It’s All Just Stuff (Mary’s Teacups)

I thought about Mary’s teacups continually as I cleared out my father’s home following his death.

My late mother-in-law, Mary Chifos, had the most marvelous set of teacups. Each of the six cups displayed a single flower on both saucer and cup exterior, as well as within the teacup itself. But the loveliest thing about each of these teacups was that cup and saucer were each fashioned to resemble the flower displayed. The daffodil cup was formed into the trumpet of the flower, with the saucer its crown; the rose cup and saucer were gently sculpted into the shape of petals.

Mary, who loved to give dinner parties, always served after-dinner coffee in those cups. I usually chose the rose teacup for my beverage, appreciating my coffee even more when served in her beautiful china.

But Mary became ill with the utter devastation that is Alzheimer’s disease, and I, by then divorced from her son, had no say in her care. Her lovely little apartment was abandoned, along with most of her things. I never knew what became of her exquisite tea set—the cups that should have been left, if not to me, then to my daughter, Mary’s only grandchild.

I thought about those teacups continually when, throughout the first months of 2022, I endured the difficult process of clearing out my father’s home after his death. Dad was not precisely a hoarder, but disposing of 58 years worth of accumulated household goods and personal possessions is, nevertheless, a substantial effort. It’s a recipe stirred together of packing to move an entire household, blended with nostalgia, and spiced with pinches of grief, disbelief, and sometimes even wrath. Every possible bit of disorder and disorganization is on high display, infuriating to the nth degree (“Dad! For the love of God and little green apples, why did you save EVERY checkbook register from 1964 onward? Why were none of your personal papers filed, so that we could locate the information we need?!”)

There were many things that had been undoubtedly precious to my Dad, but meant nothing to us, his survivors, as well as numerous items that were just the opposite. Not being Roman Catholic, I cared nothing for the silver-and-crystal rosary I discovered in his bedside table, and gifted it to a devout family friend. But I was delighted to have a set of inexpensive turquoise water glasses that he didn’t even use, but which matched my tableware.

I suppose, in the end, that’s what it all comes down to: not the financial value of a possession, but whether it is valued, and by whom. Mary cherished her teacups, and I, had they been given to me, would have done so, also. But the people who inherited them cared nothing for the set. I suppose they were dispersed to a charity or resale shop.

Mary Ellen Set

I, meanwhile, have spent years searching for and collecting similar cups, never finding the precise teacups that were Mary’s, yet reassembling a comparable set in her memory and honor; treasuring them, as she did hers.

But the experience of losing items I would have prized, coupled with that of sifting through nearly 60 years’ worth of my father’s accumulated detritus, has caused me to look at my own home and possessions with a very different eye, and to remember my grandmother’s remarks after having to clean out the home of her three sisters when the last of them passed away. Determined that no one would ever have to endure what she had done in emptying that house, Grandma began to organize her personal property. She collected music boxes; now she went through the entire collection and wrote on the underside of each the name of the person who had given it to her, so that upon her death each could be returned to the giver. Grandma cleaned out paperwork and told trusted people (and, sadly, in one case, someone who could not be trusted) where her few valuable possessions were hidden.

Now I, taking a leaf from my Grandmother’s book, and remembering the all-too-recent experience of cleaning out my father’s home and property, have begun the arduous process of organizing and clearing my own personal possessions. Tons of paperwork has already been shredded, and books sent to a charity shop. A huge box of photos awaits examination, to be pared down to the most precious few that might mean something to my survivors. Notes have been appended to a few books, explaining why they meant something to me, or whether they might have actual monetary value. Information that my survivors might need has been organized and filed.

This will be, I realize, a long, slow process, and one that requires constant upkeep: to make my home orderly for those who will, once I am gone, have to sift through everything I owned. And, with the exception of (I hope) my written works, and no matter what I annotate or explain, I know that they will decide to keep only what is truly meaningful to them, personally.

For now I truly understand that, in the end, no “thing” has importance unless it is appreciated and cherished. In the final estimation, it’s all just stuff.

If you found something you liked in this post, then please consider scrolling to the Archives at the bottom of this page, and reading “A Memory Walk” from September 11, 2019. And, as always, feel free to re-post this blog, with attribution, elsewhere.

Ghost Kitty Walks…

If you don’t believe, I don’t expect this essay to convince you.

On the night my father died, the ghost of my dead cat came to comfort me.

If you don’t believe in survival, or spirits, I know that sentence will have you rolling your eyes, or even laughing derisively. To me, however, it is simple, verifiable fact; undeniable personal experience. Bella, who was always my comfort cat—“The more you pet me, the better you’ll feel”–came to care for me as I grieved, reminding me that her continued existence proved that my father, too, survived.

My brother had called me with the sad news at about 9:30 that Sunday night. I was shocked; we’d been preparing to initiate hospice care for our Dad the very next day. I’d anticipated more time—weeks, at least, maybe months. But Dad had, after chatting amiably with the aide at his assisted living facility, indicated that he was going to go to sleep. Twenty minutes later, that same aide found him gone.

A relative who had also been involved in Dad’s care hurried to my home to spend the night. I was indescribably grateful for her presence: grief shared is grief halved. Finally, around midnight, we went to our beds. I did not anticipate sleeping much, if at all, but I turned out the light and pulled the covers up, sliding onto my left side as I usually do when preparing for sleep.

Now, I’m well acquainted with that “almost like being touched” feeling when the bedcovers, pulled just so over one’s back, move eerily, usually in sequence with one’s breathing. It’s a familiar, if unnerving experience. But it is distinct from the feeling (well-known to any cat owner) of a cat who, wanting attention, begins to pick at the blankets: “Pet me!” Since Bella’s passing only one of my three cats, Zoe, was in this habit—and I really preferred it to her other habit, that of getting in my face and howling like a lost soul crying to Heaven from the Gates of Hell! So when the “pick-pick-pick” began, I wearily reached my hand backwards toward the small of my back to stroke Zoe and get her to stop.

My hand touched nothing. There was no cat there. I reached further around, all over that side of the bed, in fact, but could not find her. Puzzled, I sat up and switched on the light.

There were no cats in the room. The bedside lamp cast its light into the hallway, also. None of my cats were in the hall.

And then I understood.

“Bella,” I said quietly, “Mommy’s okay. She’s sad, but she’s okay. But thank you for taking care of me.”

Then, turning out the light, I slid back beneath the blankets and, surprisingly, slept for an hour. Waking, though, I knew sleep would not easily return. So I plumped the pillows and turned onto my back, staring at a ceiling faintly illuminated by ambient light seeping through the curtains from the distant interstate highway.

And then I felt it again. Impossibly (because my bed has an iron bedstead against which my pillow and head butted up, leaving only a smidgen of room, certainly not enough for a four-legged animal to stand), I felt it: “pushy paws” kneading the top of my head, rustling through my hair. As if a full-grown cat, perched in a spot not large enough for a newborn kitten, was kneading against my scalp. Wide awake, I lay there, feeling that comforting, uncanny massage for several minutes, before, once again, reaching up a hand to touch…nothingness. No kitty. No kneading paws. Only the cold iron headboard and the top of my pillow.

And I smiled again. “Bella,” I whispered again, “it’s okay. Mommy’s going to be all right. But thank you for taking such good care of me.”

In the difficult days and nights that followed—making arrangements for my father’s funeral; going to his assisted living facility to pack and remove his things; and lying, wakeful, night after night, I wondered if my best beloved, lost little cat would come to me again. But she, having done her job and done it well, did not return, instead going on to whatever busied her there in Bubastis, the great citadel of the cats in the Egyptian afterlife of Amenti, where she was worshipped and adored.

As I say, for anyone who does not believe, this epistle will be something to mock; to laugh at long and scornfully. But for me, just as on the night my grandmother died and came, impossibly, to surround me with love in a space and at a time when no one could have been there—to me, it was just one more brick on the wall of proof that we do, indeed, go on; that we continue; and that love will not, does not, could not ever die.

The title of this essay is drawn from an earlier post, the poem “Ghost Kitty Walks”, October 30, 2017, about the little ghost cat who has always lived in my home, and with whom all my other cats play. You can find that post in the archives.

Seasons of Light, Seasons of Darkness

§  Parties. Death.  The two will forever be inextricably intertwined when I remember the year 2019. §

As I pointed out in a 2019 essay (The Name of My Year, January 30, 2019), most of us find that the years slip by in our memories not by a numerical designation but with a verbal title recalling events pertinent to us: The Year Mom Died. The Year Amanda Was Born. The Year of the Flood, the Tornado, the Hurricane. The Year I Bought the Condo. The Year of My Divorce. The Year of Job Hell. These titles lend a richness and flavor to our memories as no numerical equivalent could possibly ever do.

It’s especially true that the years since my retirement have become a series of chapter titles in the book of my life. Beneath each follow subtitles and paragraphs of meaning and explanation, tracing details and events quite unrelated, one would think, to that chapter title. I tick them off across my fingers as The Year I Retired, followed by The Year of the Cookbooks. Hard on their heels follows The Year of the Wedding, and then My Dickens Year (which is subtitled The Year of Cancer and of Morrigan’s Birth: Season of Light; Season of Darkness.)

And so now, looking back, I realize I have invested 2019 with a macabre little title by which I will forevermore recall it: A Year of Parties and Death.

Parties… Twice now, I’ve thrown myself my own birthday party, once for my 60th and then for my 65th birthdays. Milestones, these, that I felt should be marked, so, following the lead of an elderly relative who’d done so for her own 80th birthday, I didn’t wait for someone else to do it; I threw myself a party. For my 60th birthday, I decked myself out in a red hat and purple shirt and called all my women friends to come celebrate with me at my home with food and cake and friendship and gossip and laughter. Placing candles on my cake that bore wild animal markings—tigers and leopards and cheetahs—to represent the courage and strength with which I hoped to begin the final decades of my life, I blew them out with gusto.

IMG_20190228_072333378_HDR (2)But in 2019, my 65th birthday was different. As I recounted in My Totally Un-Grownup Coloring and Tea Party, having survived uterine cancer the year before, I wanted something simply fun. Thus, gathering family and friends together again, I invited them to dive into the childhood pleasures of coloring books and tea parties. Blessed with fine weather and great food, the party was simply wonderful.

Six months later found another major party in my sights: my first grandchild’s first birthday party. My daughter chose a luau theme, so I shopped for every coconut cup, grass skirt, and flamingo-decorated plate that was to be found in the mile square.IMG_1162 We invited everyone, simply everyone, renting a shelter house at a local park for the event. Again, we were blessed with wonderful weather and food and fun. It was a magnificent day.

Two very special parties, then.

And so many transitions to the next life.

One by one, they left this earth: former coworkers and their spouses—like me, older people whose deaths were perhaps not unexpected, but brought home to me the fragility of each day that I still draw breath. The passing of a dear friend’s elderly grandmother just prior to the holiday season. The terrible loss of a young life when the grandson of a former coworker was shot to death. The sudden death of a friend of many years in an auto accident. The painful, soul-searing loss, too early, too soon, of a young life, when the 30-year-old son of an friend died alone in his home of an asthma attack.

So many times during 2019 I received the phone calls or e-mails or sat in shock, as someone told me of yet another passing.

Parties. Death.

The two will forever be inextricably intertwined when I remember the year 2019.

Dickens said it perfectly: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

And now I wonder—oh, how I wonder!—what my year of 2020 will be titled.

 

A Memory Walk

§  I hope that others will share the idea and take up the custom of a Memory Walk for the friends and family members they have lost.  §

Last Thursday afternoon my daughter, Amanda, and I, taking little Morrigan Lynn with us, went on a Memory Walk for our late and deeply loved relative, Mary Ellen Chifos, once my mother-in-law, Amanda’s grandmother, and the great-grandmother that Morrigan will never know.

We had been planning to do this since Mary’s passing in January, 2015, but, as I have been heard to say, life sometimes gets in the way of actually living. When the weather was fine enough for this outdoor activity, tasks and necessities intervened, as did major events such as buying and moving into a new home, cancer, surgeries, kidney stones, job changes, pregnancy, birth, new motherhood…. It didn’t matter. We knew that the Memory Walk would happen eventually, precisely when it was supposed to do so. At any rate, we knew that Mary, comfortable in the next realm, understood our delay.

And now, having completed this journey, I think it was all for the best that so much time elapsed between Mary’s passing from Alzheimer’s and the day of our Memory Walk, for in the intervening years, we’d released so much grief. We were finally able to recall with pleasure the lovely and gracious, spiritual, intelligent, and broad-minded woman who was in this lifetime Mary Ellen Chifos. Mary and Sadie_20190903_0001

We went to Brown County (Nashville, Indiana) for this event. Mary, you see, passionately loved this area. She felt that the State park and its surrounding environs were a little slice of heaven, divvied out by a gracious Divinity to enhance Indiana. Decades previously, she had actually moved to the location for a brief time during a personal crisis. Gathering up her little dachshund , she’d gone to live in a small apartment there. Only the dearth of available jobs induced her to leave Nashville and move back to Indianapolis. But she would, during the next decades, return to both the small city and the park over and over again, finding there the peace her soul sought.

So it was Brown County that her granddaughter and I chose to visit while recalling our lost one. We ventured out to the shops that she loved, ate at her favorite restaurant, The Hob Nob, and searched for but failed to locate the small art gallery that recalls so much of Nashville’s bohemian past as the Brown County Art Colony, the avant-garde collective formed in the 1920s. And as we rambled, we talked about Mary and remembered her as she once was, long before Alzheimer’s robbed her of her vivacious personality. We laughed and smiled, remembering, and occasionally felt the bright sparkle of a tear.

IMG_20190905_075648497I carried with me roses in varying colors, one for each decade of Mary’s life, and handed them out to random strangers along our way. Each rose was tied with a simple strip of paper explaining that these flowers were being given to the memory of our lost loved one. Mary adored flowers and grew them by the basketful; she would have approved the gesture, seeing the smiles put on the faces of complete strangers at being the recipients of an unexpected floral gift. The 84-year-old parking attendant, receiving the first rose, related to us that, at her age, there are few contemporaries left to mourn when someone passes.  A young clerk at one of the boutiques said she would save her rose to give that night to her mother, suffering from cancer.  The lady who helped us try moccasins on Morrigan’s chubby little feet, receiving her rose, was taken with the concept of the Memory Walk and said she couldn’t wait to share the idea.

Now that we have finally completed our Memory Walk for Mary, experiencing the way in which it revives special memories, I find myself wishing that others might take up the custom, proceeding on a Memory Walk for friends and family members they have lost. Perhaps they will find some small gift,  something special and pertinent to their loved ones, to bequeath to random strangers along their way, putting a smile on faces, lifting hearts, and substituting joy in the place of sorrow, for that is a true celebration of life.

And if it should happen that someone walks for me one day, I hope they will find a park, green and growing, but also filled with playgrounds for children—someplace simply  teeming with life and joy. I hope they will carry with them my favorite pink roses, one for each decade of my life, each one tied not just with a note stating my name, but with a luscious, deep, dark chocolate, the food with which I hope the streets of Heaven are paved.

But, above all, it’s my dearest hope that they will talk: walk and talk, remembering me; remembering me with laughter. Not with tears; never tears. With laughter.

 

 

Once More, a Talking Stick

§  For those unfamiliar with the practice, a Talking Stick Ceremony allows survivors to speak at a memorial service without the formality of rising to address a crowd. Instead, a simple thing—a stick, a branch, a piece of wood, decorated to represent the lost individual, is passed from hand to hand, so those seated may speak a few words in kind memory. §

I have created Talking Sticks now for several friends and acquaintances who have passed: Debbe, Mary, Terry, and now Cathy. I did not create one for my mother (see the post My Mother’s Talking Stick, November 17, 2017) only because I was, as I knew I would be, the single person to speak that night. Speaking for a woman who had few mourners, though, was far more difficult than assuming the responsibility for creating a Talking Stick to be spoken through by several people who will be missing someone.

Rather than being difficult or hurtful, there is instead great beauty and release in being the person who is privileged to create another’s Talking Stick. It is a physical meditation, allowing one to think through the value of a friend or loved one’s life, and to say farewell by determining the representative talismans or totems to be included.

IMG_20190725_152444340For Cathy, who loved all things natural and green and growing, the talismans on her Talking Stick (although of necessity made mostly of non-organic substances) will be representative of those passions. A small tree branch, sanded and finished with clear lacquer, will be wound with silk vine to symbolize her history as a farmer. A packet of flower seeds called “Bee Feed” and a rubber honeybee will signify one of the last things she ever spoke about to her friends in our Monday night meditation group: that she was sick with worry over the plunging honeybee population. A copper flower will further denote her delight in the world of growing things, while a silver tree of life will stand for the hundreds of trees she planted in her lifetime. And because she rode her bike everywhere, dying just after returning from having enjoyed a ride with her biking group, a bicycle charm will be prominently displayed.

Having created it, I will once more carry the Talking Stick to a friend’s memorial service, explain its creation, and then encourage those there to pass the stick from hand to hand, each one speaking a pleasant, special, or humorous memory of our friend. I’ll remind them to begin their memory with “I remember Cathy”, because, as the ancient Egyptians believed, if our name is remembered, our soul continues; to speak lovingly or caringly, for if their relationship was rocky or difficult, this is not the time to discuss those problems—respect for the dead really being only consideration for others present who are not in a fit state to hear that sort of bitterness. I’ll mention quietly that, if they haven’t anything pleasant or kind or humorous to say about the soul who has gone on, then there is no shame in merely holding the Talking Stick silently for a moment before handing it off to the next person. Their very silence allows us to acknowledge their own special pain, and serves to remind us that we are all complex creatures; that our view of a person is not necessarily the one which is shared by all who knew her or him.

And when the memorial is completed, I will gift the Talking Stick to the person who best loved the deceased, so that they might do with it as they please: keep it, cherish it, burn it, bury it—whatever is best for them. It will have served its purpose, which is only to evoke memories to be shared, and make it easy for loved ones to recap a life; to help us say goodbye.

Four times, four times now, I have created a Talking Stick; stood to explain its significance, spoken the formal words of the Crossing Ceremony, and, after the memorial,  passed the Talking Stick on to the person who best loved the one now lost.

Someday I will be the one who is being remembered as the Talking Stick is passed from hand to hand. I wonder what talismans will be on my Talking Stick. I wonder who will create mine.

In Memory Of:

 Debbe Boswell
Mary Cole
Terry Robare
Cathy Dawson

I Want to Know the End of My Story

Shortly after my brush with cancer, the mother of one of my daughter’s oldest friends passed away, dying in her sleep. Marilyn had gone through surgery a few months earlier, but was recovering, so her unexpected death was shocking to everyone–not in the least to me, for she was seven years younger than I.

That event, combined with my own experience of a potentially terminal illness, has left an indelible impression on me.

I’ve never been one of those people who go blithely through adult life, never once considering the reality of their own mortality. As a new mother, one of my first actions was to write a will and name both a  guardian and trustee for my child, should she lose both her father and me.  As the newly-divorced mother of a young teenager, purchasing a new car, I was easily persuaded to add the extra few dollars to my monthly payment for insurance that would pay off the car if I died, reducing any debt that might be left to my daughter. Throughout my working years, for much the same reason, I carried all the additional life insurance my employer offered,  because I might die at any time, and my child would need the money.

Shortly after retiring, having researched the laws concerning the subject in the state where I live, I purchased an urn for my own ashes, finding a lovely, large lidded vase at (of all places) a flea market. Although I’ve made it clear to all and sundry that I’d prefer my ashes be scattered, I’d seen the “temporary urn” provided for  my mother’s cremation, and was appalled; it looked like a Hershey’s cocoa box!  One way or another, I decided, I was going out in style. Still, I wasn’t about to have my family paying the inflated prices of a mortuary urn. And so my crackle-glazed, bird of paradise-decorated ceramic vase reposes on my closet shelf, carefully marked as to its future use.

And then there was the wracking asthma attack in the middle of the night that had, just a few months prior to my cancer diagnosis, come close to taking me across the Veil. The realization that night that, “I might not make it out of this one!” had dismayed but not shocked me; nor did the tumble down my stairwell a few months later, which might have had such terrible results.

However much I may want to stick around for awhile yet, I am completely comfortable with the knowledge of my own mortality.

But, as I said in a previous post (I Want to Know the End of the Story, 07/06/18), I do want to know.  I want to know the end of my story.

I am the person who often flips to the final pages of my mystery novel to read the dénouement.   I can’t stand waiting to see if I’ve actually fingered the murderer.  During Downtown Abbey’s first run, I knew about the upcoming death of character Matthew because I’d sneakily read a British website describing the episode long before the show aired in America. I always want to know the end of the story.

I once attended a lecture by a Buddhist monk who explained that we should choose the manner of our going—to meditate upon it, and to announce our choice to the universe. I found this an interesting concept, and gave it a good deal of thought, but made no decision.  Later, a friend explained that she plans to die in her sleep when she is age 85.  I admired her resolution, but I don’t want to give myself an expiration date; the Divine might have plans for me beyond what I consider a reasonable life span.

But I am incredibly well-organized and orderly, and it bothers me that so much of life, and death, is not. I do not like chaos.  I don’t like surprises.  I dislike bedlam and confusion.

And so I am finally meditating upon the manner of my own passing, as that Buddhist monk once taught that we should do. I won’t, as my friend has done, accord myself an expiration date. But if that monk was right, and it is possible, then I want to decide what my going will someday be.

After all, as I have said once before: I want to know the end of my own story.

 

Epitaph in an Elevator

“Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone…”  Those lyrics have been running through my head continually, because it was just yesterday I learned that a former coworker, a woman whom I’d worked with long ago, had died.  This is someone who, if I hadn’t known her well, I’d at least interacted with on a daily basis over the course of several years.  Hearing of her passing made me recall, uneasily, some experiences from the long years of my working life.

Working as an administrative assistant, it was often my sad duty to pass the hat and arrange flowers or a memorial gift for a coworker who had died.  At times, when the offices I covered were quite large, I barely knew the person for whom I was making the collection. But I came often to find that each member of the office, especially those who were better acquainted with the deceased, would take a moment to share their recollections when I came to dun them for what we euphemistically termed the “Flower Fund”.  In those brief conversations, I usually learned more than I’d ever before known about the coworker who had died.

In our large agency, I also often heard snippets and snatches of information about individuals in other divisions who had passed on—people whose names I vaguely recognized, knowing nothing else about them beyond that. And so it was that I stood one day at the back of the elevator, listening, as the group of people who’d just entered discussed a coworker who’d died unexpectedly.  Not once, but multiple times that day, I found myself nearby as employees gathered in corners, discussing a woman who had passed.  I found myself so saddened and disturbed by these conversations that, arriving home that evening, I exorcised the demons of my emotional reaction by turning some of what I’d heard into a poem–a simplistic poem, but nonetheless heartfelt.

Epitaph in an Elevator

She died, oh, a week ago Sunday.
Yes, I went, and it all was so sad.
She seemed like a nice enough person.
Well, the whole thing is really too bad!

Oh, you must remember her: short gal,
sort of plump, sort of plain—sort of dull.
She worked here forever and ages,
but I can’t say I knew her at all.

I wouldn’t have known, but I needed
all those files, and that room was a mob!
She always seemed smiling and helpful.
I just wonder who’ll cover her job.

She’s dead? Well, I’ll never pretend that
it upsets me one bit. Truth to tell,
I’m sorry she didn’t die sooner!
And I hope that she’s burning in Hell.

No, I didn’t know much about her.
I just heard that she died from a fall.
She seemed like a nice enough woman,
but I just didn’t know her at all.

I heard that she died—you recall her.
Sort of quiet and plain; not too bright.
It must be so sad for her family.
Takes some time, but then they’ll be all right. 

She couldn’t have died at a worse time!
What the hell will we do with her work?
The whole thing’s just plain inconvenient.
(No, I am NOT being a jerk!)

I can’t say that I really knew her.
She just wasn’t my type. Yes, she fell.
I daresay that someone will miss her.
But I just didn’t know her that well…

All too often, the very people with whom we interact on a daily basis are those who we, indeed, don’t even try to know too well.  It’s possible that we miss so much thereby.  And that is the core of greatest sorrow about any passing.  

Not a Fan of Funerals

In memory of Terry Robare
Member of Many Hearts, One Spirit
Who Made Her Transition September 13, 2018

Despite having written previously about attending them (A Tale of Two Funerals, March 5, 2018), I’m not a big fan of funerals, especially as they are conducted in modern American society.  I find them macabre and disturbing.  I despise the trite comments: “He looks like he could just sit up and start talking to us”. No, he doesn’t.  He looks dead. “The flowers are just lovely.” Does no one remember that the original purpose of flowers and candles by the coffin was to hide the scent of decay?

I scorn remarks which transmute the character of the deceased into saintly values.  Few of us are without personality flaws, and being dead does not erase a lifetime of bad temperament, nor confer sainthood.  I cringe when listening to a minister who is not just a stranger to me, but who often barely knew the deceased, turn from eulogizing to proselytizing.  (“Hey! Think about it, people!  The old so-and-so is lying here dead, and your time is coming! So, hie yourself back into the fold, pronto!”)  I’ve even been heard to say that if anyone holds a funeral for me, I will most definitely come back and haunt them. I mean it, too.

No, for many reasons I despise funerals and can rarely be persuaded to attend one, except for the sake of speaking to a few of those who are grieving the most. Even then, my appearance at any funeral calling is brief.  Open or closed, I frankly avoid the casket, contenting myself with signing the guestbook, examining photos, or watching the life-video the family has put together, perhaps hoping that from these I might glean in-depth knowledge of  or at least a sense the essence of the life lived by the person who has passed.

Memorial services or  celebrations of life–those are another matter. Those I attend gladly, and come away, if saddened, also refreshed and satisfied. I happily attend Talking Stick ceremonies (blog post December 10, 2017, Another Talking Stick) and wakes, where I can hear stories about the life of the deceased–little things that I might otherwise  never have known. For the same reason, I am pleased to write eulogies: to share memories of the one who has passed.

That is, I think,  the true essence of saying farewell to someone who has made their journey to the other side of the Veil: their story. The little memories of a lifetime, well-lived or otherwise, that comprise that person.  The rounded viewpoint given to us about an individual when someone other than an immediate family member or minister speaks of them, for those individuals often tell stories only of the deceased’s legend.  I want to see beyond the legend and the myth to the reality of the human being: flawed, wondrous, judgmental, open, accepting, confused, contradictory, thoughtful–complete.

The ancient Egyptians believed that if our names were forgotten, our souls ceased to exist, and therefore (although they preserved the body, believing it would reanimate in the afterlife) did all they could to ensure that their names would be spoken and remembered. They were, in a sense, correct, for our names are the heading at the top of our story. And perhaps that is why I despise modern funerals: for it is not the body of our loved one which needs to be remembered; it is their story.

The Name of My Death

On January 17, 2018, I was diagnosed with uterine cancer. What followed was a pilgrimage into the heart of darkness, punctuated by bouts of unremitting fear, yet with, occasionally, a glimpse of the light of hope.  Woven in and about all this troubling passage was the heartening knowledge of a luminescent web of prayer and invocation, much of it bequeathed me by total strangers, buoying me up at my worst moments.

I have nothing but admiration for those who deal with this unbearable disease while working, or while raising a family. I had neither of those considerations to weigh upon me, something for which I am limitlessly grateful, for I know I would not have done well with either responsibility while enduring my dark night of the soul.  And while a young family to be looked after, or a career to tend to,  might have helped to keep me centered, I very much fear I could not have done justice to either while enduring my diagnosis and treatment. I recognize now that those who do so are genuine marvels: they are true superwomen and men.

But as I review the months of my confrontation with this most evil of diseases, what I most recognize now is how unprepared I was for the way in which everything—every tiny and  insignificant detail of daily living—becomes “before cancer” and “after cancer”.  Everything.  The simplest acts, the most common thoughts or behavior, come to be labeled “Prior” and “Following”.

Writing letters one day to two relatives who do not do e-mail, I realized that the stationary I was using, which I’d won in a family bingo game at Christmas, was from Before my diagnosis. I never suspected, I thought as I penned the news to my relatives, that I would be writing such dreadful news on that pretty flowered paper.

Attending the family Chinese New Year/Two Birthdays party in February, it struck me that these party plans had been made Prior. Watching a TV rerun was “first seen pre-cancer”.  Checking my scheduled blog posts became notable as “written before” and “written after”.

Before, prior, was a time of innocence, comparable to early childhood.  After, Following was a visit to the nether regions of hell.

In much the same way now, I date and file in my mind everything as “during cancer” and “cancer-free”. Turning the page on the paper calendar that hangs upon my refrigerator, I was forcibly struck by the fact that, for the first time in 2018, I was starting a month without the knowledge that I had cancer.  I had been through two surgeries, countless tests, and dozens of appointments.  I was cancer-free.  I had a 90% chance of remaining in that desirable state, having only one risk factor for recurrence.  I was, in fact, and perhaps only for the moment, one of the very fortunate few.

In life Before, cancer was a vague and troubling possibility, one which had brought sorrow to me many times, as I watched friends and family succumb to the evil. It was a fate  which I hoped to escape, but to which I gave, if you will, lip service only.

In life After, every simple ache, every pain, is now a terrifying reality. Is my aching knee simply an aging joint—or a metastasis?  Will I have to endure a recall on this year’s mammogram?  Is my breathlessness just my usual asthma, or something more serious?

Years ago, a coworker’s told me of her husband’s diagnosis of a serious but unrepairable heart disorder that could, probably would, eventually kill him. “It’s like living with death on the doorstep,” she told me in terror.

I took her hand and replied, “My dear, we all live with death on our doorstep. For  your husband, the true difference is that he knows Death’s name.”

For a brief moment, I knew the possible name of the Death who lives on my doorstep.   And while I know that each of us is terminal—that nobody is getting out of Dodge alive—I genuinely hope that the name of my Death will never be cancer.

Anger and Loss

A couple of years ago, an acquaintance passed away. We weren’t particularly close, but she was very dear to another friend of mine, the woman who’d introduced us, and so the feelings I experienced at her loss extended to my grieving friend, as well.

Debbe died, though, unnecessarily, wastefully, of medical error. So when I found myself in a blue funk on the day after her death, it took me nearly another 24 hours to comprehend why I was so upset.  I was sad that she was gone, yes; sadder still for the grandchildren whom she had been raising, and concerned for their futures, too.  I longed to comfort the friend who was most deeply feeling her loss.  But despite all these tumultuous emotions, I hadn’t known Debbe very well. I wasn’t mourning intensely.  Why, then, I wondered, was I so terribly sad?

I discussed the problem with that “other self” in my own mind (I’ve often wondered, when I’m asking myself a question, who precisely it is that I’m talking to?) Was the real cause of my distress the fact that Debbe was a couple of years younger than I?  Had her passing brought home to me the truth of my own mortality?  I didn’t think so.  I’d lost a good many acquaintances of my own age or younger in my lifetime, and had, in fact, recently spent quite a bit of time making my own end-of-life plans.  I didn’t believe that Debbe’s passing was a sudden and jarring reminder of my own mortality.

I was saddened for others, but that didn’t explain the intensity of my feelings.

Finally, after almost a day of puzzling through my feelings, I was able to put a name to them: anger. I was angry – bitterly, desperately, furiously angry, that Debbe had died due to mistakes by the medical professionals involved in her care.  She was dead due to their blithe prescribing of more and more antibiotics for longer and longer terms, until the very medications meant to heal her had turned on her immune system and destroyed it, shutting down her kidneys and killing her.

I was so bitterly, furiously angry at the wrongness of it, of a life wasted and other lives turned topsy-turvy, due to straightforward carelessness. I was outraged at negligence, at sloppiness, at inattention, in a profession in which a failure of precision literally makes the difference between life and death.

I am still angry and sad over her needless death. But my takeaway from this situation is the discovery of just how often I am so disassociated from my own feelings that I can sometimes identify them only with enormous effort.  How is it, I later asked myself, that it took me more than a day to recognize my own fury?

Naming my emotion was difficult; why it took so long is easier for me to answer: early training.  My youth was spent in a household where fury and rage were constant.  Screaming, shouting quarrels were a common occurrence.  Precious things were thrown and broken, doors were slammed until they bounced off  hinges.  Faces were slapped; punches were thrown.  Obscenities were shrieked.

But not by me. Not by my siblings.

No matter what was happening in our household, we children dared not express our anger at the situation–neither verbally or physically. Even as teenagers, with the usual adolescent tendency to smart-aleck remarks and snappishness, we were carefully restrained in our behavior.  And when I vented my fury on paper, my diary was sought out and read, and then used against me.

I learned to be very cautious of anger: to tuck it away, hidden within burning resentment; to avoid confrontation. I learned to bark in irritation over things that didn’t really matter rather than to say what had truly upset me; to fume silently.  Even through the crumbling of my 19-year marriage, I can recall only two occasions where I  was driven to shouting at my husband.

None of this is healthy or conducive to good relationships, but unlearning such early training is difficult. Just how difficult was driven home to me when I found myself unable to identify my anger over a friend’s needless death.

Anger will always frighten me, will always be a specter to be carefully controlled. Yet perhaps that is not entirely a bad thing.  The world might well be a safer place if more children were, from an early age, taught techniques to identify and properly deal with anger–to control its expression; to find healthy ways to express rage.

But not to learn, as I learned, to entirely deny it. Not to spend a lifetime hiding from their own rage and negating it.

I am angry over Debbe’s wasteful, needless death. And I am proud of that just and righteous anger.