Feeling the Feels of 2020

I sometimes meditate, I sometimes “pray,” but as 2020 progressed, the peaceful breathing and quiet communication with the god-presence wasn’t enough to pry open the jammed up emotions that have piled up like dead fish on ice.

It must be a 2020 thing because I’m (too) good at feeling the feels in “normal” times. Between covid and the ensuing physical disconnection, political disparity, and overall anxiety; a minor personal health issue; and the myriad issues with my aging parents, I started to feel like I didn’t have access to any emotions anymore. I knew they were there. I sensed them. But my subconscious couldn’t let them go.

Then a few weeks ago, I stumbled on to an animal rescue video. A rail-thin dog was crying out in pain from a gutter and a team of folks calmed him, took him to the vet, and after months of foster care, the once near-dead pup was ready for adoption. I cried and cried and cried some more. It felt so good I watched another video and another. Now I start every morning watching rescue videos and crying.

The dogs and cats and goats and horses are surrogates for my unprocessed emotions, and their rescue reminds me that hope still exists even in the darkest moments. They help me feel the things I need to feel in order to feel the things I can’t.

I realize that I’m seeing the good side of rescue and that a lot of animals don’t make it. I deal with that in another part of my brain. Right now, I need good news and positive outcomes: The dog who can’t walk and whose foster parent works with him to walk again; the abandoned mama whose pups are stuck under a concrete structure and are rescued in time to nurse and grow up healthy. I need these stories! I need their sad beginnings – the fleas, the scabs, the brokenness. I need to witness their healing. I need to experience hope.

I went back to my blog post from January 1, and not surprising, it was about hope. I couldn’t know then about all the feels we’d be feeling this year (and there were a LOT of them!). But just like then, I wish the same for all of us this new year: May we find (and facilitate, when possible) hope in 2021.

Obligation

It’s been thirteen days since Dad fell, eleven since an ambulance took him to a hospital, six since he was released to a nursing facility and one since someone at the facility tested positive for covid.

Dad a few weeks ago.

When covid killed Dad’s cousin in April, I wondered how long before it affected our family again.

Between finding the right help, the right facilities, and the money to pay for everything, caring for elderly parents is challenging. The paper trail alone can destroy a small forest. Add covid to the mix and fear, concern, and frustration pile up like snowdrifts that won’t melt until spring because everything takes twice as long to do as it did before.

Dad, who will be 90 in two months, needed occupational therapy to help him adjust to chronic dizziness, but it’s not helping much. Mom, with poor eyesight and hearing, and the kind of joints you’d expect of someone nearly 89 years old, can’t care for him the way he requires. Through a million phone calls and emails, my brother and I have secured a small apartment for Dad in an assisted living facility, which he was supposed to move into tomorrow, the day before Christmas. Not exactly home, but at least he’d have people around and some presents to open. Now he’s in quarantine, alone in his room, and his world, which has shrunk considerably in two years, is even smaller.

There’s a fine line between love and obligation. Love is a living, breathing thing; hopeful, and yet can cut us all to the bone. When loves wounds, it’s counterintuitive to go back for more, although we usually do again and again. Obligation, on the other hand… There’s no emotional attachment to obligation if you do it right and don’t let love creep in. Obligation makes the hard decisions easier. Obligation, more than love, is the driving force behind why (and how) I’m helping my parents during this time in their lives.

Our family dynamic is as fragile as crepe paper. It’s mostly obligation that keeps my parents and siblings loosely tethered to one another in good times, and in this current crisis, we cobbled together enough give-a-shits to tap into our collective conscience and, with Dad as the common denominator, put the skeletons and years-old-feelings back in their closets to do what needs to be done.

I feel no guilt making arrangements for Dad to move to assisted living and, in the near future, insisting Mom moves, too. Love just makes me cry over the whole thing: Dad’s loss of independence, his loneliness, and – most of all – his inability to accept any of it.

This is the point in most blog posts where I find the light, the positive, the “moral” of the story. Not this time. With all the pain around the world and especially in our country this year, I don’t want to puff up this piece with a lot of positive. That would just be phony and fake anyway. Obligation, not love, is getting me through this frustrating end to a frustrating year, and honestly…that’s OK. I’d rather feel my way through this the way it is, in all its yuck, instead of living in a fantasy wishing it was different.

The One About Sixth Grade

A month ago, I starting writing what I imagined to be a simple, sweet piece about when I was in sixth grade. But I’m forty six years removed from sixth grade, which became apparent as I wrote a few paragraphs, erased, and tried again. The problem, if problem is the right word, is that writing about when I was eleven years old when I’m now well into my fifty-somethings is tricky because what’s coming out is an interpretation of the seconds or perhaps few minutes of the moments I’m writing about. Is what I’m writing a true representation or just what I grew up telling myself happened?

I ask this both to challenge me as a writer who often writes about the past and readers who read writers who write about the past to consider the slipperiness of truth. Our long-term memories are usually subjective, some are even biased by a subconscious wish that things had been different, and no two people remember a shared experience the same way. I’m always interested, though, in why we remember what we remember, and how, years later, our interpretation of events – what we told ourselves is true – has impacted our lives.

Anyway, that’s way heavier than this piece actually is. You won’t need an advanced degree in psychology to get through it, I promise. (But I can’t promise you won’t need a cup of coffee!)

The One About Sixth Grade

My daughter shared a video recently of my eleven-year-old grandson playing Legos with his two younger sisters. They are sitting on the floor in the girls’ bedroom, building something and singing a song. Luca’s most reliable companion, his lime green blankie, worn thin over the years, is draped over his shoulder. Luca doesn’t bring his blanket with him everywhere, but in the house, it’s always there whenever he needs its friendly, nonjudging presence.

Watching Luca singing and building, and blissfully subconscious of his blanket, I thought about when I was eleven and in sixth grade. I had a blankie, too. Like his, it was practically see-through, more of a rag, really, but it was still soft in a few places and it helped me fall asleep every night.

In sixth grade, I didn’t yet hate my hair. Baiting a fish hook was still fine to do, and a bra wouldn’t be necessary for another year. I played tetherball and skipped rope, and I didn’t care that I sweat and probably stunk. We all did. Our classroom was thick with pre-hormonal kid stink after recess.

Yet, for all its naivete, sixth grade was when my childhood starting bumping into adulthood with increasing regularity. My underdeveloped understanding of the world, informed mostly by my Lutheran upbringing, was often challenged by more adult-like issues such as “bad” words, otherwise kind people being mean, and sex.

One of my more enlightened teachers, especially regarding sexuality, was music, even though at eleven the meaning of a lot of lyrics eluded me. I bought Elton John’s album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and while the lyrics were printed on the inside cover, “All the Young Girls Love Alice” flew over my head. Many songs didn’t, though. When I heard “Lorelei” by Styx for the first time, I thought, People can live together without being married? and quickly decided it wasn’t a question I would ask my parents. I also knew enough about sex to turn down the radio when “Chevy Van” or “Feel Like Makin’ Love” came on. That was not a conversation I wanted to have with Mom and Dad.

Growing up in mostly protestant white bread rural Minnesota, I assumed everyone believed the same thing I did. You didn’t say “Geez” because that was short for Jesus, and “damn” was the worst four-letter word I knew. Playing “soccer” one day during recess (in 1975, our understanding of soccer was that it was like football with a kick ball), I got in my best friend’s way as she attempted to kick a goal. “Damn you, Lynn!” she yelled. I stood there, stunned. According to everything Lutheran, she was damning me to hell.

“Damn” was not a word I heard in my house, and I for sure wasn’t supposed to say it because, well, my parents said the Bible said I couldn’t. So why could my friend? Where did she hear it? Was it because her father went to the bar sometimes or that her family didn’t go to church every Sunday? Religious “rules,” as I understood them, started to feel a little unfair and not all together right. My friend hadn’t turned into a pillar of salt for saying “damn,” and in fact, her life seemed perfectly normal, if not a little more fun than mine.

I had a boyfriend named Ricky and we held hands on the bus during our sixth-grade field trip, which felt all kinds of good in all the wrong ways my mother (and the Bible) warned me about. My first kiss, though, was not with Ricky, but a boy named Todd from Anchorage who was in town visiting his grandparents. It was not at all like a Fonzie kiss, but it wasn’t awful either.

Todd’s grandmother asked me if I’d show him around town and include him in activities while he was there. I doubt she had spin the bottle in mind, but anyway, a bunch of us were playing in a little clearing of brush behind our house. When it was my turn, I hoped the bottle would land on one of the cute boys, but instead it landed on Todd. I didn’t think of Todd as cute, although maybe he was. To me, he was just someone I watched Happy Days reruns with in his grandparent’s living room. Now I had to kiss him.

I insisted we go to the garage so no one could watch. He agreed. We stepped into the dark tin building and looked at each other in awkward silence. The pressure was on him to make the first move because I had no idea what I was doing. He leaned in, I closed my eyes, and it was over in two seconds, just enough time for me to process his lips, which I could tell he’d licked right before they landed on mine .

That’s all I remember except that we didn’t kiss again and we never talked about it.

Sixth grade was, for many of us, a pivotal time when vulnerability was something we started to feel, but couldn’t yet name. There were those who offered and those who took that bite of fruit from the tree in the middle of Eden, and those of us who took notes from the sidelines. We shed our innocence, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. Either way, we discovered that the world was much bigger than we thought. I remember one boy in particular who was not academically gifted, but in music class, he would sing his heart out, every note off key. Oblivious to pitch, he sang for the pure joy of singing, whether it was “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal” or “Streets of Laredo.” Did he have a blankie? I hope so, because the next year, no longer within the relative safety of elementary school, he was pretty much forgotten and remained on the fringe throughout high school. I asked my cousin recently where that boy was these days and he said the last he heard he was dealing drugs in Minneapolis.

Hmmm…

Watching Luca again with his green friend wrapped over his shoulder, I thought about my old blankie. My mom threw it away one day while I was at school thinking I didn’t need it anymore. I cried myself to sleep that night, I felt so alone. But I figured it out, like we all do to some degree, how to live without the things we grew up telling ourselves we needed, when the world was still small and one-dimensional.

In the Fight of His Life

I didn’t have this on my 2020 Apocalypse Bingo Card. Last week, my 28-year-old stepson Andrew had a stroke.

While this isn’t my story to tell, and Andrew is an extremely private person, I want to raise awareness of a form of vasculitis called granulomatosis with polyangiitis (GPA), formerly known as Wegener’s. GPA is a rare disorder characterized by inflammation of the blood vessels, which can restrict blood flow and damage vital organs and tissues. Besides potential damage to the kidneys and respiratory tract, other serious complications may include vision or hearing loss, heart disease, and stroke. There is no cure, and patients with GPA will experience remission and relapse throughout their lifetime.

We don’t know how Andrew contracted this rare disease that affects just 3 in 100,000 people, but since July 2019, it has nearly cost him his life three times.

I have known Andrew since he was one and have been his and his brother Kevin’s stepmother since 1996. When his father and I divorced, we agreed that our blended family would remain the most important thing in our lives and we have honored that agreement for nearly ten years.

The last time I saw Andrew was a few weeks before Christmas. He and Kevin met me for brunch in Pittsburgh on their way home from visiting their father. Larry and Kevin tried to prepare me for how Andrew’s appearance had changed, but I was shocked to see my tall and once incredibly fit boy so thin and pale. His once robust appetite was reduced to a bit of yogurt and granola. That night, after their long drive back to central New York, Andrew was in renal failure. He has been on dialysis ever since and is on the list for a kidney transplant.

The stroke has set back that timetable, however. Right now, there are more pressing physical issues that he needs to address like learning to speak clearly again and walking unassisted. His mental health needs attention, too. While Andrew has maintained his sense of humor through much of this, he is frustrated and afraid. He is unable to work and is on long-term disability. Because of covid-19, he has no real social life. If not for his cat, Zelda, he would be completely alone most of the time. We can’t visit him in person, although his father, mother, and brother have been allowed to see him for a few minutes each day in the hospital this week.

My birthday is in mid-August and soon I’ll create a fundraiser for the Vasculitis Foundation on my personal Facebook page. If you’d like to make a donation directly to the Vasculitis Foundation, click here.  

If you’re interested, here is one of many blogs and columns I’ve written about my stepsons over the years: The Boys Are Back in Town. I love them both so much, and to see one of them suffering like this is incredibly heartbreaking. But thank you for reading. It helps knowing others are listening. I hope this finds you and yours safe and healthy.

Andrew, Kevin, and Larry having dinner at my house; post-divorce and still family
Uncle Andrew with baby Audrey
Happier times

Reading for Sanity

My twelve-year-old granddaughter Claire (who reminds me every time we talk that she will be thirteen in October) called me yesterday, and we talked about Nerf battles, bears in Yosemite, the view of the Grand Canyon from 30,000 feet, the difference between a highway and a freeway, and how the Interstate Highway System works.

Claire knows she can talk to me about anything and yesterday, those were the things.

Claire is a voracious reader, but she’d be bored by the books I read when I was a kid. I told her how I preferred teen detective Trixie Belden over Nancy Drew, but she told me that the new Nancy Drew comics are pretty good. I had always hoped that she would like the books I did as a kid, The Wind in the Willows, The Trumpet of the Swan, Ramona the Pest or the Henry Higgins books, but she likes more angsty, futuristic books. Throw in a little dystopia and she’s all in.

In non-pandemic days, I’m always up for emotionally challenging books, one in which the ending isn’t all tied up in pretty ribbons, and intellectually challenging books that ask me to rethink some long-held (and unearthed) belief or learned prejudice. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is an excellent example. I’ve tried reading a few more of those challenging books in the last few months, but I find that the emotional feels are exacerbated by real life. I read newspapers and news magazines and political commentary, and as part of my research for the memoir on grief, I’ve been reading academic papers on loss, bereavement, and the implications of not being able to see a loved one dead. All of that is enough of an emotional challenge right now. This makes reading for fun imperative.

Jennifer Wiener is one of my go-to writers for good endings, and by “good” endings, I mean satisfying; ones that don’t leave me in a heap of tears on the floor. I just finished Big Summer. So much fun! And Mrs. Everything is my favorite JW book to-date. It’s also recently been optioned for a TV show!

In an Instagram post, Weiner recommended books by several Black writers including Jasmine Guillory. I am currently reading her book The Wedding Date. Based on the first half, I will definitely read more Guillory books. Terry McMillan is another Black writer I love to read for that satisfying ending. Ever since How Stella Got Her Groove Back, she’s been a favorite.

Daughters of Erietown by the Pulitzer Prize columnist from Ohio, Connie Schultz, is one I didn’t want to end, and I hope Schultz has another book coming soon.

While the book, It’s OK to Laugh by Nora McInerny Purmort, is written as a series of essays about the life and death of her husband, is not the big downer you’d think a grief memoir would be. Also, Me by Elton John is a delicious piece of writing and includes some fun gossip about people in the recording industry whose names you’ll no doubt recognize.

I was in love with Elton John and Bernie Taupin when I was a kid, much to my father’s dismay. By the time I was twelve, I had bought or been given Goodbye Yellow Brick Road; Rock of the Westies; Greatest Hits Vol. 1; Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player; Mad Man Across the Water; and Caribou. When I wrote a report on Elton John in sixth grade (we had to write about someone famous), Dad told me he didn’t want me buying any more Elton John albums because EJ was gay. I had no idea what that meant, so I asked Dad, “What’s ‘gay’?” He walked away and never brought it up again, and I continued to collect Elton John albums.

Our county library is open again and is offering Grab ‘n Go service. I have three books on reserve to pick up on Saturday: The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal, Beach Town by Mary Kay Andrews, and Still Life by Louise Penny. I want to start reading the Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery series before it comes out on Amazon Prime Video. (Do you prefer to read the book first and then watch the show, or vice versa?)

Anyway…back to Claire for a moment. Whenever her name comes up on my cell, whether it’s a phone call or text, it makes my heart skip the same way it did the day she was born. I am still in awe of her, in awe that she exists and is part of my life. Sometimes, like now, when I think too hard on it, I get to crying a little. We play Battleship on Facetime, but it’s not the same as real life. What I wouldn’t give to hug her and to have her spend the weekend. But…I will take what I can get: phone calls, texts, Facetime, appropriately distanced visits.

While these days seem like forever, they will not last forever.  

In the meantime, read for your sanity, read to lift your spirits. And listen to Steve Martin play his banjo!

Writing Out Loud

I started writing him a letter today, but I remembered when someone suggested years ago, right after he died, that I go to a card shop and pick out the Father’s Day card I would have chosen for him for his first Father’s Day. I didn’t do it because it felt silly and because I refused to live in a fantasy in which I bought him a card and maybe a tie and he would open it while he bounced Carlene on his lap, and then I serve him a slice of his favorite cake, German chocolate…

OK, so maybe that’s probably what would have happened if he hadn’t died, but he did die and my feet are planted firmly in reality. No “what ifs” pass through my lips.

Bruce and yours truly, Christmas 1981

But here’s what I wish I could tell him: I’m writing a memoir about our life together and his death and its impact, and while it’s mostly about me, it’s also about him. At times he’s a protagonist and at others, he’s an antagonist. I mean, I know he didn’t mean to die, but nonetheless, his death makes him seem like the bad guy once in a while.

We’ve all been in those two-way conversations that should be three-way conversations in which you’re talking to someone about someone, about what they did or didn’t do that was funny or embarrassing or pissed you off, and they weren’t there to defend or explain themselves. This is a little what writing this book feels like. How do you tell the truth about someone who isn’t around to correct you?

I’ve been thinking about how, at this moment in my life, writing this book, Bruce has book-ended my entire adult life. I met him when I was seventeen and he became everything to me, and here I am, nearly forty years later, putting him front and center again. What I don’t want to do is turn our life into a Glamour shot, blurring it and making it more beautiful than it really was. But since I can’t talk to him, I’m talking to you. Writing this out loud is helping me see things more clearly, holding me accountable to the truth, at least the truth as I remember, and it keeps my feet grounded in what was real then and what is real now. So a big thank you for reading! I feel better already.

A Love That Could Never Be

I didn’t know much about him because I chose not to, but I do know that Lee Wold’s favorite song was “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. I assumed it was because he heard it on one of several tours of duty as a Green Beret in Vietnam and not because he had tried LSD, but it was only a guess because he didn’t like to talk about Vietnam. The only time he brought it up was when we watched a documentary about the war and he recognized himself – a young, thin man with dark hair and regulation black-rimmed glasses, like many of the man-boys in the film – jumping off a helicopter in a clearing near the jungle. I asked him if he ever killed anyone and he said yes, that was his job, but he didn’t elaborate and I didn’t press him. 

A year before I met him, I was nineteen. I had a baby, and then a few days later my husband died. After the practical dust settled, I found a job pouring 3.2 beer and planting trees at a nine-hole golf course. I tried college for a few months until the bill arrived, and I dropped out and found a job in the mailroom at Musicland’s headquarters. I was still squarely in the midst of grief, but I had done everything I could to run away from it, naive to its power, how it changes shape and beckons you, like a stranger with candy, into its car, and you let it abuse you and take everything and it gives nothing in return. 

My crazy jumpy grab at anything to feel normal again led me to an Advanced First Aid class at the American Red Cross, the first step in fulfilling my childhood dream of being a paramedic, although how practical that was being a single mother and barely twenty years old wasn’t something I considered.

That’s where I met Lee. He was the instructor, a serious man, and handsome in a Mr. Rogers kind of way, only without the smile. Always distant, guarded, and very precise, Lee never joked. Or if he did, you weren’t sure if you should laugh or not. Like Churchill described Russia, Lee was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. 

The first time he asked me for a date, he was sitting at a table grading tests and I was standing over him, waiting to ask him a question about bandages or CPR or something else that I don’t recall. And I also don’t remember if he looked at me or not, but the question was asked and I felt…even now I can’t find the right word to describe it. Shocked? Confused? Excited? Never mind he was the instructor and shouldn’t have asked a student on a date, but whatever it was I felt, I said OK, and he wrote down my phone number. I didn’t tell him I had a child and he didn’t tell me he was twice my age. 

On the night of our date, he brought me a bright red tropical flower. An anthurium, heanthurium-red called it, from Hawaii, where he was born and raised. I’d never seen such an exotic flower, not in Minnesota in February, and especially not one so boldly sexual.

On my hip was my eleven-month-old daughter. 

“This is Carlene,” I said. 

“She’s beautiful,” he said, smiling at her. He exuded a genuine warmth that no one in class would suspect he possessed when he lectured on wound care or how to rescue someone who was drowning. During the next few months, he fussed over Carlene and me, but I grew increasingly frustrated with his perception of me. For instance, he always told me I had pretty green eyes, but my eyes are mostly blue. Lee saw what he wanted to see, and I couldn’t change that. In the end, I needed an emotional connection he wasn’t able to give, and by the time I learned I was pregnant, we were no longer seeing each other. 

He reluctantly, yet with a sense of obligation, relinquished his parental rights, although I brought Cassie to see him a few times when she was a baby. When she was five, I was remarried and we moved out of state. He got married and had three sons, although he promised his wife he wouldn’t tell them about their sister. I continued to send him photos of her every year, and a few times when I visited Minnesota, we would meet for coffee and I would catch him up on her life. One year he gave me a Pooky plush toy (Garfield the Cat’s teddy bear) and asked me to give it to her. I wasn’t a big Garfield fan, but he and Cassie were. Humor, in this case, was nature, not nurture. 

Lee re-met Cassie when she was sixteen. We agreed to meet at his office, and we spent an hour of uncomfortable moments of him telling Cassie it was my fault he didn’t get to know her, and that he loved her and he loved me and that he always did, like he thought somehow Cassie could heal his heart, if only she could get me to listen to him. We left, exhausted, and his future communications with Cassie were sporadic, and with me even fewer. 

One of the last times I “talked” to Lee was in 2015, when I sent him a text message as I decorated my Christmas tree on Cassie’s birthday, December 12. I was listening to the Moody Blues’ CD December. The song “A Winter’s Tale” reminded me of our relationship, at least from my perspective, and I shared it with him. He wrote back saying he still wished things had been different. I couldn’t share his wish, as I was the one who let us go thirty years earlier and even now wouldn’t change my decision, but I thanked him, as I always did, for our daughter, and told him that I couldn’t imagine life without her. He said neither could he. 

Lee finally told his sons about Cassie, because you know secrets, the big ones don’t stay secret forever. Cassie met them a few years ago, and their love for each other is as genuine as if they’d known each other from the days they were born. Lee seemed happy to have them all together in his house, even though he expressed that happiness in his passive-aggressive, detached way. 

cassboys

Lee died on Friday, alone in a nursing home, but thankfully in his sleep. He hadn’t remembered anyone or anything for several months. He took with him secrets no one could unearth, and emotions he couldn’t share. But I know for certain that he loved his daughter, his sons, and me in his own enigmatic way that we will never fully understand. May he finally find that peace that was stolen from him years ago, and rest knowing that we loved him, too. 

 

Let’s Do the Time Warp. A Photo Time Warp.

Over the last several weekends, I’ve been (finally) sorting through photos from each of my daughters’ photo albums, the ones I started when they were born. When they grew up and moved into places that weren’t dorms or student housing, I gave each of them their photo album, then in late 2018, they gave them back to me because I promised to have them digitized. They sat in a box in the garage until…well, let’s just say right now I have no excuse not to get this project done.

As of today, I’ve sorted through each photo, and in the process, I came up with my own weird Dewey Decimal System for categorizing them. What is abundantly clear is that for every one photo of Cassie alone (the younger), there are five of Carlene (the older). Part of the reason is the wholly different circumstances in which they came into this world (see “Twin Daughters of Different Fathers”), but mostly it’s because, like many parents, second children – when they are young, at least – simply aren’t photographed alone as often as their older sibling was. Besides, even if I wanted to take a picture of just one, they were almost always together.

Kids3
Carlene (left), 4 and Cassie, 2

It’s not just faces in photos that make them special or memorable. In one photo I found, my mother – who is talking to someone outside the frame – is holding one-year-old Carlene on her lap in my grandmother’s apartment. They are formally dressed. There’s an unlit cigarette in an ashtray on the kitchen table and a bit of red wine in a water tumbler. I know it’s wine because it’s next to my mother. Within the frame is the side of Grandma’s refrigerator, decorated with cactus and cowboy magnets, gifts no doubt from her sister, my great-aunt Martha, who wintered every year in Arizona. I was able to deduce that the photo was taken in February 1984 on the weekend of my grandma’s eightieth birthday celebration. My dad and his brother, her only children, bought her a curio cabinet and each of us grandchildren and grgirlpigeat-grandchildren – about 10 of us at the time – bought her curios. I remember I chose a small figurine of a child dressed in coveralls and riding a pig. My husband had died the year before and I wanted something that represented the memory of us: Carlene, him and me raising pigs on a farm not far from my grandmother’s apartment. This memory led me to eBay and to the exact figurine and $7.50 (including shipping) later…it will be here on Friday.

Just as one photo can make you smile, another can bring up a worry you’ll never forget. This is definitely one of them:

CarleneBurn

My little sister, who was nine, is holding up Carlene, who was about fourteen months, on her bike. Notice the thick bandage on little Carlene’s hand. A few days before, I was in the bathroom putting on makeup while my curling iron heated up. Carlene toddled in, and before I knew she was there, she grabbed the curling iron. Just typing that makes me sick to my stomach. She screamed, I screamed. I grabbed her and ran to the kitchen to put her hand under cool running water. As she cried, I called the pediatrician’s office (I’m surprised they could hear a thing I was saying) and they told me to put her hand in ice water and get her to their office as soon as possible.

When we got there, Carlene was staring out the window, and her cries were now a staccato-breath whimper. The doctor carefully opened her hand and the poor thing had first and second degree burns on her palm and halfway up her little thumb and index finger. I didn’t cry because I didn’t want to scare Carlene any more than she was, but I assure you I felt like the worst mother in the history of motherhood. In the days that followed I didn’t let her out of my sight, and she fell asleep in my arms every night to me whispering “I’m sorry.”

Looking at so many photos is bound to send anyone down a few rabbit holes and into a time warp coma. But going through my girls’ photos has helped focus my attention, if even for a few hours, on a time that wasn’t always perfect, but isn’t right now.

Kids5
Oh, the cuteness!

 

The Worrying Worrier and the Worries of Worry

Never in my life have I dreamed about toilet paper…until Sunday night. I woke up in a panic at 1 a.m. wondering what would happen if we ran out, and you know how everything is 20 times worse in the middle of the night, right? It wasn’t a Xanax-worthy panic attack, but it took me a while to go back to sleep, and I woke up still wondering where I was going to buy toilet paper.

Of all the things to worry about (and believe me, I worry), toilet paper is on my mind the most, I think, because toilet paper, or the lack thereof, is an easier worry to worry about than all the other worries right now.

I remember when my worrier self fully fledged, 38 years ago today (April 2). It was the day before my wedding. I’d recently moved to the acreage where my future husband, Bruce, and I would live before taking over the family farm in a few months, and I was there waiting for my family and a few friends to drive down from Minneapolis, 200 miles away.

The temperature was a balmy 75 degrees, warm for early April, and it was humid and windy. It smelled and felt like a severe storm could form any minute, and it did, late in the afternoon, after everyone arrived safely. My family was staying with my aunt and uncle in town (Jasper, Minnesota, population – at that time – 750…give or take), and my friends, Pam and Mike, were staying in our spare room. Bruce drove out after evening chores, and the four of us hung out and drank beer. After dark, the wind picked up again and rattled the windows. Thinking another thunderstorm was on its way, I looked out a window and it was snowing, as in I-couldn’t-see-across-the-road snowing! And that, my friends, is when my worrier self was born.

I freaked.

I think I said something like (and almost certainly all in one breath): “Oh my god how can we get married tomorrow no one will be there what if our soloist can’t get here from Iowa what if the ring bearer’s family can’t drive down from Minneapolis what if we get snowed in what if…what if…what if???”

Bruce, ever the patient and calming presence, assured me that we would get married the next day, even if he had to borrow a tractor or snowmobile to get us to the church. Still…I worried, and I’ve been worrying ever since.

For the better part of the last half of my life, I’ve spent countless hours (and money) in and out of therapy to “cure” my worried self. What I learned, though, is that I won’t ever not be a worrier, it’s in my DNA, and that I cannot control much of anything except how I respond to what it is I’m worried about. And it’s the response part that I work on, or at least try to be aware of, every day.

These are unprecedented times, indeed. The other word I use a lot is “uncertain.” It’s hard not to worry in these uncertain times. But I heard something recently that stopped my worrying mind in its worried tracks. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like, “Times are uncertain, but they’ve always been uncertain and always will be uncertain. We’ve never been able to predict the future. Be focused on now and not spend your time worried about what might happen.”

The big difference between today and a day six months ago is the devastating virus now in our midst. But that day six months ago is also no different than today because the uncertainty of six months ago is the same uncertainty now. Our response to our worry is where our strength lies. That’s the only thing we can control.

Yesterday afternoon, as I read the news, “Three Little Birds” popped into my head, insistently, like it really needed me to listen. I found the song on YouTube and I listened to it over and over (sometimes sobbing) until I started to believe that every little thing is gonna be alright, in its own way and in its own time. It always has been that way and it always will. May you, too, believe what Bob is singing, and that it helps lessen the worry in your own mind.

PS: We got married (alas, without a ring bearer), and we didn’t need a snowmobile to get to the church.

wedding

Firsts (the Holiday edition)

Last weekend, two of my four grandkids came to stay for a few nights – the oldest, Claire, who is 12, and the youngest, Audrey, who is 6. I live in a small house with only one spare bed in my office, a twin, and an air mattress for company. With floor space at a premium, where we drop the air mattress is decided with careful calculation.

Audrey prefers the air mattress because it’s easier for my dog Zuzu (whose name you have to say in a very high pitch voice to capture the vocal rendition of Audrey saying her name, almost like an angel is singing it) to jump in bed with her. But for this combination of grandchildren, I decided it would be OK if Claire slept on the air mattress in the living room and Audrey slept in the spare bed. That way they’d have room for their bags and a place to change in the office without the acrobatics of maneuvering around a mattress in the middle of an already small room.

“Nooooooooooo!” said Audrey when I told her my plan. “I want to sleep on the air mattress!”

“The air mattress will be in the living room. Do you want to sleep in the living room?” I asked rhetorically.

“Nooooooooooo!”

“Then you’ll sleep in the spare bed.”

“Nooooooooooo!”

This went on for a good five minutes until Claire and I were able to reassure her that Zuzu could, in fact, jump up on the spare bed and would probably happily do so more than once in the middle of the night.

The rest of the weekend was mostly resistance-free. Jim and the girls worked on wood projects in the garage. Claire shot the BB gun. We played Skip-Bo, ate mussels (yes, even Audrey, the pickiest eater ever), went to see the Christmas tree in the rain, and watched Home Alone. Claire also mentioned her grandma Julia intermittently throughout the weekend, in that spontaneous, unconscious way we honor those who have died by recalling the ordinary, everyday things we loved about them. “I remember when Grandma would…” or “Grandma used to say…” and she laughed as she talked, because Grandma Julia was always making her laugh.

Julia died in February after a years-long battle with cancer. It’s been a difficult year of firsts for our grandchildren and the rest of the family, and now here we are at the front door of perhaps the most difficult of firsts: the holidays.

As is the tradition of many families on Thanksgiving, we go around the table and say one thing we’re grateful for. For me this year, that one thing is Julia.

In March I wrote about the last time I saw Julia, but I was too close to the loss to write more. I had to let the grief be there and not try to explain it to myself or anyone else. I needed to simply miss her and to honor the gaping hole in my heart by doing nothing other than feel the wind pass through it. Now, though the tears still come, the sharpness of her death has softened somewhat. With nine months of perspective, I remember more than I would have in the tight confines of grief, and I’m better able to offer a sincere thank you to the powers that be that gave us Julia, where in March, I was angry.

Obviously, without Julia there would be no Matt (my son-in-law) and therefore no Claire, Luca, Mae or Audrey. But what I’m most grateful for is how she lived her life as a grandmother and friend, and even as a woman dying. When I saw her the last time, I held her hand and thanked her for showing me how to be the kind of grandma who keeps a stash of color books and crayons in her car, snacks and wet wipes in her purse, and says yes to drive-through French fries. She looked at me a little confused and said, “Oh, honey, you would have figured it out!” Nope, no I wouldn’t have. Not in that Julia way anyway.

When Claire was born, my heart was full of so many strong emotions. It took me a few weeks to parse and understand them all, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to share her with others. Then when I saw Julia holding Claire and gushing all those same emotions over her, I knew that was the kind of love I wished for my granddaughter, the kind all of us can never have enough of.

There are times when I feel a burden of being Claire, Luca, Mae, and Audrey’s only living grandmother. Then I ask myself, what would Julia do if I was the grandmother who died, and I know for sure that she would share with them her memories of me and would never let them forget how much I loved them.

I know many of you are experiencing similar firsts this year. My hope is you can find peace in those dark places as you miss the person you lost and feel the gravity of their absence. May you be able to say, even under your breath, “I’m glad I knew you.”

20150228_160801_copyClaire took this selfie of me, Claire, and Julia in February 2015.