“Memory is a way of holding on to the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.” ~ Kevin Arnold

The Magpie Monet 1869 oil on canvas Musee d Orsay

“The Magpie,” by Monet (1869, oil on canvas), Musee d’Orsay

 

” . . . say it loud
panebreaking heartmadness” ~ From “Nightmare Begins Responsibility,” by Michael S. Harper

Do you know what it’s like to hold someone you love in your arms as she is dying? All of the white noise of the hospital room dissipates in those last few minutes. The only sounds that you hear are your own heartbeat in your ears and the sound of someone near you crying. Time becomes suspended, and a part of you hopes that it will remain that way forever, just so that you never have to move into that next moment, the moment when all possibilities cease to exist.

I still remember the weight of my daughter’s body in my arms, still remember the smell of her dark hair, or what was left of it. I can recall vividly the bright overhead lights of the small room, and the way that I stared at the machine that monitored her heartbeat, willing it to remain steady so that all that was left of Caitlin would not end.

I remember how it felt as if my own heart stopped in that moment when hers stopped, and how I wished that it were true so that I would never have to exist in a world in which Caitlin was no longer a part. And then how we all left the room while the nurses disconnected her from all of the machines and removed the tubes that had sustained her. How when we went back into the room, she was lying there in the middle of that big hospital bed, so small, so seemingly perfect, and how I knew that at last she was no longer in pain.

I removed the hospital gown and dressed her in soft white pajamas, and I tried to train my eyes away from the incisions on her chest and arms and legs. I felt the scar on the back of her head where the surgeons had cut into her only two months’ previous, and then I kissed her, caressed her still-warm cheeks, and left.

We walked out into the bright November afternoon, and I thought to myself that it was impossibly cruel that the world outside could still be moving on as if Caitlin had never been a life force among those moving about, completely mindless of her life and her death. After that, I don’t remember much. I don’t remember the car ride home. I don’t remember walking into the house that had been mostly empty for months. I don’t remember getting into bed that night or waking the next morning.

My next memories are of minutiae: picking out a headstone and deciding what to inscribe, taking a dress and bonnet to the funeral home, renting a carpet cleaner and cleaning the carpet and living room furniture, even though they did not need it. I remember my mother-in-law bringing Pizza Tuesday night so that we would eat, and I remember that it tasted of cardboard. I remember Ann going with me to find a dress for the funeral, and how I obsessed over finding finger-tip towels for the bathroom.

I remember the day of the funeral, passing out Valium like it was sweet tarts, standing in the tiny bathroom of the chapel with Kathleen and watching the people pulling into the parking lot, walking up to the podium and looking out at all of the faces of people who had been so much a part of our lives—nurses from the hospital, our friends from the medical school, people with whom I taught at the university, and I remember not being able to distinguish faces.

I remember the ride to the cemetery in Kathleen’s car, and looking behind us at the long line of cars that followed. I remember the late morning sun and the cool breeze. I don’t remember what was said, nor do I remember actually being there during the service, only the moments after the service concluded, when friends began to come up to me and hug me, how surprised I was. I remember looking up and seeing Johnny and collapsing into his arms, sobbing openly in my dear friend’s embrace.

Afterwards, I remember sitting in the Bentwood rocker in which I had held my daughter, drinking wine, and listening to people talk to me. I don’t remember what was said or everyone who was there. I remember that Sarah wore red. And then as people left, I remember pressing food into their hands because the idea of a house full of food made me physically ill.

Awakening Bessie Pease Butmann 1918

             “Awakening,” by Bessie Pease Gutmann (1918):            This is how Caitlin looked with her dark hair and chubby cheeks.

 

“I’ve never tried to block out the memories of the past, even though some are painful. I don’t undrestand people who hide from their past. Everything you live through helps to make you the person you are now.” ~ Sophia Loren

These are the things that I remember about those four days in November, remember still even though so much time has passed. And while I know that I have forgotten as much as I remember, it’s the memories that continue to cut so sharply, reopening wounds that have never healed completely.

I know that it is a cliché to say that a part of me died in that room that day, but that does not negate the statement’s truth. A part of my heart closed off completely the moment that Caitlin’s heart stopped beating. The part that had belonged to her grew cold and has never regained its living warmth. I can live with that. I have lived with that. I will continue to live with that.

Death is not a gentle journey for anyone, for those who die or for those who are left. Death is insidious in its ability to weave its way into the sinews of existence and memory. What those of us who remain must do is learn to take that loss and incorporate it into our daily lives. If not, it would be impossible to go on, to move through time with any kind of peace or hope.

The memories of the day that my daughter died and the hours that followed are stored away, and I dare not retrieve them too often lest they break me. But sometimes, it is necessary to open the box in which they reside, even if the doing feels like bloodletting. These memories are not the totality of my daughter, yet they are as much a part of me as the cells that give me life. I have incorporated these memories into my lifeblood, and there they will remain, along with the memories of my father and all of the other memories that make me who I am.

I have come to realize that the ability to recall such intense emotion helps to make me stronger, even if it feels like a little death each time that I do so. It may not seem to make much sense, but embracing every part of the tapestry of my life—the beauty and the pain—affords me my humanity, and given the opportunity, I would not choose to have traveled any other path.

One of my favorite songs from that time: “Cristofori’s Dream,” by David Lanz

More later. Peace.

                                                                                    

Remembrance of Monday Afternoon Past
     for Josh

How can I explain to you
what it is to hold someone you love
until she dies?
I cannot prepare you for that moment of separation—
     it is something so unspeakably personal
     that to watch it, to intrude upon it
     almost cannot be forgiven.
If I try to tell you about the silences
that enclose and isolate,
     you will not understand
     until you, too,
     have felt them.
I cannot describe for you
     the desperation
     with which you will try to pass
     life
    from your arms to hers,
    but you will come to know this as well
    as I once did.
When the moment comes,
     you will not be ready,
     but you will recognize it for what it is—
     that last instant
     in which possibilities still exist.

L. Liwag

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“Insanity is hereditary—you get it from your kids.” ~ Sam Levenson

"Bathe in me mother and child" by Warwick Goble

“Bathe in me mother and child,” by Warwick Goble

 

“Well, everybody hurts, sometimes” ~ From “Everybody Hurts” by REM

“Stop trying to perfect your child, but keep trying to perfect your relationship with him.” ~ Dr. Henker

Migraine Brain
Migraine Brain

I’ve been wiped out for over 24 hours now with a killer migraine. I had to stop taking my migraine prevention medicine cold turkey (instead of the usual method of backing down gradually) because I had developed a rash on my upper body that had blisters. I know—too much information, but I just wanted to explain my absence. I actually spent most of today lying on the bed in the fetal position with cold packs on my head. Even walking into the brighter living room and kitchen caused me pain. Just have to say how much this sucks in case you couldn’t tell how not happy I am.

Mother’s Day is in two days, and I’m also feeling sorry for myself about this. Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with eldest son. This time it’s my daughter. She’s been getting progressively aloof in the last four months. Corey and I have been trying to figure out what’s going on. But when I ask her about it, she says that nothing is wrong. This is kind of her normal reaction when confronted: denial.

“Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” ~ Oscar Wilde

Stock Photo of Two Little Girls, Sisters Or Friends, Sitting OnI should say that Alexis has always gone through these phases. I remember when she was in school, she and her best friend would suddenly not be speaking, and when I would ask what was wrong, Alexis would say “nothing.” I mean, she and her best friend would be like sisters one day, and then a complete rift would arise the next day. I always found that odd, but I knew that it was none of my business.

I’m not even sure that she realizes that she does this, but she did the same thing at the beginning of last year. She just began to withdraw from our lives, and when I asked about it, she assured me that nothing was wrong. And just as suddenly as she withdrew, she was back, and everything was fine.

This time, her displeasure seems to be aimed at Corey, but we aren’t sure why. Their relationship has been close ever since Corey and I got married, and when her boyfriend got a new job that causes him to be out of town sometimes, it has always been Corey who she calls when she needs something: clogged toilet . . . mouse in a trap . . .  broken coffee table  . . . whatever. Corey would drop everything to help her, even if he was in the middle of something here.

Now, she doesn’t call him at all. He has tried to find out what is wrong, as have I, but the only response we get is that nothing is wrong. She’s busy. I’ve had the same thing happen to me, so I can empathize with what Corey is feeling: frustrated from the lack of information and the ways in which his attempts at reconciliation have been ignored.

“Young girl…violins…center of her own attention” ~ “Daughter,” by Pearl Jam

mary-cassatt-summertime
"Summertime," by Mary Cassatt

As far as friendships are concerned, Alexis is actually a lot like her father and eldest brother in believing in the idea that the whole world revolves around them. Don’t get me wrong. Alexis is a wonderful, generous friend. Always there to help her friends when they need it, and most of the time, always there for her family. Her father was like that; if one of his friends called and asked him to help chop down a tree, he was there. In the meantime, things around the house that needed repairing were never attended to.

Friendships for all three of them are very important. I, too, believe that friends are important, that if a friend needs me, I should be there. However, the big difference is that I put family first. This inability to put family first was a big bone of contention between my ex and myself. It was also what caused Alexis to leave home after she graduated. She was absolutely clueless or perhaps indifferent as to how her actions were adversely affecting her family. We finally had to draw a line, and she chose to leave.

“If you have never been hated by your child you have never been a parent.” ~ Bette Davis

edmond-francois-aman-jean-portrait-of-a-young-woman
"Portrait of a Young Woman," by Francois Edmond

I remember so many sleepless nights during that period, worrying about whether or not she was alive and safe. I wanted to call the police but didn’t. Instead, I would sometimes drive through the neighborhood to see if her car was parked by one of her friends’ houses. In that way, I knew where she was and could take some small comfort in the knowledge that she had found some place to stay.

Oddly enough, our reconciliation occurred on a Mother’s Day when I came home to find a card from her and a long letter apologizing for her behavior. I called her immediately and asked her to come home, and she did. From that point, things were very good, until she began to go into these phases of isolation again.

“In spite of the six thousand manuals on child raising in the bookstores, child raising is still a dark continent and no one really knows anything.  You just need a lot of love and luck—and, of course, courage.” ~ Bill Cosby, Fatherhood, 1986

mary-cassatt-young-woman-reading
"Young Woman Reading," by Mary Cassatt (detail)

When you are a parent, it’s so hard to know if you are making the right choices, if you have made the right choices, if you could have done something differently that might have resulted in a better outcome. I have learned that parenting is one of those on-the-job training situations. You can never be fully prepared, no matter how many books and articles you read. 

There is no other job in the world that can make you feel so completely insufficient and that can cause so much self-doubt. It is a job filled with regret over words spoken in anger and frustration and actions taken in an attempt to reign in unruly offspring. Parenting can make you feel completely unqualified, whether you are raising sons or daughters or both.

“To understand your parents’ love you must raise children yourself.” ~ Chinese Proverb

Mother With Children Klimt
"Mother with Children," by Gustave Klimt

And then there is the “mother curse” that comes back to haunt you: “I hope you grow up and have children exactly like you.” And you do. Your children may not be exactly like you, but they test you in the same ways that you tested your own parents. They push the boundaries and break your heart just as you did the same to your own mother and father. In this way, history does repeat itself.

A friend of mine, in responding to my recent post on Eamonn, had this wonderful analogy: “Raising a teenager is like nailing Jello to the wall.” Oh how true. Except that I would change the word teenager to children, because no mater how young or old they are, your children still retain that ability to make you feel as if you are somehow wanting, unfit, and unreasonable, even when you are certain that you are not.

“Your children will become what you are; so be what you want them to be.” ~ David Bly

pablo-picasso-mother-and-child
"Mother and Chld," by Pablo Picasso

In my heart, I have no doubts that Alexis loves me and loves her family. I also know that the very aspects of her personality that grate on me so much are those aspects that are similar to my own disposition: her moodiness, her mercurial swings, her absolute fierceness in her devotion to her friends. So I do keep these things in mind.

Another thing that I know is that I still have the ability to hurt my own mother and she me, even when we don’t intend to do so, which only shows that regardless of age, the relationships between mothers and daughters are fraught with landmines.

The risk diminishes with age and maturity as both parties reach a point at which they understand each other more than they don’t understand each other. But the need to step carefully never completely goes away.

So in the end, I will wait out this current estrangement, try to be patient, knowing that this pulling away is a necessary part of her growing up. And I will try to remind myself not to be hurt, even when I am . . . in spite of the fact that my daughter, who lives in the same city as I, mailed my mother’s day card.

More later. Peace.

Such Stuff as Dreams are Made of

I had one of those dreams last night that I really didn’t want to end. It was about my father, or rather, it had my father in it in a prominent role. From what I can remember, it started with my dad and I in line at the commissary (for you non-military people, that’s where you buy groceries on a military base). Everything had already been rung up by the cashier when I remembered that I was holding a bunch of bananas. I told my dad that I would pay for the bananas separately as he was already writing a check. In my dream, I watch him write out the check very carefully, and I know why I am doing this. I always loved my father’s penmanship; it was very beautiful, carefully formed and readable. He hands the cashier the check, and I hand her one dollar for the bananas, and we leave the store. Then, on the drive home, we pass my mother who is driving the opposite way, and she rolls down the window and tells us that she is going to the diner with someone to have lunch. I can tell that my father is upset that she is going to the diner without him. We keep driving, and he tells me that he and my mother used to go to the diner together all of the time.

That’s about all that I can remember of the dream. Nothing particularly spectacular, other than the fact that I am spending time alone with my father, something we rarely did once I grew up. Now that he is gone, we do it a lot in my dreams. We go to a lot of places together in my dreams. We have lots of conversations, one-on-one conversations. I don’t suppose I need to mention that we didn’t do that a lot either once I got older. My father wasn’t big on conversations. He was a quiet man, at least at home, unless he was angry, and then he was loud, full of ire, sometimes uncontrollable ire. My temper is very much like my father’s at times—uncontrollable. It is not something of which I am proud. It is as if some switch goes off, and I can no longer contain the words tumbling out of my mouth, and I hate every second that this scathing venomous attack lasts. I have gotten much better at controlling this switch, but it still happens, but it takes a lot more to set it off.

But with my father, you just didn’t know how long his fuse was. I think that’s the way it is with people who hold so much inside for so long. You know that sooner or later it has to come out, but you just have no idea what is going to set it off. So spilling kool-ade might set it off, when in fact, it’s really something from three months ago that has been simmering. And then he would (to use a good old southern word) holler like crazy. So there would be hollering in the house, but it was almost always between my mom and dad.

When I was a child, I only remember two times that my father really got angry with me. I mean good and angry with me. My mother usually handled the discipline. But there were two times that my father stepped in. That was as a child. But as I got older, as a teenager, I remember my father saying something to me one time when I was acting like an ass over something that really caught me short. My dad was sitting in his usual chair in the dining room, and he looked up at me with so much pain in his eyes, and he said, “when was the last time you actually said hello to me when you walked into the house?” It stopped me dead in my tracks. In my self-absorbed 16-year-old self, I suppose it never even occurred to me that my father would want to hear hello from me, one simple word. Talk about making a person feel horrible, he hadn’t even said it in anger, just in resignation, a tired man who had realized where he stood in the hierarchy of his daughter’s priorities. God, if I could take back that moment.

But as to conversations, my father wasn’t big on sitting down and having heartfelt conversations. He would have brief conversations, usually consisting of two to three questions: “You doing okay?” “You like your job?” and maybe one or two more. If it went further, it was more of a 20 questions kind of probing on my part or on his. Not nosiness, just a comfortable questions and answer period. I think that we communicated like this mostly because he knew that I understood how taxing his communication was with my mother and I realized that if wanted me to know something, he would tell me, and that was somewhat of a relief for him. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not trying to denigrate my mother. You just have to understand her modus operandi for communication. It can be relentless and includes many assumptions, and unfortunately, I sometimes fall into that pattern if I am not careful. So often when my dad and I were together once I was older, it was in companionable silence or with a few questions here and there so that once my mother got me on the phone, she couldn’t interrogate me as to what my father and I had spoken about.

So when I have these dreams in which I am spending time with my dad at the grocery store or in the car or just talking, I relish them, cherish them because I know, deep in my heart that they are my father’s gift to me. That somehow, somewhere, my father knows that there are days on which I would give anything, everything to be able to pick up the telephone and hear his voice, but that will never ever happen again. And so I must settle for what dreams may come.

The Wonder Years

Today is my youngest son’s 16th birthday. I won’t bother to get into the details of how we celebrated because most of you would find it oh so strange; however I will share one of his deeper comments with you: “Krispy Kreme donuts must have cocaine in them.” I’m not so sure that he isn’t close to the truth about that one. If any of you have ever tasted these delectable concoctions from hell, then you will know of what I speak. Don’t even bother to swallow. Just apply them to the largest portion of your body as that is where they will eventually settle; have no doubts. 

But back to the birthday. After buying books–yes we went to the bookstore first, and we had to decide which ones to put back because we both had too many in each of our piles–we headed out to find other things for his birthday celebration. I have a special place in my heart or my youngest son, and I will admit it, and it is not that I love him more; it is that I love him differently. When it was time for him to be born, he did not want to come out. Right before his due date, he turned laterally (women who have given birth, you can appreciate this special pain). He put his elbows under my ribs, and I had to have a c-section to have him removed. My ob/gyn, with whom I have a special bond, said that there was no way that he was going to come out on his own. He had decided that he just didn’t want to leave. And it has been pretty much that way ever since. We have a connection, he and I, and I think that it comes from the fact that he is a living, breathing replication of my father in so many ways, down to his eyebrows and the way that he stands.

Nevertheless, one thing is for certain: no matter how old he gets, or how old his brother or sister get, I will never stop being amazed at how we reached this point in time, how we survived this crisis, or that calamity. I have to believe that there is some fabric that exists in our tapestry as a family that binds us together, that will not let us be tossed to the furies of the four winds alone without the support of each other. Ours is a pattern that fate has chosen not to weave easily but intricately, making us resilient, independent but always interdependent, creating a beautiful whole.