Grumpy about the unfairness of it all (good bye Kim)

This past week, while I moaned and groaned and laughed about our construction project, and pondered gay marriage and vaccines, and grumbled about the craziness of being full-time with summer vacation kids, and otherwise filled my days with inanities, a really spectacular mom whose daughter goes to school with Jesse ended her battle against breast cancer. The medicine failed. She died today.

Kim and I crossed paths now and then, and I always enjoyed chatting with her. I liked her a good deal, but we weren’t exactly friends, just acquaintances. She was a veterinarian, and she volunteered at the local Audubon Center. She would come to the preschool classes there sometimes and work with the kids, including my own Jesse and Nick. She was brave and heroic about the cancer when we talked about it, committed to the fight and to staying alive for her kids. I was really inspired by her.

I thought Kim was going to make it. The initial treatments a few years ago were successful, with reports that her body was cancer-free. I didn’t know the cancer had returned.

We embrace this myth that we can find the causes for things, that we can fix things, that we have some control over the shit nature pulls on us. We think we can blame big pharm, vaccines, pesticides, big coal, the Koch brothers, plastics, over-fishing, global warming, technology, medical malpractice, gluten, red meat, on and on. And occasionally that’s true, there really is someone to blame. But more often it’s just random noise. Nature hits us with a bomb like cancer, and we go down. It’s unfair. 

I always have a feeling of guilt when I hear about someone like Kim passing. I know she didn’t deserve to die more than me. Why am I still here and not her? What did I do to earn this state of grace in which I live, at least for today? Nothing. The answer is, nothing.

In the face of someone else’s death, some people will say that it reminds them to appreciate their lives more, that it makes them enjoy their lives more. I don’t move in that direction. I can’t look at Kim’s suffering and her family’s loss and feel better about my own lot. It is all just a bitter pill, and I’m filled with a gut-twisting sadness for Kim and her family.

But when I go to bed tonight, I’ll definitely drop a few extra kisses on my kids and stare into their sleeping faces a little longer. And I guess I can be thankful for that. Namaste, Kim, and thanks for fighting the good fight. Good bye.

grumpy about death… again (not ready for orphanhood)

Last night I lay awake in one of my morbid moods. I watched Nick sleep peacefully and pondered at large, as I’m wont to do, about the inevitability of all of our demises. Will we live long? Will my children lose me or Anthony before they’re grown? What if, heaven forbid, I were to lose one of them? My thoughts ranged through disease, pestilence, war, famine, bus hits, freak accidents. Nick dreamed as I stroked the hairs on his temple, praying to anything listening that he and Jesse be allowed to live long, peaceful, happy lives.

Last month while I was in California, my mom and I spoke about some estate planning issues. Her ducks aren’t quite in a row.  Now that she’s in her 80’s, it’s probably time to arrange them properly. It felt wrong, somehow, to bring it up. My family has never been open about death, about how to help life go on smoothly here on earth after one of us is gone. But as the only lawyer in the family and a daughter among sons, it makes practical and emotional sense for me to guide Mom through this.

But I don’t want to help Mom plan ahead for her death. I pointed this out to her. I don’t want you to die. I’m counting on you sticking around for a long, long time to come. She held up her hands, fingers out in a counting or quieting gesture. “Ten years,” she promised me, in a matter-of-fact tone as she nodded knowingly.

Ten years. I only get to see her about once a year these days. She seems unwilling to travel since her stroke, so she hasn’t made it out here to Wisconsin in some years. For my part, it’s difficult to get out to California with the kids because of time commitments and the hassle of traveling so far. I could go alone, but Mom wants to see her grandkids. So does that mean I’ll only see her ten more times before she’s gone? My chest and stomach clench in pain when I try to wrap my head around that.

When my grandma died, Mom was of course broken-hearted. It was a different kind of sadness than when Dad died. With him, she waded through the bitter suffering of a lost mate, a companion who was present day after day like the rising sun. But with grandma, her loss was a quiet and soft thing, something deep and young. In the months after grandma’s death, Mom spoke to me almost in whispers about her grief. One day she murmured slowly, “Oh Carla, my mommy is gone. I’m an orphan now.” It felt like a little poem, an elegy.

I heard in her voice, even over the telephone, all the longing and desperate need of a child hunting for her lost mother. Mom was 70-something, and she still wanted and needed her mother on this earth as much my little Nick wants and needs me. I wish I had been with Mom in the body just then, so that I could have held her. We could have cried together; and though I’m her daughter, perhaps I could have stood in the shoes of her mother for a moment and filled her cup with the gifts that loving parents bequeath to us.

But I know a day will come when I’ll never be able to hold her again. And what then?

I’m not ready for orphanhood. I won’t be ready in ten years. I need to remind Mom next time I talk with her. Don’t leave me, Mom. I still need you. I’ll always need you.

Grumpy about the holidays – day 23 (counting my blessings)

Yesterday some peeps who matter to me lost a brother and a son and an uncle and so on, in a car accident. They are such decent and good people, and there’s nothing I can do for them except to keep on keeping on. It’s a senseless and untimely death, but for that matter, what death isn’t?

I find that it’s easy, in the face of death, to forget about the silliness and joys of the world, or worse yet, to decide they need to be set aside for a time so that one can devote one’s full energy to, well, suffering. Sometimes grief is so utterly overwhelming you have no choice but to give in to it.

The horrible reality of life is that it’s full of death. And yet here we are, bearing children who are destined to die, and even making the best of it. We live on both sides of it all.

Last week Nick asked me, “Mommy, when I die will I not be real anymore?” It was a gut-punch. I had to catch my breath and dig deep to stop the tears, and I wasn’t even sure why they wanted to come. I answered best I could. You will always be real, forever, no matter what happens to your body, or this world, or this galaxy, or this universe, no matter what else is real and what is myth. The dinosaurs died 60 or 70 million years ago. Most of them returned to stardust long ago. But they’re still real, as real as the mountains we climb and the lakes we swim in, and they’re still shaping our world.

To myself I added, you’ll always be real to me, as real as the extraordinary love and pain and guilt I feel right now, feelings that are bound together in a strange dance as I watch my children awaken to mortality and suffering, as they learn to live on both sides of this journey we’re all on.

Jesse once sat on the can taking a dump, pondering death and heaven. I don’t recall her words exactly, but she put two ideas together as she bore down:

Mommy, you always say that a piece of your daddy is in your heart, even though he’s dead.

That’s right, I answered. He’s always with me.

She continued. My friend at school says when you die, she believes you go to heaven.

That’s right, I replied, a lot of people believe that.

Then, said my beautiful, magical little child, since your daddy is in your heart, it’s like heaven is in your heart.

Right. That’s where I think the people we care about stay, after they die — right here with us, despite all the mistakes, the failures, the fights and regrets, and despite all the love.

Grumpy about death

A dear old friend of mine lost his father last night. They were tight – my friend had relocated to be closer to his dad in the end of days – and he was able to be with his dad at the very end, so it’s going to be a hard grieve for him. But maybe it’s just as hard for those of us who weren’t as close to our parents, or who couldn’t be there for the last moments. I don’t know which is worse, the ache of guilt and abandonment or the ache of simple loss and absence.

If we’re lucky, we’ll all lose our parents instead of the other way around; and then if we’re lucky again in the next iteration, we’ll ache for our progeny as they lose us to death, which has to be better than watching our own children die. But it’s a bitter pill either way, and nothing for it but to wind our way to a graceful ending, if possible.

Thanks to my Jesse, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time pondering death for a good 5 years now. It’s annoying and enriching.

A lovely neighborhood dog died when Jesse was three years old. Jesse loved Max, a large reddish-brown mutt with a long muzzle and a lot of fur. Max was a big teddy bear, gentle and mildly playful, a perfect dog for a child with severe anxiety. When he died, his human came by in tears to let us know. Jesse saw him crying and wanted to know why, and this was when Jesse became mildly obsessed with death for the first time. I was amazed that such a small child could suffer so for the loss of a doggy friend, though Max and Jesse did have a special bond. She had trouble pushing her head through his complete, forever gone-ness. “He’s GONE??” she would weep, day after day. Eventually she came to realize she would die, and also me and Anthony.

Jesse really, really doesn’t want to die. She’s not impressed by the idea of heaven. She lives in the moment and she wants to stay right where she belongs, here on Mother Earth.

I do my best to move Jesse’s mind off death at every opportunity, without hiding from it. We talk about spirituality, about life and love, memories and genes. I say what I think most of us would say to a child, little niceties. Things like, you don’t walk this path alone, Jesse, we’re all on the journey together. And also things like, let’s not lose sight of the life we’ve been blessed with here and now, just because we’re wasting our energy on fear of what lies ahead — in shadows or sunlight, depending on your mood, right? I figure someday she’ll find her own way to pondering the vast and bitter suffering of the human condition, and I don’t intend to lead her there on purpose.

One day Jesse made the enormous generalizing leap to a grim and strange reality: everyone will die. Everyone. Every thing. Every plant and creature, the planets, everything. I was there when the lightbulb turned on, and so I got to observe my child lose yet another piece in the puzzle of her innocence. She was overwhelmed. “Wait. Everything will die?? EVERYTHING?? All the people? Everyone I know is going to DIE???” It was an apocalyptic realization, which I couldn’t find a way to sugar coat. Yup, I admitted. The gig is eventually up for all of us. Jesse was overwhelmed with anticipatory grief and shock. The only solace I could give her – and it did make a difference – was that we wouldn’t all die AT THE SAME TIME. Apparently, this was a great relief.

And indeed, as I walk the strange journey I’m on as Intense Jesse’s mom, I’ve come to accept that it is a relief, albeit a small one. There’s a time and place for each of us, whether we perceive it as part of a plan or an arbitrary thing. Except for really bad times – disasters, epidemics, war – most peeps experience death in small doses, small enough to muddle through, mostly in one piece, even though in the moment of loss it feels unspeakably difficult. We scar over, we have moments of forgetting and remembering. Now and then at my age, a friend loses a parent; eventually, not so long from now, we’ll start losing each other. With each stroke of the death clock, I imagine we’ll relive our other losses, give thanks for what remains, and move on. The next generation demands it of us; our own parents, even as they leave us, demand it of us. Life, bitter and joyful, beckons.