Someone’s crying

Three years ago today, I held my mother’s hand as she took her last breath. This is the post I wrote the day after. Today I am remembering a moment towards the end of her days when she was at Hospice. I never had a lot of time to have the heart-to-heart conversation with her that I yearned for. Things were moving too fast; I was too busy with Dad, and Mom was too sick. But on this afternoon, for the minutes she was awake, I leaned over her bed and said, “I’m going to have to find a way to talk to you.” She said, “Yes, you will.” Then I cried the tears I tried so hard to hide from her. She reached up with both of her arms and cupped my face between her two hands, giving me a lifetime of gratitude and love, a million words of goodbye, in one moment I will cherish forever.

Christine M. Grote

On Thursday night I heard my mother stir and I rose from my bed on the floor in the corner of her room and hurried to her side.

“What’s wrong?” she asked as she roused from the deep sleep she had been in all day.

“Nothing’s wrong, Mom.”

“Someone’s crying,” she said.

In my mom’s 78 years on this planet, I imagine she heard and answered a lot of someones crying.  In the 1950s through the 1970s she was raising five children who had been born within six years, including my sister Annie who was extremely disabled.  I suspect there were a lot of times someone was crying.

Even as we grew older we were sometimes crying: me coming home from college carrying a basket of laundry when a relationship ended; a long-distance phone call to speak of a loved one who died; a conversation about one thing or the…

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“Tis the season

You probably thought I gave up, or forgot about all of you. Not so. Just re-evaluating what I want to be when I grow up, and whether writing continues to have a role in my life.

Two years ago, at the beginning of this month, the challenges with my parents, as Mom tried to take care of Dad and Dad continued to decline with Alzheimers, jolted into high-gear-crisis-mode and we were on a speeding course of doctor’s appointments, hospital stays, and so forth, that led to both of their deaths by the end of January. The only good thing I can say about all of that is that it is over. And I will never have to go through that particular trauma of losing my parents again. Gratitude.

I also think that because of all the events that occurred during this Holiday month of family celebrations, December will always be bittersweet for me. It might have felt that way anyway. Holidays can be difficult for many people for many reasons. There are plenty of Christmas songs out there to remind us. But I do not feel the pain this year, more a quiet peace and contemplation with a few tears thrown in here and there. Sometimes it seems like Mom and Dad have been gone forever. And sometimes I am back in the Hospice room with Mom like it was yesterday.

Maybe this dichotomy of joy and sorrow that I find so inherent in the Christmas season is a lesson. Perhaps it is a reminder that this is what our lives here on this planet are about, learning to have joy in the presence of the inevitable sorrow.

Hoping you find the joy this holiday season.

Shillitos Christmas window display in Mariemont - a Scoot and Shoot event.
Shillitos Christmas window display in Mariemont – a Scoot and Shoot event.

Turn the camera around

Arthur - May 5, 2009

It started with photography and a conversation over lunch. “I back up all my photos to an external hard drive and also to the cloud,” a fellow amateur photographer said. “That way if my house goes up in a fire, or a burglar comes and snatches all my computer equipment, including external hard drives, I won’t lose my photos.”

I got home and took a good hard look at my 15 x 10 x 1/2 in metal case with a keyboard that contains most of my life’s work. If I had a catastrophic digital failure of some kind, I would lose my genealogy, videos of my grand kids, photographs, and all my writing. My life’s work contained in this slim piece of metal.

Sure I back it up to an external hard drive. But is that really enough to protect against the devastation that the loss of what is stored inside would cause?

That led to yet another diversion from writing my dad’s book, as my daughter so nicely pointed out in a phone conversation. “Maybe you are trying to avoid something,” she said.

That may be true. But I still need to formulate and execute a better back-up plan. And I need to sort through my files, consolidate, and edit them down. Another motivation that drives me forward is the thought that my husband or kids would have to deal with my computer if something were to happen to me. How can I expect them to deal with all the photos, videos, and documents I have loaded it up with? I don’t want to deal with it myself.

So I started sorting through my old recorded videos and came across one that I took at my sister’s house for a celebration of Mom’s birthday in May of 2009. We had just gotten Arthur and he was playing with my sister’s new puppy. I spent over 13 minutes that day recording Arthur. On the video, like an unobtrusive soundtrack running in the background, my parents are talking all the while.

I hear my mom say my name, but the rest of what she says fades out. I hear her laugh. “My brother had a dog,” my dad says, “and he named him Blue.”

And I wonder, why didn’t I, even once, turn the camera around?

Unmoored – eighteen months later

I wrote the post below a couple of months ago now. It has been patiently sitting in my post folder as a draft. I decided to go ahead and post it today even though it is dated. The eighteen-month anniversary of the passing of my parents has passed. And although I didn’t feel so just a few short weeks ago, I’ve begun to feel as if I have turned a corner. I feel like the fog is lifting and I am recognizing myself again, caring about things again, having more self-direction. I can’t promise this feeling will stick, but I am hopeful that the intense grief has passed and I am becoming accustomed to life without Mom and Dad.

That being said, I woke up crying one day last week from a vivid memory of Mom. When I was attending college in my hometown, I lived on campus. My long-time, four-year boyfriend and I broke up and I was pretty torn up about it. I gathered my dirty laundry in the morning after a sleepless night. And as soon as I deemed it late enough to arrive, I drove over to my parents. My roommate had called my mom without my knowledge. When I got there, Mom was standing at the door, in her robe, waiting for me. This makes me cry again today just thinking about it.

But what I realize today is that I may always have moments of tears about Mom and Dad. That’s okay. I suffered a loss. And the truth of the matter is that life will never be the same. It’s a new world.

June 29th, 2014

In a couple of weeks it will be the 18-month anniversary of my mother’s death. A year and a half. And the reason I’ve paid attention to that is that somewhere earlier out I Googled how long we grieve for a parent and I read somewhere that it’s different for everyone, but somewhere from 9 to 18 months is typical.

I’m approaching the 18 month mark for my mom’s death. And two weeks after that, it will be 18 months since my father died. So I wonder again whether I grieve for them simultaneously or consecutively which would mean I get three years to grieve.

Eighteen months. Is that all the time it’s been? it seems like forever.

Most days I think I am doing quite well, but every now and then I have a bad day where I find my self sobbing, with a deep gut-wrenching pain that reminds me how much I miss her, him, them, and how I’ll never see them again.

Am I getting through this okay? I wonder.

My sisters are my reality check.

My sister C. will call and say, “I had a really bad day the other day about Mom and Dad.”

“Me too. I’m not sure why, but I found myself crying again,” I say.

Then I’ll talk to my other sister. “I had a bad day earlier this week.”

“I did too,” K. answers. “I don’t know why. I have trouble at night before I fall asleep. I just think about everything that Mom went through, and I feel so bad for her. We really went through a traumatic experience.”

“Sometimes I cry for Mom and what she suffered and went through in the last years of her life,” I say. “And sometimes I cry because I want to talk to her, or because she doesn’t know I had a hysterectomy a few weeks ago.”

“Sometimes I feel really bad about what Dad had to go through,” K. will say. “I really hope I don’t have to depend upon other people to take care of me.”

Life does go on, but for me life will never be the same. Some things become less important, like finding the right window treatment for the dining room. And some things become more important like my personal relationships. I try harder to stop parenting in what can only be received as a judgmental way. And when I’m not able to hold my tongue, I find myself explaining my perspective and apologizing more. I try to nurture the sometimes fragile relationships I have with my siblings. And I make an effort to find ways to enrich my husband’s life.  How I will be remembered is much more important to me. Being in control, having things my way, and being right don’t matter so much.

I still continue to feel like an unmoored ship, directionless, no one behind the wheel.

But maybe that’s okay.


See more posts about my journey through grief.

How long is long enough to grieve?

I suspected January was going to be a rough month. In the first place, it usually is, with its gray skies and silent days following the holiday departures of our children going back to their own lives.

Now, I also have to navigate through the anniversaries of the deaths of both of my parents, and the first January 18th that we won’t be celebrating my dad’s birthday. I’m starting to think that in the future, January may be a fine month to pack up and head south for a few weeks. Change of scene. Distractions.

That’s the key, really, isn’t it? Distractions. It all clicked together for me this morning as I watched CNN’s “Sole Survivor” documentary. The wife of a sole surviving pilot of a Kentucky plane crash that occurred several years back said that she tries to make sure her husband has enough distractions. Things to occupy his mind. Reasons to get up in the morning.

I was better at living by distractions when the kids were all young and at home. In those days I frequently yearned for less distractions.

A year ago today we moved Mom from Hospice back to her assisted-living apartment. We wanted her to be able to go “home,” such as it was. She’d only spent four nights, total, there before she was taken to the hospital and then moved to Hospice. But her things were there to surround her. My sister Carol had hung some of Mom’s paintings, all original artwork by family members, while Mom was at Hospice. Mark and I finished the job the day before Mom moved back. The walls were covered in artwork. It was all a futile effort, just one more in a long line of many. When they rolled her back into the room on the stretcher from the transport, she might have glanced up and appreciated it. I don’t know. But after they lifted her from the stretcher to her bed she never got up in the two short days she was back—nurses coming in and out, the Hospice nurse setting up a table, the cook at the facility making her an endless stream of vanilla milkshakes delivered by the staff that we placed in her small freezer until the next one arrived. So many small details.

How long is long enough to grieve? Do I get a year? Do I get a year for each parent? Do I serve them concurrently or consecutively?  I read somewhere it usually takes from 9 months to 18 months following the death of a parent. How does someone figure this out? My sister-in-law told me she missed her father a lot at the Christmas holidays and cried this year on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. He’s been gone five years.

 It’s not like I’ve put my life on hold, shut myself into my bedroom with the shades drawn and light low, snuggled under a comforter, surfacing for the occasional bit of food or refill of water in the glass I keep on the beside stand. In the past year I struggled off an occasional lame post and wrote a chapter or two; I’ve been to New Orleans, South Carolina, a wedding in Buffalo, a wedding in Indianapolis, St. Louis (two or three times), Los Angeles, and had a house full of people at Christmas. I’m skimming along fine on the surface with those distractions.

But there is a level of awareness inside my heart, mind, soul, wherever it exists, where I grapple with the fact that I can’t call my mom anymore. That I’ll never be able to hear my dad’s wisdom on the things life throws my way. That the middle has dropped out of the family of my childhood and the people who share my earliest memories are scattered to the wind. No more family celebrations of Mom’s birthday and Mother’s Day. No more Father’s Day cookouts. No more sitting around a Christmas tree.

Is a year long enough to get over it?

Should I just jump back into life and distract the heck out of myself with projects and trips and in that way forget it? Or should I mull over it until I can put it at rest? This is a core question that goes back to one’s belief system about what it’s all about, Alfie. I suspect you have your own opinion about this based on your particular worldview.

My parents were practicing Catholics, although my mom converted to it when she married my dad. For many years I also followed that bright shining beam. But recently, with the corruption that’s come to light and the gender inequality that is practiced, that beam of light has dimmed behind a clouded-over lens. Maybe I’ll eventually be able to clear it off. Maybe not. I wish I could. There was comfort there.

Some people think the only thing that matters is the here and now. Help other people if you can, or if you want to. But enjoy life. Eat, drink, and be merry. Don’t dwell on things that make you unhappy.

I just can’t get over thinking that we are more multi-dimensional than that. If we don’t allow ourselves to feel our sorrow deeply, understand it, learn from it. Then how can we expect to feel our joy deeply?

How long is long enough to grieve? I really don’t know.

Let’s make a deal, though. I won’t tell you, if you don’t tell me.

What we later learn

It always amazes me when I see something, learn something, understand something, only much later after the fact.

It’s like the postcard from Peru I got this week from our new daughter-in-law. “Enjoying everything this beautiful country has to offer,” Cori wrote. “Can’t wait to share our travel stories.” Well, we already knew all that; heard the stories; saw the photos. Matthew and Cori went to Peru over three months ago in August. I don’t know where this little postcard has traveled since then—maybe it’s been riding along in the bottom of a mail carrier’s bag all this time.

This morning I had a revelation about my mother. My mind was catching phrases from the television playing in the background. I was listening for the road conditions as we were in the middle of a predicted winter storm. It must have been some kind of a commercial about health professionals. They were listing things they were there for, or the things that people told them. The phrase that caught my attention was “When someone finds a lump. . .”

I’ve written about the last good day I had with my mom when I put up her little Christmas tree last year. What I may not have fully explained was that in the preceding days and even weeks, she and I had a somewhat adversarial relationship. She was determined to continue to care for Dad as she always had, but her strength and health were continuing to decline. I was trying to convince her to make some changes —add more home health aide coverage, get Dad an indwelling catheter so she wouldn’t have to do this tiring task three times a day, let Dad stay in his bed more, use the lift—because I was worried about both her and my dad.

The last week of November I changed my approach. I threw in the towel. I told her I wasn’t going to try to solve her problems, but told her that when she was ready to make a change all she had to do was tell me and I would help her make it happen. So when she seemed different, more at peace, calmer, on that last Friday in November, I attributed it to my stepping back. In fact, I have remembered that day fondly—my mom sitting in her chair watching me decorate her house, being agreeable about it all, which frankly surprised me at the time.

Last year when my sister called me a few days later, on the morning of that first Sunday in December, to say Mom was ready to get medical help and she wanted to go to the hospital, and I returned to their house, before we called 911 and started the sequence of events that led to her diagnosis of cancer, Mom told me something that came back to me this morning like a punch in the stomach. She had gotten cold feet about going to the hospital by the time I got there a half hour after the phone call. I was trying to convince her it was the right thing to do. I think she was afraid they would want to do tests and she wouldn’t want to be away from Dad that long. I think she was afraid she might find out something really bad was wrong with her. She was lying on the sofa and I was sitting on the edge beside her. I gave her the phone and was trying to convince her to dial 911. I was trying to reassure her by telling her it was probably nothing critical and that maybe she would finally be able to get some medicine that worked better than her pantry full of over-the-counter remedies she had been ingesting.

Mom responded to my assurances by saying, “But, you don’t know everything.”

“What don’t I know?”

“A couple of days ago, I found some lumps here in my stomach,” she said as she touched her hand to her belly.

That sealed her fate, as far as I was concerned. There was no way I was not going to take her to a doctor somehow with that knowledge. She had wanted to go to the hospital. She had wanted to go in an ambulance because she wanted them to help her get there and get in. I called 911.

What I realized this morning when I heard the words, “When someone finds a lump,” was that Mom had found a lump “a couple of days” before Sunday. She probably had already found those lumps when I was there on Friday playing Christmas music and putting up her Christmas tree. I think she knew. And I think she wanted to have a good day. No, even more, even harder to bear, is that I think she wanted me to have a good day.

So I had a moment this morning. And I’m having another one as I try to relay this to you.

Some days I really miss my mother.

I love you all for the support and kind words you always have to share. Have you ever found something out or understood something long after the fact?

Nine things I’ve learned about grief

I’m still sliding down the slope. Some days I don’t even try to get a handhold of something, anything, with which to pull myself back up and into my life.

I started this blog with the intention of writing more, and regularly. My last post was over a week ago. That’s not very regular. Part of the problem is that I wanted this blog to chronicle mid-life—what’s important to me at this stage in life, what I enjoy doing, what challenges I face. And I pledged to write whatever was on my mind in the morning when I awoke. Many days now, and still, my thoughts are filled with my deceased parents in the morning, and I just don’t want to keep burdening you with that.

But the loss of parents is a part of many individuals’ mid-life, so I am going to write about where I stand today.

We visited our grandchildren in St. Louis twice this month. The first week from the 12th to the 20th, we went to celebrate their birthdays. The second week from the 29th to November 3, to help out with the children while our daughter-in-laws’ mother had emergency surgery and was in ICU with an initial uncertain diagnosis. She is doing fine now.

But what I’ve noticed with out of town trips this year is that I am fine, and even happy, while I am away, but when I return the grief hits me like a lead blanket. It pulls me down.

One day, in the week between the two trips, I felt like I had burst through the gray cloud of grief that hovers above me, never too far away. I took  that as a good sign.

I am afraid of heading into the next three months, with the holidays and the anniversaries of events. The last dinner we had with my parents was last year at Thanksgiving. Mom was diagnosed with cancer on December 2. Dad went to the ER on December 4. We moved Dad to the nursing home and later, Mom to the assisted living apartment. Mom went to the hospital on Christmas day. Mom died on January 12th. We buried Mom and celebrated Dad’s 80th birthday on January 18th. Dad died on the 26th. So many significant dates in the next few months.

Does the day of the year carry a marker in our brains that makes anniversaries happy or difficult? Or is it that our planet is spinning back through a place in the universe where events occurred and energies still linger? That’s a little cosmic for me, I know. But the fact that we have circled the sun and returned to this space has not escaped me.

I’ll leave you with nine things I’ve learned about grief so far:

1. Initially, grief is violent, painful, and inescapable, hitting you like a tsunami. All you can do is cling to a rooted support hoping to surface when the waters pass.

2. Grief leaves a silence and emptiness behind after the initial wave passes through, giving you time to look around at the destruction but not the energy to deal with it.

3. Grief fills up your senses and leaves a taste in your mouth.

4. Grief is demanding of your attention, coming in waves.

5. Grief surprises you when you least expect it and causes spontaneous tears at a restaurant or an anxiety attack while visiting a hospital.

6. Grief has far-reaching effects making you view your mortality, question your purpose, and fear the next time it strikes in perhaps a bigger way.

7. Grief may be permanent. It changes your heart and leaves a hole in your life that you learn to live around.

8. I think, with time, grief can help you focus on what’s important here and now.

9. Grief is your friend. It never allows you to forget those you’ve loved and lost.

Can we ever really know the truth?

At my writing group last night one of the women wrote about care-giving for her father who had Alzheimer’s. She wrote of herself as a reluctant caregiver. She found a lot of reasons why she didn’t want to make the 2-hour drive to Columbus and stay overnight at her parents’ house.

I applauded her for her honesty.

And then I started to wonder about myself. Did I resent feeling a responsibility to take care of Mom and Dad over the past years? I don’t remember not wanting to go visit them. I don’t remember it being a burden. What I remember most was being driven to try to fix the problem, to help ease their pain, to scramble to make things better somehow, someway. It was a vocation for me.

I’m sure there were days when I might have preferred to stay home, but I really can’t recall feeling that way.

And it makes me wonder whether I am now in denial, or whether my personal history has made me approach or feel differently about care-giving than some others might. I learned care-giving from a very early age as I stooped to pick Annie’s toys up off the ground where she dropped them, or straightened her up in her chair, or fed her a meal. When I moved away from home it wasn’t very many years before I was giving care to what would eventually be four children in our family.

I know there were times when I grew tired, or frustrated, but I don’t think I would ever refer to myself as reluctant. I wanted to help my parents. I was desperate to make things better.

When things fell apart last December, I spent nights on a sofa in the lobby of a hospital, on a sofa at my Mom’s house, on a Hospice chair that converted to a very hard bed, on an air mattress on the floor, in a recliner beside my father’s bed. I wanted to be there. I went home and slept in my own bed only because I knew that if I didn’t take breaks I would not be able to sustain the level of support I wanted to give.

But in this place of grief where I now dwell, I wonder if I will ever know the truth of any of it anymore. Can we ever really know the truth?

Sunlight on water-2013-10-21

There was no time

The far end of the VOA lake. October 8, 2013

When I walk around the lake at the Voice of America Park with Arthur, as I often do, I get about to the opposite end of the lake before my thoughts inevitably turn to Mom or Dad or both. Something about walking, or driving in a car, does that to me.

I never anticipated how difficult and painful it would be to lose my parents.

It’s been nearly nine months since they died and the pain of loss, when it hits, nearly knocks me off my feet. I had hoped to be better by now. And I suppose I am better if you consider that a lot of the time, most of the time, I am fine with no apparent pain and no tears. But the tears do still come, and often with surprise. I’m learning a lot about grief and loss.

The permanency of it all is starting to sink in and may be the reason I’ve backslid some on my grieving.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do when I can’t talk to you anymore,” I told my mom leaning over her Hospice bed with tears streaming down my face. “I’ll have to find another way to talk to you.”

“Yes. You will,” she answered.

December and the beginning of January were a blur of activities. Hospitalizations, legal paperwork, nursing home visits. Camping out on the hard hospital lobby sofa. Speech therapists telling me Dad wasn’t swallowing well enough to take anything orally. Questions. What now? Small notebooks with phone numbers. Larger notebooks with pertinent information that expanded daily. A couple baskets of Dad’s meager possessions labelled with his name. Dad’s first visit to the nursing home dining room. My parents’ bedroom with piles of clothes on the floor from frantic searches and chaotic packing. A cloth patch I hand-sewed on an afghan to label with Mom’s name. Dad’s visit to see Mom at Hospice. Wheeling my overnight suitcase through an icy parking lot.

By the time there was time to talk, Mom was under heavy medication for pain and nausea. And there wasn’t time.

So I don’t know what she thought about everything that was happening.

“I don’t know how you girls are doing all of this,” she said in one lucid moment.

“I’m going to be in that group of people who beat this,” she said shortly after her bleak diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, her indomitable spirit rising again.

“Sometimes you’re better off just getting through things quickly,” she told me as I drove her home from a doctor’s visit when her blood pressure was uncontrollably high.

We got through it quickly.  But somehow I don’t feel better off.

I miss my mom.


A day like today – on a journey through grief

Since Mom and Dad died I sometimes, more than I’d like, wrestle with the question about my daily activities, “What’s the point?” Sometimes many things I used to be compelled to do, motivated to action by, and completely occupied with seem rather purposeless.

Do I really need to scan and redo our family’s photo albums? I’m more than two-thirds done with this project I started literally a decade or more ago, and now I wonder why bother?

Do I really need to put up a blog post? On days like today that seems like one of the more pointless activities I engage in. On days like today blogging seems like a hungry monster that gobbles up my time yet produces nothing.

Everything seems so temporary on days like today. And relatively pointless.

When Mom and Dad were still alive I was driven by a pressing need to try and make their lives a little better. Maybe I could find recipes that Dad could still eat, or a device to grind his food. Maybe I could brighten Mom’s day an tiny little bit with scented foaming hand soap. Maybe I could find some kind of harness to help Dad sit up in his wheelchair. I’d regularly circle through the medical supply store just to see if there might be something there to ease someone’s pain or workload.

Sometimes now I think the most productive use of my time is to start undoing the things that I’ve done. To start getting rid of the things I’ve bought, used, and now store in case someone needs them or simply for memory’s sake. To start erasing my life one shelf of books, one set of canisters, or stack of baskets at a time.

One part of my mind, that piece that stays logical in the midst of chaos, that can leave my body and look down at me watching my every movement, reminds me that this disinterest, dissociation, loss of desire is most assuredly just another obstacle I need to navigate around or through on my grief journey.

That logical part of my mind helps me to not worry about it. So I don’t. I just move through these hours, this day, and hope tomorrow isn’t a day like today.


More posts about my journey through grief.