Let us give thanks . . .

 

Shadows and Reflections

 “Once you have tasted the sky, you will forever look up.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci

I’ve written several posts on the subject of being thankful, including the Grace in Small Things series. Today, I thought that I would focus on things, events, and people that I have encountered in my life that have helped to shape me into the person I am.

  • Having the opportunity to see original masterpieces by Renoir, Monet, Glackens, Bernini, Van Gogh, Klimt, Morisot, Wyeth, Hopper, Sargent, Kadinsky, Pollock, Caravaggio, Tiffany, Manet, Leighton, Rembrant, Tissot, Matisse, Veronese, Rothko, as well as ancient Ethiopian art, tribal masks dating back to the 12th century, real Samurai armor and weapons, and photography by Brady, Stieglitz, Bourke-White, Mann, Strand.
  • Walking through a tropical rain forest in Africa and seeing shades of green that I never knew existed. Crossing a hanging rope bridge that was situated high in the air above a stream.
  • Sitting in the dark and listening to live performances by Yo Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Seeing Nureyev and Margot Fontaine perform.
  • Hiding in the trunk of a car to get into a drive-in movie for free and then not watching the movie because it was too scary.
  • Going snorkeling in the Caribbean
  • Walking among the ruins of Tulum amid the huge iguanas and then eating fresh guacamole with cold Sol atop a small mountain.
  • Seeing the volcano in Baguio, Philippines
  • Riding up a mountain to get to Baguio in a bus very much like the ones you see in the movies, which was filled with villagers, chickens, a pig, old women, and my very American mother.
  • Reading some of the best literature ever written: all of Shakespeare, Michael Ondaatje, Marlow, and far too many others to mention.
  • Meeting some of my favorite poets and writers in person at literary festivals, including Chris Buckley, Mary Oliver, Tim O’Brien, Barry Lopez, Caroline Forché, Bruce Weigl, and many others
  • Working in a newsroom right at the crest of computers. Watching the paper be printed, smelling the ink.
  • Attending three wonderful universities: The George Washington, Virginia Tech, and Old Dominion.
  • Doing on-camera interviews for the museum, which sometimes meant being at the studio at 5 a.m, but still fun.
  • Performing for the Queen Mother in London in a Dances of Asia program.
  • Starring as Rizzo in Grease.
  • Participating in a drum-making ceremony with a drum master.
  • Working in a donut shop for a few months during high school and getting to bring home the leftovers.
  • Dancing on the runway at a go go bar for a story on the Norfolk nightlife.
  • Hanging out over the water in a trapeze while sailing on a catamaran in the Chesapeake Bay
  • Going cave tubing and not feeling the least bit claustrophobic
  • Hiking on the trails at Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway
  • Getting my four-cylinder Pontiac Sunbird up to 80 mph while driving home from Blacksburg one Sunday night
  • Attending grade school in London
  • Going to a military tattoo in Scotland and sitting in the outdoor stadium wrapped up in blankets because it was so cold.
  • Seeing huge statues in the mountains of Spain as we drove through the country.
  • Seeing live concerts by The Who, Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Sarah McLachlan, The Beach Boys, The Doobie Brothers, Sugarland, Norah Jones, and a bunch of other people I can’t remember.
  • Playing Chopin and Mozart on a grand piano at a recital in front of 100 people.

These are just a few of the highlights. I deliberately did not include anything personal about my children, husband, family, or friends as that is an entirely different list. But putting these things down in words makes me realize how very many opportunities I have had in my life to travel, to embrace other cultures, to see stunning natural and man-made beauty.

I have done things that I never thought that I would do, and I have seen in person things that I had only dreamt of.

I have not led a life of privilege, but I have been privileged to have had these experiences. There is nothing on this list that is earth-shattering, nor is there anything that changed humanity. But individually and collectively, these moments in time have changed me in ways seen and unseen. They have moved me to tears and made me cry with delight. Trite as it may sound, I have had a wonderful life.

More later. Peace.

 

Itzhak Perlman performing Massenet’s “Meditation from Thais,” a song that I performed in recital at Virginia Wesleyan College.

 

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

JS Sargent Repose_Nonchaloire

John Singer Sargent’s “Repose” (Nonchaloir), oil on canvas, 1911: This is how I felt yesterday 

“Sadness is always the legacy of the past; regrets are pains of the memory.” ~ Author Unknown

“Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose. ” ~ The Wonder Years

Well, yesterday was an eventful day, so to speak. We found out that one of the avenues of employment that Corey was pursuing is unavailable. Big disappointment there. I really thought that that part of the plan was going to work. Perhaps that’s why I shouldn’t be optimistic: It always ends up smacking me in the head.

Speaking of being smacked in the head, have to say that so far, the massive doses of magnesium are not helping with the usual morning headache. Each morning when I awaken, I have a headache, not a migraine, just a tightness. I don’t know if I am grinding my teeth, but I don’t think so. Corey would have told me by now if I am grinding. So each morning I get up and take 800 mg of ibuprofen and two Sudafed. This usually helps somewhat as I think that part of the reason is my fall allergies kicking in and causing sinus pressure. Oh well.

Another interesting not good thing that happened yesterday is that I had a minor breakdown. Let me explain.

hampelmann
Hand-painted Bear Hampelmann from Germany

I was looking for something for Alexis that I had been keeping for her. I had thought that it was in the small lockbox in which we keep our passports, birth certificates, etc., but it wasn’t there. Then I thought that I might have put it with her stuff from when she was a baby. I pulled down everything in the top left of my closet as that is where I store the things from the kids’ earlier days.

For example, I have a huge Raggedy Ann that Alexis’s Aunt Ann made Alexis for Christmas one year. The handwork on this doll is amazing. I kind of feel sorry for all of the grandkids, nieces and nephews who came along after Alexis. Everyone was tired of making handmade presents by then. I mean, for the first five years of her life, Alexis was it in the family, so she received handmade Christmas ornaments, dolls, cross-stitched pictures, you name it.

Anyway, Raggedy Ann and a much smaller Raggedy Andy are stored in that part of the closet, waiting for the day if/when Alexis has her own children. I also have a bag of puppets from Germany. They are called hampelmann, which are hand-painted puppets of sorts. Alexis had about seven in all, and they used to hang over her changing table. I would use them to entertain her, and then later, her siblings.

(Aside: Today when I got home from picking Brett up from school, the Pluto hampelmann had been eviscerated, torn limb from limb. I’m pretty sure that Tillie did it as she was the only dog that was hiding from me.)

“Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.” ~ Willa Cather

Sock Doll
Example of a handmade sock doll

Back to the closet. I have kept just a few pieces of clothes from each child, favorite shirts, etc., and I have a bag for each one. There is also a plastic cubed storage container in which I have put several things that belonged to Caitlin. Well, in pulling everything down from the closet, this container also came down.

I made the mistake of opening the container and opening the box that was on top inside of the container. This box holds several things from that hospital, including a sock doll that slept with Caitlin the entire time she was in the hospital.

Let me back up. I’m not a craftsperson. Never have been. But while I was teaching at ODU during that semester in which Caitlin was in the hospital, several of my students brought in things for her. My most cherished gift is a sock doll that one of my student’s mothers made especially for Caitlin. These sock dolls have been around for centuries. They have been called hush-a-bye dolls because mothers used to give them to their babies to keep them quiet in church.

Anyway, I took the doll in my hands, and that was pretty much as far as I got for the next hour. Corey walked in, took a look at the things spread on the bed, and immediately knew what had happened.

“Love lost is still love. It takes a different form, that’s all. You can’t see their smile or bring them food our tousle their hair . . .But when those senses weaken, another heightens. Memory. Memory becomes your partner. You nurture it. You hold it. You dance with it. Life has to end. Love doesn’t.” ~ Mitch Albon

I came across an article about two weeks ago on a syndrome that some psychiatrists and mental health care researchers are trying to have approved for insertion into the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association). The disorder is called prolonged grief disorder, or something like that. PGD is a disorder in which the individual simply cannot get over the loss of a loved one within the “normal” time periods.

PGD is different from depressive disorder, and currently grief is not included in the DSM. In one article, researchers contend “that PGD meets DSM criteria for inclusion as a distinct mental disorder on the grounds that it is a clinically significant form of psychological distress associated with substantial disability.”

Apparently, PGD occurs when grief following lingers and become a serious health problem.

I wish someone would have asked me. I could have told them that years ago. I know that my grief is not normal. I have known that forever. It manifests itself unexpectedly, sometimes mildly, sometimes to the point at which I am completely paralyzed. Granted, I do not have these hour-long crying jags everyday or even every month. But I can count on having at least one Caitlin/Dad related episode in a year.

I really don’t need a psychoanalyst to tell me that my bereavement periods are longer than most people. I do not need confirmation that the pain should not be as acute as it still it. And I will freely admit that even I am astounded by just how severely I am affected when it happens.

I also know that a lot of the reason that my grief has hung around for so long is directly attributable to my feelings of guilt over both of their deaths. I had to make the decision on whether or not it was time for Caitlin, and I don’t know that I will ever be able to view that as not being questionable: Was it time? Should I have waited? With my dad, the guilt arises over the fact that I wasn’t with him when he died, even though I had promised him that I would be there.

“Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.” ~ Cicero

Logically, you don’t have to tell me that I should have let go a long time ago, or point out my inability to let go. I know all of this. But holding that small, soft doll I could swear that it still smelled of her essence. I know that that is not possible, but grief and despair do funny things to a psyche.

I did look a little more in the storage case: I found the blue smocked dress that I have talked about, which was a real surprise as I have believed for many years that that particular dress is with Kathleen, along with the other dresses that I sent her. I also found the dress that Caitlin was wearing when she had her one and only portrait taken.

Black Patent Leather Mary Janes
Black Patent Leather Mary Janes

Eventually, I was able to put everything away, and Corey put the box back in the top left of the closet. The rest of the things that I pulled down are still in a pile in front of the closet. My accidental encounter with the past left me depleted, bereft, numb.

Too much at once. I’ll get to the rest soon. I think that I am saving it until I can actually enjoy the contents of these bags and boxes. After all, they are filled with items that recall good memories—like Alexis’s tiny Virginia Tech t-shirt. That made me smile.

So I’ll go through the rest, probably tomorrow, refold, repack, and replace on the shelf. I’ll take the time to bring to mind some of the good memories that are associated with these things: Brett’s baby blankets, the various humpelmann, Eamonn’s little cap from the National Zoo, Alexis’s Mary Janes. I find myself smiling inwardly even now as I type about these things. And that’s a good thing.

At times, I can balance with unbearable with the wonderful, the heart-wrenching with the endearing, which only proves that I am human after all. And even if it’s a lie, I will try to believe that it will be all right.

 

More later. Peace.

 

Lives in Pieces: Vale et memini (Goodbye and I Remember)

Note: this entry was originally posted in January. I am reposting parts 1-3 since so much time has passed between those entries and part 4, which I will post tomorrow.

Part One: Young and Seemingly Immortal

This is the story of three friendships, four little girls, and a box of many beautiful dresses.  It spans over two decades, four cities, and touches countless individuals. Two of the key people in this story are gone now, taken too soon by similar circumstances. One was my daughter, and one was my friend. Both live on in the memory of the dresses. This is the story of  lives left in pieces of fabric from those dresses and how one person has pieced the story together with words, and another person has sewn the story together with thread and fabric, and how both have lost sleep, time, and ultimately, pieces of themselves. This is memento mori and memento amor.

This is the tale of how two women have attempted to complete a Viking story that began long ago.

I once had a very dear friend named Pat Swann. Pat had long brown hair and a big smile. Pat and I first met when we were working at our part-time jobs in a steak house in Norfolk, Virginia. She had worked there for a while, and she took me under her wing and helped me out when I first started. She took karate classes in college, and on the night before her wedding, she threw her fiance over her shoulder with one hand. We all laughed until we cried. Pat had the ability to make people laugh effortlessly. She was incredibly intelligent, hard-working, and did not suffer fools gladly.

I was the maid of honor at her wedding, which was a lovely outdoor affair on her in-law’s land, and she reciprocated the honor at my first wedding. I remember that she had just given birth to her first daughter two months before my wedding, and she was worried about how she would look, but she absolutely glowed. And I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else standing beside me on that day.

Before I got married and went to graduate school at Virginia Tech, Pat and I car pooled to Old Dominion University where she was working on dual degrees in German and Education, and I was working on my bachelor’s in English. During these years we became very close, and when I married my first husband, Pat and her husband Winn were among our best friends. My ex-husband used to go running with Winn, and then we would have cookouts at their townhouse in Virginia Beach. We had parties at our small apartment, and Pat and Winn were always there.

When Paul and I moved to northern Virginia for my big corporate job transfer, we made a few friends, one of whom is integral to this story, but Pat and I remained close. So it was only natural that she was very excited when I became pregnant with my first child. She had already had her two daughters, beautiful girls; one looked more like Pat, and one looked more like Win, which is how it often happens in families with more than one child. Pat was tremendously helpful in calming my first-time mother fears, and she donated a lot of things to the cause because Paul and I were really just starting out.

Pat and Winn and their two daughters eventually bought a bigger house in an older suburban area of Virginia Beach, and when we moved back from Alexandria, we continued with our visits and family parties. We bought or own house in the suburbs of Norfolk and settled into our own version of the predictable “American Dream.”

Unfortunately while we were away, Pat had been diagnosed with a brain tumor; luckily, it was operable, and she seemed to bounce back fairly well. I’ll say this about her, she was one of those people who, even though she had a cutting wit, was genuinely cheerful. I remember that she smiled a lot, and she had a chipped tooth right in the front that she never got fixed, even though she could have, because she felt like she wouldn’t be herself if she changed it. That was Pat: unpretentious, genuine.

The first chance we had to visit her after her illness, I brought her a silk scarf to wear where her hair had fallen out. She protested that it was much too fancy for her. Plain cotton bandanas were just fine. After all, she was certain that her hair would grow back, and she was right. Almost all of it did grow back except for a few places near the front. It was darker, but it was there.

After the incident with her tumor, Pat, who had planned to teach full-time once her girls were older, stayed at home for a while, substituting on occasion, and it seemed that she and Winn had a really good life. Of course there were the usual problems for a family of four with one income, but overall, I always looked on them as an incredibly well-suited couple. Pat’s near-fatal experience had seemed to bring them even closer, and for all appearances, they really were a typical family of four living in the suburbs.

white-and-lavendar-smocked-dressWhen Alexis turned around three, Pat brought out all of these lovely dresses that her daughters had worn when they were younger. Most were presents from her mother-in-law. They were beautiful smocked dresses, with lace around the sleeves, and Peter Pan collars. So many dresses in so many colors. Pat offered them to me, and of course, I accepted. I was actually a little naive, though, because it never occurred to me that she might be offering to sell me the dresses, which she was, but I didn’t find that out until much later, and I was chagrined by my thoughtlessness.

Pat, being the generous person that she was, never said anything to me. She just let me take the armload of dresses home. Most looked as if they had only been worn once or twice. They were very feminine dresses, pale greens, pinks, small floral prints with white pinafores. Alexis looked beautiful in them. She always liked to wear dresses and to be dressed up, that is until the second grade when she had an incident on the playground that caused her dress to flip over and her underwear to show. After that, she didn’t want to wear dresses any more. I didn’t find this out until years later.

But as usual, I am digressing.

My mother and I also bought Alexis dresses, even though she didn’t really need them, and my mother-in-law made her some beautiful dresses as well. So by the time I gave birth to Caitlin when Alexis was four, the collection of dresses was really quite overwhelming, and far too much for one little girl. And again, many of them still looked as if they had only been worn once or twice because in fact, they had.

I have so many pictures of Alexis in these different dresses with her long hair, light brown, pulled back with bows, a big smile on her face. We used to have her portrait made at least twice a year so that we could give pictures to all of the family. She was the first grandchild on both sides of the family, and it was obvious in how much attention she was paid. She wasn’t a brat, but she was precocious. She was a very petite child, although her birth weight was average. And her coloring favored her father: she was fairer than I, and interestingly, as she got older, we noticed that she had two different eye colors: one was more green, and one was more grey/blue.

Caitlin was her opposite. Eager to be born, I had to go on bedrest with my second pregnancy, and Caitlin arrived three weeks early. She was a bigger baby, and she was born with a head full of almost black hair and dark eyes. She had very chubby arms and legs in comparison to Alexis’s very skinny ones. Like Pat and Winn’s two daughters, ours were opposites: one looking more like her father, and one looking more like her mother, at least in coloring.blue-smocked-dress1

My friend Kathleen came down from northern Virginia for my baby shower for Caitlin, which we had to have at my house because of my bedrest. It was at this shower that I received the cradle that I had really wanted so that I could put my baby girl at the foot of my bed and rock her to sleep at night. Pat was at my shower as well. I remember wearing an electric blue maternity dress that my mother-in-law had made for me. I felt wonderful, very much at peace with myself and the world. I experienced none of the fears I had had with my first pregnancy. In fact, it was probably the most at peace I have ever felt in my entire life.

At the time, both Paul and I worked at the medical school in Norfolk, and everyone in his office gave him a huge baby shower. I remember this because Paul came home with so many presents, including more dresses. I remember this beautiful sleeveless, baby blue one with smocking on the front. Funny the things you remember after so long.

end of part 1