the end of another work week. She knew I would rather be doing other things with my creative time  …creative gift and passion I got from her.

I can still hear her voice in my head. I can hear her say “night-night” the way she used to do. I am indescribably grateful for modern technology and the regrets I heard from those whose loved ones had passed earlier. How they wished they had recorded their voice. How they wished they had video of their loved one. Well, I wasn’t going to let that happen to me. I have her beloved Pinky voice telling me how much she loved me and how much I helped her. I have video after video of her telling her stories to me. She loved to tell stories.

How does my life go on without my mama? I know people do it all the time. They have been doing it for millennia. When my dad died, it wasn’t like this. I missed him, but it was different. With my mom there is a little girl emptiness, an aching hole in my heart. There is a void that cannot be filled, only tended to while it builds a scar. And that I have been doing; lovingly tending to myself. I have stayed in my pajamas all day. I even went to a New Year’s party in pajamas. They were Pinky’s, actually. Heavy white flannel with black dog paw prints on the pants. I have gotten a massage. I have drawn baths with bubbles and good scented oils. I have lit candles and played healing music. Once while in the tub, I played The Velveteen Rabbit narrated by Meryl Streep with music by George Winston. I lay in the warm, soothing water and sobbed. It was just what I needed.

Today is my first day back at work. The students return tomorrow. I am feeling resistant. I want to stay in my cocoon. I want to curl up and cry. I want to stay in my pajamas all day. I want to build a wall around me and not answer phone calls. I want to carry a Kleenex box and wipe my unceasing tears. I want to bring up torn cardboard storage boxes from the garage and go through endless photographs. 

Journal 1-8
Last night I slept through the night for the first time since my trip to Miami to say goodbye to mom. I’m dreaming though, just like the article on grief said. I’ve had a few bad dreams. I guess you could call them nightmares. They were disturbing enough to wake Michael and ask him to hold me as a result.

Today is the first day back at work with the students. Yesterday was tougher than I expected. When I walked in the front doors, I went to check my mailbox. Cheryl saw me, and just the action of her looking at me and rising from her desk to come hug me made me break down in tears. Then there I was talking about the experience while she stood there saying nothing and looking uncomfortable. I cried off and on most of the day.

Another unexpected occurrence was that the sisters and Louie and I texted all day long about the grief and our personal struggles throughout the day. It seemed strange and unusual for us. I could tell he was elated. Apparently mom had asked him to “keep the family together”, which is in itself a tall order. I am certain mom was the glue that held the sisters together. I’m not convinced we all like each other that much. In fact, it’s true that I never once went to visit Kat in Miami, nor did I ever have intention to do so until mom got sick. Kat stood before me when I flew out, tears in her eyes, looking extremely vulnerable and said, “I’ll never see you again.” I was struck by the truth of her words, and I felt sadness and compassion. Days later, in a text, Louie implored us all to stay together, to make a promise/commitment to stay connected as a family. Even Dona made the promise. I couldn’t help but wonder which ones really considered their actions and were willing to do the work to follow through. It was not a promise I took lightly. I am not certain, even now, of my own success with it.

So, my mom is gone and I miss her. I miss hearing her voice tell me “night-night.” I miss talking to her on the phone on the drive to work early in the a.m. It’s what broke me open yesterday morning as I pulled out of the driveway in the darkness. I miss her calls when she was struggling with feeling less-than, and how she would tell me how much better she felt after talking to me. I miss her singing Happy Birthday to me on the phone all those years of birthdays. I miss her laughter. I miss her story-telling. I miss her more than words can or ever will describe. I miss you, mama. I just can’t believe you’re gone.

Journal 1-9
Last night, before going off to bed, I listened to her voicemail messages again. I listened to her familiar Pinky voice tell me how much she loved me and how much I have helped. You see that verb tense. It’s one of the odd things one struggles with when a loved one dies. “Have” helped her… not “had”.
Listening to them brought a loud sound from within me. A wailing. Max got up from his dog bed and came over next to me and lay at my feet as I cried. Perhaps it is a new ritual… listening to her voice before I go to bed. I only wish I had one of her saying “night-night” the way she used to. In my crying, I decided to call a sister to reach out. I decided to call Billie. I have never reached out to her like that, not really. But when I was with her this last time in Miami, staying at mom’s condo, we had some very precious time one on one. Precious to me anyway. So I called her. I got her voicemail and left a message telling her I loved her and was thinking of her… telling her I was missing mom and thought to call and connect. Then I sent a simple text message to all my 5 siblings saying only “night-night”. I got one response. Gay Carney texted in reply:  "Love you all too!” I was hoping there might be a flurry of texting between siblings the way it was my first day back at work and we all stayed connected through technology saying how our day of grief was going. Texting things we remembered and were missing. Part of me was excited thinking, “oh! Maybe we will stay connected in a new way now. Maybe this really will be the start of something new.” I felt sad then when only Gay Carney texted in reply and no one else.

This morning when I woke up, the ache and realization, the remembering that she’s gone felt somehow less intense, more dulled even. I thought to myself how some part of me doesn’t want the ache to go, to be dulled, because it seems she will be even farther from me. But I know it’s what happens. It’s how the human body handles it. It’s part of the process.

More dreams last night. It’s funny, I haven’t had a dream that I remembered, or the realization that I had dreamed, for a long time. Now it seems I dream every night. That’s what I read…that when people grieve the loss of a loved one their dreams intensify and are more frequent. Mine don’t seem to even be related on the surface. The first few nights after her death I didn’t sleep except what felt like a few small breaks intermittently. It felt like sleep for 30 minute spans, or perhaps an hour at a time, but not really sleep at all. Every time I woke, I woke hearing the song I sang at her bedside or the Carly Simon song we played on the way to drop flowers in the ocean in her memory. This morning I don’t remember my dreams, but they are right there, my awareness of them.

Part of me is mad at her, you know, mad at her for leaving me. It feels little girl-like. I hear myself saying inside my head, “Mama, please don’t leave me!” I think of our phone calls and my chest aches with longing for her. I long to hold her hand, to sit beside her and talk, to listen to her tell the stories she loved to tell again and again. No, she was not the mother I wanted. No, she was not there for me so many times in the way I wanted and needed her to be. …But she was the mother I got, and I grew to love her as the mother I had. As a grown woman, I began creating a relationship with her that was so very precious to me that I let go of old wants. I was able to let go and to love, with a great big Pinky kind of love, the woman my mother was