Tuesday, December 31, 2013

There but for the grace of God, go I


The year is coming to an end. In less than 7 hours, we’ll usher in 2014. At our house there will be a party with chocolate fondue for the teenage friends of our daughter, a traditional celebration. Another daughter has traveled to enjoy the evening with college friends. Our son has plans with his girlfriend. Since I'm down with a cold, my husband and I will watch movies here at home. A ball will drop in New York City come midnight and millions of people will make resolutions. 

No matter how they will mark the night, over the past few days I’ve seen several references to 2013 as a year people are happy to leave behind. “Forget the past year. Here’s to a pledge to make 2014 better!” is the common theme. But I’m having a little difficulty with that sentiment. Usually excited to make personal pledges and to “start fresh”, I have mixed feelings today.

The truth is, although we are richly blessed, the past three years have been incredibly challenging for our family. In 2011 our family’s sense of security was shaken by an unexpected outside force we had naively invited into our home and in the midst of that circumstance, our 16 year old dog Charlie died after suffering from dementia and seizures. It was hard to let go of our dear pet, but we knew we were so lucky to have had her as part of our lives for so long. A few months later, we found joy again when we adopted another pup, Ziva, a lovable, affectionate black lab. 

Then in 2012, while on vacation at camp, we learned Eric’s Mom was losing her battle with cancer. We came together as a family, meeting often at her home over the next few months. Barbara died two days before Thanksgiving, one day before our son Paul’s 13th birthday. It was, obviously, a sad time. The holidays were strange for us all. But as the ball dropped and 2013 began, I thought, “This next year will be a better year”. It certainly appeared to be going well over the winter months. Our first born Sydney was doing great as an RA at her university. In January, Eric and I brought Emma to New York to tour one of her prospective colleges. The next month Emma and I flew to North Carolina where we spent time at another school. It was thrilling to witness Emma narrowing her search for a college. Then in March, I was asked to take the leading role in a local community theater production. As summer approached, I was excited to share that experience with my parents who we were scheduled to visit with for our annual two-three weeks at camp. Emma graduated from high school in early June. A few days later, my world flipped upside down.

My 85 year old father had a massive heart attack on the morning of June 15th and within a few hours, he passed away. I’ve already written of how that affected me. To say my Dad was my hero is an understatement. In the past six months, I’ve grieved to the depths of my soul. The grief has been complicated by other factors. I have struggled but I have also held my head high, proud of the man my father was, secure in the love and the faith he raised me with, and determined to live my life with honesty and positivity.

Each individual life is touched with sorrow and joy. Mine is no different. The darker days help us better appreciate the brighter ones. The hardships offer us lessons and intensify the joys, the songs after the storms. I will always refuse to dwell in adversity. I choose hope. I choose service. I choose to see the light of the sun which continues to shine.

So, as the sun begins to set on 2013, I'll probably make a few resolutions. It's in my nature to set goals and to work diligently to achieve them. However, I refuse to forget this past year or any previous year. How could I and why would I want to?! Sure, there was pain, there was sadness, and there were trials I never saw coming. But I felt the love and the grace of God in everything that occurred. And there but for the grace of God, go I...into the year of 2014. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Say My Name


A second earlier Mom had been at my bedside, saying my name. “Anne?” she’d whispered softly. My lips seemed to be glued together and I worried I wasn’t responding quickly enough. I forced the sound to emerge from my throat and it did, but it was low and mumbled. “Mmmmmooommm?”, I finally uttered, but I was too late. Mom was gone, if she’d been there at all. I knew I was now awake. 

My body was heavy from sleep, yet I felt the need to know the time. Without moving anything but my arm, I fumbled for my Iphone on my nightstand. Clicking it on I read the display. 1:47am. “Ten minutes to two” I said articulately inside my mind. I willed myself to remember the time before I dropped off to sleep. I needed to know the exact time Mom had been at my bedside. Just in case it mattered.

We’d gone to visit her thirteen hours earlier, finding her again in the lobby of the pleasant assisted living home where she’s lived for the last four months. Unlike my last visit, she did not greet me with a look of recognition this time, but sweetly accepted my hug and nodded in agreement as I introduced her grandson Paul and her son-in-law Eric. I thought of the many times I use others’ names on these visits, wishing someone would say my own name in hopes it’ll click with her. 

We moved to her private room and I had gone in, again commenting upon how pretty it appeared. Mom’s cranberry glass adorned the window sill and various pieces were placed on tables around the room. I made note of how many of them had tiny bouquets of flowers inside. The cranberry glass had never housed arrangements when it was at home. Instead the pieces had been happy to glisten in the sun of the front window panes, beautiful in their own right, not needing flowers for enhancement. 

I sat and visited with Mom and I talked, a million words a minute, or so it seemed. I strive to make her happy and it works every time. She matches my own smile, her eyes brighten. It’s remarkable to me how masterful I have become at small talk. I chuckle over this to myself every so often. Dad had loved that particular blog post I’d written a few years back about my hatred of small talk. He always loved my “globs” as he called them. Each time we visited he’d smirk, playing dumb as the children tried to teach him the correct pronunciation of the word, blog. These are the moments I hold onto, the memories that no one could ever discolor. He was proud of the writer I’d always been. “A writer, just like your mother”, he’d say. He was just as thrilled to hear I was returning to the stage to star in another musical. My number one fans, my parents always were. My greatest allies. Oh how I miss them. But, the love from parents is eternal. It’s a beautiful thing to have faith that although the clouds sometimes darken above my head, the sun will soon burn through and bring warmth again. 

It’s a beautiful thing to know who you are, what you are made of, and where you are meant to be. Some nights I am meant to be here, in bed, paralyzed with sorrow after another death of a young person from my school's community, trying desperately not to cry out to a Mom who is no longer able to speak my name with recognition, and a Dad who six months ago would have openly shared my grief. Some nights I am meant to heal myself through the tapping of my fingers upon the keyboard, trusting in the memory of my parents’ unending support of my goals and dreams, of their unconditional love, of their true understanding of my place in this world, whether on stage, online, in the classroom, in the arms of my husband and children, or on my knees giving thanks to He who sustains me.  

My body is heavy once again, in need of sleep. But as I let my head fall to the pillow, my arm is outstretched beyond the blanket. Take my hand, Lord. Cradle it within Your own. I have nothing but hours of slumber to spend with You. Tell my Dad I miss him. Tomorrow I’ll return to visit you, Mom. And we’ll smile at one another and I’ll tell you my name. And although you’ll not remember it, when I say, “I love you”, you’ll quickly tell me, “I love you too”. And that, my dear one, will be more than enough for now. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Embracing it All


The last week of November is here and the month of December is quickly approaching. I’m anticipating the bittersweet moments that will come. I am excited but also a bit concerned. I don’t want the hustle and the bustle of the holidays to consume me. I’m already missing the loved ones I’ve lost, and the world does not hesitate to tell us that the holiday season is hard on those who are grieving. I’ve already felt the lump in my throat when I spotted John Grisham’s newest book and realized that this year I could not buy it for my Dad. I will not purchase a new spatula for my Mom’s Christmas stocking either, for the first time in over 30 years. I understand. I accept this. But I do not want to feel sad for the next four or five weeks in a season sprinkled with touching television commercials. I don’t want to be pushed, rushed, or on edge trying to prepare for special meals or gift-giving, either. I’m planning to embrace these heart-string pullings that may visit from time to time. But with the longings I’ll feel, I’m hoping I’ll also have moments of great joy. I know I’ll feel my heart lightened when I get to see my two college daughters who will be home on break. There are other wonderful opportunities, hopes and dreams for the season including our family’s first trip to Florida together. So I am determined. I am vowing right here, before the weekend prior to Thanksgiving even arrives, that I will pull back and take in moments of peace and the joy that exist in this world. 
I’ll begin today, right here. Right now. Here are some of those moments of peace and joy I experienced today: 
*When my period three class and I finished our discussion of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel then watched and laughed our way through a Bugs Bunny cartoon episode of Jeckyl and Hyde. I love sharing easy-going moments like this with my teenage students.
*When I spent another lunch break laughing with five wonderful colleagues who are so very supportive of me and one another. These women are creative, caring, happy, and FUN! We have serious conversations but then something strikes us funny and we all lose it! 
*When my brother sent me a note and called me Annie Oakley. The pet name and the affection it symbolizes touches my heart.
*When I rode to work with my husband and we talked and talked and talked. What an amazing best friend he has always been. 
*When I looked at my son in the recliner with our 15 year old cat snuggled on his lap. He turns 14 years old himself tomorrow. What a beautiful boy he is. What a good kid. How incredibly lucky I am to have him. 
*Right now. I am in bed typing this on my laptop and texting back and forth with my two daughters on my iphone, while my puppy sleeps peacefully at the foot of the bed. 
Come Thanksgiving. Come Christmas. Come New Year. I am ready to embrace it all.   

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Lightly My Darling


For a few months now, I’ve been trying to understand a way to articulate how I feel myself transforming. In the days after my Dad’s sudden death, I was in survival mode. In a matter of six days I wrote his obituary, helped plan his funeral, sang at that funeral, traveled 1200 miles, attended play rehearsals, finished semester grades at work, and opened a community theater show in which I was the leading actress. The next nine days had me finishing the last of six shows, driving four hours to Rhode Island and back for my daughter’s college orientation, and cleaning the kitchen in preparation of a new countertop installation we had previously scheduled. The next month would bring a little rest before I went to care for my Mom for two weeks, but I found myself painting kitchen cabinets too. I knew I had to keep moving.

Looking back, and also acknowledging the assorted challenges the autumn months have brought, I see that as hard as it has been to feel the loss of my Dad, I have done more than survive these past five months. I have learned to walk lightly. This does not mean I don’t hurt at times. This does not mean I don’t care about serious matters. Of course I do. But I have grown to approach life differently, with deeper breaths, with God’s grace, with increased peace, and with an overall healthier perspective. Our time here can be spent stomping heavily upon the Earth--being argumentative, cynical, snappy, crabby, fearful, bitter, or angry--OR--our time can be spent working to better understand others, lending a hand, taking time to listen, seeing the good and the beautiful, breathing deeply, and exhaling in prayer and appreciation. 

******************************************************************************

It’s dark because you are trying too hard. 
Learn to do everything lightly.
Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. 
Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.

I was so preposterously serious in those days...
Lightly, lightly--it’s the best advice ever given me...
So throw away your baggage and go forward.
There are quicksands all about you, 
sucking at your feet, trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair.

That’s why you must walk so lightly. 
Lightly my darling.

---Aldous Huxley, Island

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Giggle A Day


I get the giggles. Not every day, but quite often. It happened today as I pulled away from the garage with my son in the car. My husband was approaching my van attempting to get my attention.  “Any issues?” he asked, in connection with the fact that my car had needed a jump start last night. But ahhhh, I don’t know. The look on his face, the question that was asked, my own tired self...for some reason, it all struck me funny. I stammered out an answer, “No”, and then I started to giggle. My laughter continued at the bus stop as my son and I waited for his bus to arrive. “Mom! What is wrong with you?” Paul laughed. Uncontrollable laughter and immaturity make for a fun way to start a morning. And let’s be clear. I was being the immature one.  

The giggles returned an hour later when Jared, a student in my Creative Writing class, sent me a google doc that he tried to title “November Challenge”. His IPad’s autocorrect feature somehow renamed the file, “Mover Beer Challenge”. Only Jared and I knew at first why I was giggling so much, but soon the class realized it had something to do with the document he had just sent me. The students begged one of us to tell them what was so funny, but Jared and I were both giggling. It took us a good couple of minutes to be able to share with them the source of our laughter. 

Later, when I walked into my Horrific Tales class. I decided I’d had it with the tired, quiet nature of the group. I wanted more participation, more discussion, so I began to tell them my concerns and started with, “Here’s the thing”. That’s when Keanna interrupted me, “Are you breaking up with us?” she said playfully. That was the only invitation I needed to get silly again. I announced to the class that I was indeed breaking up with them. They were too serious, too quiet. They always made me feel weird. Students immediately began to snicker and to giggle. To push them to participate more freely, I challenged them all to be weird with me, and to “make a scary sound” before we went on with our lesson. It took a little coaxing but soon there were shrieks, gasps, gutteral throat noises, bone creaking, and zombie breaths. Oh, and one very unexpected short scream (from me). And yes, there was laughter. Lots of it. 

When I think of my favorite memories involving my Mom and Dad, they are the ones where they each laughed. Dad would throw his head back and after a silent intake of air, out would come a loud chuckle. Mom was notorious for giggling so much that she’d cry tears and have trouble catching her breath. I certainly inherited that giggle gene from her, as my children can attest to. I always lose it at fast food drive-thru windows. I’ve tried to order meals and have made squeaking noises into the intercom when I can’t catch my breath long enough to speak. I once ordered “PIPSY” (Pepsi) at a decibel level only a dog could hear. 

My husband turned to me one day a few years back and said, “You laugh more heartily now. I like that”. And today at school, the teacher next door said, “Anne, you smile so much more often these days. It’s really nice to see”. I recognize it too. Maybe I’ve mellowed in recent years. The pressures and frustrations of the school system don’t affect me as they once did. I have things in proper perspective, I think. But I’ve always laughed with my children--the three at home and the 100 teens I work with each school year. And I’ve always had people comment upon my smile. Eric’s grandmother used to comment upon my easy smile. I even remember my high school English teacher telling me that my face was going to get wrinkly very early in life because my face was very expressive. I remember thinking, “What other option do I have? I’m not going to stop smiling!”

Things strike me funny every day. People make me smile. Nothing feels more satisfying to me than laughing with others. Call me naive. Call me immature. Call me foolish. Call me weird. But come on, try to join me. Get silly. Give me a smile. Lose yourself in laughter. The world’s problems can wait a couple of minutes. Reenergize. Be happy.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

On My Path

Oh Hamlet. You’ve done it again. Each year that I reread this play, I underestimate its power. Within minutes of starting class this morning, we were reading the first scene of Act I. Oh yes! The ghost of Hamlet’s father! “Oh what a fun play this is!”, I thought to myself.

And then, we began reading scene two. In scene two of Hamlet, King Claudius speaks of his new marriage to Gertrude, the widow of his brother, the former King of Denmark. He thanks everyone for their support and then turns his attention to military matters. A little further into the scene, Claudius addresses his nephew, the young Hamlet. He scolds his nephew for his “prolonged” grief over the death of his father. He condescendingly says that it, “Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, to give these mourning duties to your father, but you must know your father lost a father, that father lost, lost his...(and) to persever in obstinate condolement is a course of impious stubborness, ‘tis unmanly grief, it shows a will most incorrect to heaven, a heart unfortified, a mind impatient, an understanding simple and unschooled...”. The berating speech continues for another twenty lines. 

I knew the classroom discussion that would occur next--the inquiry over the “appropriate length of time for grief”. As predicted, my students began to comment on King Claudius’ speech to his nephew. “He thinks Hamlet should just ‘get over it’”, one student said. “He’s cold”, another remarked. One student, not quite defending Claudius, but offering another perspective said, “He’s trying to say that to lose a loved one is not uncommon, that Hamlet lost a father the way his own father lost a father and so on”. I acknowledged the truth of that fact then brought the students’ attention to the lines that signal Claudius’ belief that Hamlet’s grief is “unmanly” and the lines that suggest that those who grieve for such a prolonged period (which is not more than a month in the case of Hamlet) are not well educated, are weak-willed, and/or disrespectful to heaven. To grieve this excessively is offensive to the natural order of things, Claudius believes, and the grief should be buried, “throw(n) to earth”. The discussions that resulted from this opinion will extend to another day.

So...just how long should we mourn? The experts will say, “Take all the time you need” or speak of how we can be unexpectedly hit with a wave of emotion long after the time we think we’ve found closure. But does that mean grief has an expiration date? In respect to the research I have done on the subject, I believe there is no one proper way to grieve, no one appropriate timeframe or acceptable process. What one person considers “prolonged grief” is a touchy subject for another. Our journey with grief is individual, personal, and most importantly, is not to be judged or seen as shameful by anyone else. When others do judge, our grief may be further complicated. Why do others feel a need to find a way to abbreviate the grieving process for others? Are there societal norms that should be considered or challenged? Do some people truly go too far and “dwell on the past” or do some people actually “bury their emotions”, never truly allowing themselves to feel the sorrow fully or to hurt after a designated period of time? Doesn’t it hurt the way it does because what we had mattered? Are there levels of acceptable grief? Does someone’s sadness overtake their days or is it more that that a person’s loss travels with them as a companion as they experience daily life--the ups, the downs, the steadiness of a life that continues to move forward? Interesting questions. But I believe it’s up to the individual to decide on the answers for himself.

No one wants grief to trouble anyone in the extreme way it does the young Hamlet throughout this play. That poor kid needed a good friend, and some good books on grief, not to mention a good lawyer, for the character’s situation was greatly exacerbated by the words and actions of his treacherous uncle and confusing mother. But that leads to the story of betrayal and revenge, and that’s not the discussion I’m having here today. We’re only on Act I. Let’s stick with the subject of grief. 

Folks who know me are aware that I have been living through loss for a few years now. First a few years ago I lost my old Mom to Alzheimer’s Disease. It was time to adjust to the new reality of my new Mom. Then, almost one year ago, my mother-in-law died of cancer. Five months ago, my father had a heart attack and died suddenly. These losses all came as my two oldest children were moving out of our home to go to college. Some might say that change in our household added to feelings of loss. But in any case, am I grieving appropriately? Properly? Acceptably? By whose standards? In my evaluation, I am doing well. I am living my life, tending to my career, my family, my friends, my goals and aspirations. Sure, I cry at times. I also talk to the dead on occasion. “Hi Dad. I just want to talk to you about something. Got a minute?” I write to process my feelings and my thoughts. I talk to my husband, friends, coworkers, and family. I also laugh, enjoy my hobbies and activities, relish the affection of my loved ones, and plan for the future. Why yes, I believe I am emotionally healthy and living life fully, albeit, unapologetically, with loss. Thank you for asking.

We travel along our own path of grief and we meet up and spend time with other people--some strangers or mere acquaintances, some well meaning friends and family, some of whom are grieving also. With some, we don’t share our day-to-day journey or how we travel with our loss for fear that we will pull others down by our own experiences, or for fear we will be misunderstood in our articulation of our emotions. With others, we share what we feel like sharing either because we find support and empathy or because their opinions of us do not hold much weight and are not risking added hurt. Some may think I “over share”. But hell, I’m a writer. And I’m an artist. And to tell you the truth, this is who I have always been. I’ve always been open with who I am and how I think and feel. Mom and my Dad always knew the real me and they were my greatest fans. Truly, they were so incredibly accepting of me, of how open and honest I strived to be, even though they were more private. What a gift they gave me, to allow me to be my own person! 

One conclusion I have come to as I watch others experience loss is that I cannot pretend to know how each is walking along their individual path and I should not judge or compare our journeys. When I have affection for one who has lost a loved one, or when I think I might be able to help, I throw a kind word or question their way, and often, I am told, that is enough. When I reach out to students who have recently lost a parent or a grandparent, an aunt or an uncle, they come back and say to me, “Thank you for telling me that you care”. I think they are also saying, “Thank you for acknowledging that my life has changed and feels different now. I’m happy. I’m sad. I’m feeling contrasting things at the same time and I am trying to wrap my head around how this can all be what it is”. 

It’s not a matter of “getting over it”, Claudius. Rather, it’s a matter of “getting it”, and realizing that just because we “get it” today, does not necessarily mean we will “get it” tomorrow. And that’s okay. We keep moving forward but allow ourselves a step backward or sideways, whatever needs to happen in the moment. And we continue to live.


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Pulling on a Robe


I needed this day to be different. So instead of hopping in the shower as I usually do on Sunday mornings, I pulled on my red robe--one of two robes which hang on the back of my bathroom door. Those two robes are rarely used but when they are, I feel comforted and relaxed. My red robe is a lightweight fleece. It’s perfectly worn in, with deep pockets and a simple wrap tie. My green robe is of the same design but is made of a heavier plush fleece, definitely one for a colder morning. 

I avoided wearing one of my robes before today, maybe because wearing one commits me to moving a little slower in the morning when I need to keep busy, or perhaps because I knew that when I pulled one on, I'd be reminded of how Dad always borrowed my robes when he'd come to stay. I have pictures of him wearing both the red one and the green one. I have a picture of the two of us posing together in my robes. I love that he always felt comfortable reaching for one to wear in the morning when he visited. It is just one of many affirmations I have as to how he always loved being here at my home with my family. 

But this morning I said, "No. I need this day to be different". I felt some shame in not jumping in the shower to take my boys to church. But there was a strong pulling inside of me that said this decision of mine today was understood and accepted. And as soon as I pulled on my robe and made my way down the steps to the kitchen, I knew I was where I was supposed to be today. 

The sun came in through the panes of glass in the living room. I reached for my frying pan, started some scrambled eggs, then made my way to the living room, to the old stereo that my husband and I purchased 25 years ago with our wedding gift money. I tried to play a classical music cd, for I grew up listening to classical music playing in our house each Sunday morning, but our cd player is malfunctioning again so instead, I turned on the radio. My son came downstairs at 10:00am and asked, “We’re not going to church?” and I smiled with pride that he was asking about this break in our normal routine, and without giving him an explanation, I said simply, “No. Not today”. My husband cut squash for me to bake, then headed to the dump. I did some cleaning of the stove and some dishes, again thinking of how my Dad would always take over dish duty when he’d visit and how he’d leave my sink sparkling. Then I sat down to tackle some research paper correcting. Satisfied, I completed a set of grades and put the folder back into my school bag.

“I needed this day to be different”, I again found myself saying aloud. The Catholic girl in  me was still in need of absolution for missing Sunday mass. I got the chicken going in the oven, took the baked squash out to scoop, and then sat down at my laptop. I entered in grades, took a moment to respond to a student’s email, chatted with each of my daughters, and again looked out the windows to the golden foliage that surrounds my warm home. I sat there, quietly. Just taking in the view. The dog came around a few times, perhaps a little confused with how I had stopped to pause for this amount of time. Here I was, still in my robe, and it was now after noon. 

I needed this day to be different. Who knew it would take only a robe to come off a hook to make that happen? Well, truth be told, I knew. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Using the Heartbeats Well


“You have been busy this past week writing reflective statements on the interactive oral discussions, finalizing college essays, drafting your digital memoir manuscript. Well, today will be different. For the next 15 minutes you can go anywhere, do anything. Well, within your mind, that is. Take this time and write freely, without any expectation that you are writing for a specific assignment. This will not be collected. You are writing for YOU. Anything goes. Just write”. This was how I opened today’s IB English class. 

Once the class selected their choice of utensil and settled into the challenge, I joined them and began to write.“You can’t transport yourself physically to another location--a tropical beach where you could lie on the warm sand listening to the sound of crashing waves--but through writing you can go there”. Despite wanting that beach, I was transported back to Friday’s keynote speaker, Kevin Honeycutt. Mr. Honeycutt is an Apple Distinguished Educator, who presented at the MAINEducation Conference, sponsored by ACTEM, the Association of Computer Technology Educators. 

Mr. Honeycutt suggested to his audience an idea that I’ve since learned can be traced back to astronaut Neil Armstrong when he said, "I believe that every human has a finite number of heartbeats and I don't intend to waste any of mine." Kevin Honeycutt reminded us all that we have only so many heartbeats in our lives, and therefore, perhaps we need to think,

EVERY MOMENT COUNTS. 

Honeycutt was speaking from a perspective on being a teacher and working with kids. He urged us to pay attention to the moments of opportunity we have when we welcome our students into our classrooms each day. Do we smile, do we say kind things, do we laugh with our kids? Do we take time to speak beyond assessments, beyond curriculum instruction even, to show them that we are interested in them as human beings?  Yes. I believe most teachers do.  

*****

When I heard the phrase stating that we only have so many heartbeats in our lifetime, I thought of two things. Immediately I thought of my Dad’s passing this summer. He had a heart attack that none of us were expecting. His heartbeats ran out in the late morning hours of Saturday, June 15th. We were caught off guard in losing him that day. I had counted on him being there when I would travel to visit in just a few weeks’ time. He’d been caring for Mom. He had only wanted to live one day longer than she would. The reality of him being gone has been sad to face. In my grief, it has helped me to remember that none of us knows when our time is up. Although I miss him, he only had so many heartbeats in this life, just as I only have so many in mine.

Secondly I began thinking about how many heartbeats I waste--on worry--on obsessing over frustrating situations that sap my energy, my creativity, my motivation, and my joy. Kevin Honeycutt also said in his keynote speech, “When we move on from a bad place, we may not know where we are going but we do not go back to that bad place”. He was speaking of a physical place, but the minute I heard him say this, I made a promise to myself not to “go back to that bad place” where I ruminate over situations beyond my control. Yes, I’ve wasted some of my heartbeats lately. So now I pledge: I am moving forward. 

At Mass on Sunday, Father Sam spoke of trusting that God has a plan. It’s rhetoric I have heard many times before, however now I hear of this with a new perspective. It is not up to us to understand God’s plan for anything that happens in our world and we waste so much of our resources--time and energy--trying to rationalize or justify what may NOT be meant to be rationalized or justified. Oh sure, I’ll continue to grieve and have sad days on occasion, and I’ll get frustrated by injustices the world cannot escape from, but when it happens to knock at my door, I’m not going to invite turmoil or negativity into my home to reside for any length of time. I have only so many heartbeats. 

This weekend I took time to use those heartbeats well. I talked with my college girl Sydney who was home on break. I listened to her discuss school and a possible trip to explore a new city. I texted Emma to ask her how she was handling the stressful schedule she has in costuming a show. I ran errands, balanced my checkbook, paid bills, baked cookies, and made dinners. I spent time with my husband--laughing--belly laughs, and talking from the heart. I made a deal with my son--to have him earn specific dollar amounts so he could buy that new video game--and I supervised his work as I cleaned and organized my own bedroom, the closet, and part of the cellar. I donated three bags of clothes to Goodwill. I decorated for Halloween despite the twinges of pain that I had when I unpacked a few decorations that had adorned my parents’ home last Halloween. I took time to run around with the dog outside. I gave her a bath using the hose which will soon be put up for the winter and got my jeans and sneakers sopping wet in the process. I listened to the radio. I watched a little television--shows I enjoy. I took time to look up at the beautiful colored trees and to feel the crisp air on my face. I shook off the grief that I let seep back into my thoughts at times in death’s aftermath, and I made my weekend heartbeats count. 

*****

My students wrote for those 15 minutes, never pausing. Afterwards I asked them to share with me what that experience of writing freely had been like for them. The discussion that followed reminded me of how intuitively I teach, how my 22 years in the classroom have not been wasted heartbeats, by any means. Once again, as has been the case time after time, I went with my gut this morning and I took time to listen, to really listen, to my kids. The teens shared with me their thoughts, their dreams, their stressors, their plans of action, their To-Do lists. The discussion expanded into reflections upon what the world expects of them, what they expect from themselves, and what it is they need to do to live a life that will thrill them. And then I found myself saying it aloud, “We only have so many heartbeats in these lives of ours. What do you want to do with the number of heartbeats you’ve been given?” Several of my students nodded. One spoke up. “That’s exactly what this is about”, he said. “That’s exactly what I was writing about!” 

One of my senior boys turned to me as he packed up his books at the end of class. “This was one of our best classes. Thanks, Mrs. Walker. This was just what I needed today. Honestly. I feel so much better now”. I smiled at him and nodded. 

EVERY MOMENT COUNTS. It’s this journey--my lifetime, the moving forward, that matters...from one heartbeat to the next. To make my journey more powerful, I must always remember that as I move forward, there are other heartbeats synchronizing or syncopating with mine. My husband makes my heart beat stronger. My three children do too. Friends, colleagues, my teens at school...they all have the ability to make my heart skip a beat. I have worked hard and with purpose. I’m living well. And when I get off track and get discouraged, I need to recall that how I spend my heartbeats each day will affect how my loved ones spend theirs. Moving forward. Trusting in God’s plan. Making the heartbeats count. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Trusting Harmony


The call came around 6:30 last evening. “Anne? This is Sandy. Will you be able to cantor tomorrow morning?” I quickly told her, yes. After having to cancel on her last weekend when we’d made an impromptu visit to my college girl in Rhode Island, I would indeed be at Mass in the morning. I miss being there when I’m out of town. I miss singing with my fellow musicians. “The pope has declared tomorrow a day for Mary. I’d like to do Esurientes”, Sandy continued.  “Could you sing the solo tomorrow? I know it’s late notice....” 

Simply hearing the title of the beautiful song by John Rutter made me smile. “Of course. I’d love to”. 

The music once again began its magic with that phone call. I went to bed humming my solo, remembering the lyrical phrases as I fell asleep. In the morning we headed to St. Joe’s. After greeting everyone’s smiles with my own, I sat down next to Sandy and found my place in the blue composition book. It was time for me to sing. 

*****

When I was a little girl I used to love to hear my Dad sing with his mother. Grammy would harmonize with Dad and I’d sit back in my kitchen chair and smile. Music filled my soul early in life and I learned to harmonize before I could read music. I’d invent tonal harmonies to complement pop songs on the local radio station, and I cemented my ability to sing duets with Dad’s help. “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” was one of our favorites, and “You are My Sunshine” was another. It’s no coincidence that the song became my son’s lullaby years later. 

Dad and I went on the road with our harmonies whenever we visited Nana or Grammy at their nursing homes. We found our way to the piano or organ in the activities room. By then I had learned how to read music and play piano. Dad would take his place at my side and together we’d sing to the residents. Dad did most of the harmonizing, but I continued to take notes on the direction he took each song.

Dad always sang out, his voice strong and melodic, when we went to Mass. However, for years I was too embarrassed to sing at church. I’d sing in the chorus at school, I sang on stage when in musicals, and I’d sing in variety shows, but at church I felt awkward and it seemed no one, at least my own age, was singing. So I was silent. It took a while for me to return to my hometown church singing praise at Mass. But when I did, when I joined Dad and Mom in singing along to every hymn, I felt God’s grace. It was if God was winking at me saying, “THERE! Finally! You’re singing, Anne. Don’t ever stop”.  

*****

As I sang Esurientes at St. Joe’s this morning, the choir added to the magnificent tapestry with their harmonies. My voice was strong and pure and as we took a quick break before Mass began, Sandy remarked how naturally and lyrically I sang the piece now, years after singing the music for the first time. I smiled and said thank you, but I turned my attention to Jesus on the cross. For I know what He has done for me throughout the years. When it comes to music, He knows how much I offer up to Him. And He, in return, fills me with His grace. My soul is refreshed. I am reminded of all that I am able to do for Him, if I will keep a song in my heart. As I began the solo at Communion time, I lost attention for a moment. My mind began to wander, which is not a good thing to have happen when you're singing a solo. As familiar as I am with the song, I needed to be paying attention to my notes and phrasing. Instinctively, Sandy heard me begin to falter and in an instant she guided me safely back. Focused again, I sang my solo without error. But I was once more reminded of how powerful music is for me, how it can return me to my path when I step off, however briefly. 

Music is an oasis. Music, with its modulations reaches deep to comfort us. It is hard to listen to the music of beautiful hymns such as Rutter’s Magnificat without feeling that God is using the artistry to speak intimately with us. But it’s not only church music that has this effect on me. Whenever I have doubt, whenever I forget my way, He brings music to me. Sometimes it’s the next song that comes on the radio, the one that reminds me to have faith. Sometimes it is the song I belt on the stage, the one that throws caution to the wind because no matter what happens, He’ll have my back. Sometimes it is the next hymn I announce to the congregation. 

As cantor today, I read the number of our next hymn. It was a song we had never sang at St. Joe’s, but the minute I turned to it, I began to smile. I remembered hearing the song at St. Martin’s when I was a child. It had been decades. The song began with an introduction that was not set to music; only the lyrics were written. But I knew the tune. 

Gentle woman, quiet light, morning star so strong and bright, 
gentle mother, peaceful dove, 
teach us wisdom; teach us love.
You were chosen by the Father:
You were chosen for the Son, 
You were chosen from all women
and for woman shining one. 
Gentle woman, quiet light, morning star so strong and bright, 
gentle mother, peaceful dove, 
teach us wisdom; teach us love.


As the choir led the congregation, I looked up at Jesus again. I was hearing Dad’s voice singing harmony. Someday, I’m going to stand next to Dad and sing harmony with him again. In God’s choir. I know this to be true. Grammy will be there too. In the meantime, I’ve got some singing ...learning ...teaching... writing... living...loving here on Earth to do. 

As I left the church after Mass, Father Sam stopped me and took my hand, “Thank you for the music”, he said to me. “You are welcome”, I smiled, “so very welcome”

Thank you, Jesus. Thank you for the music. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Perspective


The word perspective has taken on new meaning in the months following my father’s sudden death this past June. I have been thinking about his experiences in his final years, months, weeks, days, and hours. I have been thinking about my grief and the perspectives of his other four children who are also mourning. I am comparing my experience with those of  Dad’s grandchildren, great-grandchildren, his brother, nieces, nephews, his in-laws, friends, Maine Maritime Academy classmates, and of course, my Mom. What does she think about? How is she doing?

I thought of the word “perspective’ last week when just five minutes after entering my classroom one morning, a student of mine asked to speak to me privately. She shared with me her stress and uncertainty of knowing how to graduate on time this year, now that she is not living at her mother’s home. “How’s that for perspective?” I thought as I prepared to begin the rest of my teaching day.

Later, in my IB English class, we discussed Persepolis, a memoir of Marjane Satrapi told in the medium of a graphic novel. The eleven of us in the classroom, all Americans, admitted our naive thinking and lack of awareness of the conditions for the people of Iran during the last several decades and how our eyes are opened to the trials of our fellow human beings when we get the opportunity to read a work like hers. We discussed Maus by Art Spiegelman, another memoirist who detailed his own life in graphic novel style also, and how it was affected by his father’s time during the Holocaust and his mother’s suicide when he was quite young. We viewed the making of the Persepolis movie, one of the special features within a dvd of the film. Once again, perspective ruled. My students expressed their amazement over the work of the animators, voice-over actors, sound engineers, and the writer/director Marjane Satrapi. “I won’t be able to watch this movie without thinking about all this now”, one student said. Exactly. 

At the end of the school day, each of my children texted or called me on the phone to share news of their day and/or to ask advice. I thought of how much I love being a Mom, how parenting children continues beyond the years they live at home, and how I am now without parents to give me counsel. How odd that feels after 45 years of being a daughter! 

Returning to school the next morning, I knew what was coming. We were scheduled for a Rachel’s Challenge assembly. For anyone unaware of what this is, let me briefly explain. Rachel Joy Scott was the first victim in the Columbine High School shootings back in 1999. To honor her own acts of kindness and compassion during her lifetime, Rachel’s dad and step-mom started a student-empowerment program to support teens to reach out to others to end isolation and despair and to create a more positive culture of acceptance in their schools. The challenge extends to adults in school and also business settings as well. The assembly delivered a beautiful message. Once again, the word “perspective” washed over me. I dug my fingernails into my palm, my trick to stave off tears. I wondered whether the discussion was reaching anyone else in the audience in a powerful way. I looked up into the bleachers where students were sitting and I saw one of my students wiping tears from her face. I wondered, “What’s her story? What is she thinking about?” 

Sadly, just two days later, in the midst of our school’s Homecoming Weekend festivities, a 19 year old man from a neighboring school community took his life in our school’s parking lot. What drove that young man to such a point of desperation and hopelessness? I heard his dad died recently. I heard his girlfriend had broken up with him. I heard people saying, “I wish I could have had a chance to talk with him for just one hour. I wish I’d had a chance to talk him out of this, to give him a reason to have hope”.  I thought of people who counsel others and who remind others that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I wondered how people I would come into contact with during the next week were going to react? Some people expressed anger at the young man. This bothered me. A couple of my students had heard the gun shot. Many more of my students were evacuated from the sports fields where games were being played, none of them knowing what was going on, moving in fear and confusion. Once the news had gotten out, the community rallied to support our children and one another, and made plans to show our neighboring community the kindness and compassion we had pledged to offer one another just two days earlier.

Today is Thursday. It’s been a rough week for me and many others. I’m struggling because I’m missing my Dad an awful lot, wishing he were still here for me to talk to, but I’m doing my best to pull my head out of that sad space on a daily basis. It helps to have all these distractions here at school, but at the same time, weighing the situations and reflecting upon the various stories we all share with one another can be exhausting. The perspective we have on this world is continuously shaped by our experiences and the people we interact with during the course of our days. It shifts and is challenged, but it’s our own to be in control of. And sometimes, perspective is the best thing we have going for us. 

At least, that’s my perspective today. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

For the Love (and Grief) of Dogs


This is a piece I rediscovered today. I wrote it in September of 2012. The piece takes on new meaning for me this fall. I’ll leave it at that, for now. But this rediscovery and reflection is what I love about writing.
-AFW 9/17/13


Ziva
There was something safe about grieving for my dog Charlie. It had been an expected loss. It was difficult but acceptable to mourn for her. The loss was not complicated, just sad. Her aging, her dementia at the end, the seizures that told me it was time, and then ultimately her death on that winter morning...it was now permanent and concrete. There was no shock, no questions. But also, no coming back. 

For days and weeks afterward, I’d tear up on my way to school. But soon I began being able to talk about her, our experiences together, and even the final hours of her life without crying. I was able to look at her picture again and tell the many stories of our nearly 17 years together. 

I smile at Ziva now. This new pup, who entered our lives in June of 2011, has the goofiest way of looking at me at times. Emma calls it her DERF face. Her black fur, not nearly as soft or as fluffy as Charlie’s, looks sleek. She is agile and quick. I watch her zoom from the front yard to the back and I think from time to time, “Will the Lyme disease she was diagnosed with having ever show itself?” 

I realize I am still comparing Ziva to Charlie. How does one love a dog as much as I loved Charlie without comparing every other dog that comes next to her? Then I think of Henry, the dog I loved from age 12 to 25. I think of Scamp, the dog that was in my life from age 1 to 12. Didn’t I feel the same? Yes. 

I am sitting in the leather chair playing on my laptop when I see my pictures of Ziva taken a few hours earlier. The one where a football, a soccer ball, and a stick lay at her paws is my favorite. The girl can’t decide. She wants to play with them all. She wants them all right there at her disposal. She knows she can’t carry all three with her at once, but as she runs off with the one physically closest to her, she returns to the other toys later. This is how it is with me. I’m enjoying Ziva to the fullest today, but I’ll come back to Charlie from time to time and I’ll think of how great a dog she was. I’ll even think of my childhood days with Henry and Scamp. It never seems to matter whether I understand how things come to be; it’s enough to know that in some deep, evocative way, life just takes care of itself. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Hangin' On

This morning I put Ziva on the leash, grabbed my earphones, and headed out of the house. Walking down the street I gave myself another pep talk. I’m pretty used to those these days. They vary but the most commonly used words are “Don’t think. Breathe” and “It’s okay”. The sun was warm but not too warm. I took in the beauty of the trees and smiled as my pup looked back at me in what appeared to be a big grin. I am grateful she joined our family two years ago. In the hardships of those years, she’s been an affectionate and joyous companion. I’ve needed her.

We turned left at the corner. I spotted the big St. Bernard and decided not to turn on that street. Perhaps the two would have been friendly with one another but I wasn’t in the mood to take a chance on them. Heading the other way, our path didn’t feel right, but onward we went. Martina McBride began singing in my ear. The song, In My Daughter's Eyes, always pulls at my heart and makes me think of my daughters, but walking and hearing the lyrics again today, suddenly “everything becomes a little clearer”.

“I realize what life is all about. It’s hangin’ on when your heart has had enough. It’s giving more when you feel like giving up”.

Yes. That’s what life is. At least for me, right now. Dad died eight weeks ago. I’m hanging on, giving more. But I’m also hurting and I want the hurt to go away.

I’m supposed to be kind and patient with myself. Grief is a process, they say. I know I moved on auto-pilot those first two weeks after Dad died. Plan the funeral. Write the obituary. Go to dress rehearsals (for I had the lead role in a musical that opened six days after Dad died). Sing at Dad’s funeral. Perform three shows. Travel to Rhode Island for Emma’s college orientation. Perform three more shows. Prepare a kitchen for a new countertop (a project which had already been scheduled). The next five weeks were more of the same. Get a breast biopsied. Wait for results. Travel back to my hometown. Take care of Mom for two weeks. Make arrangements with siblings for Mom’s care. Be on call.

Then there was this past week. Life slowed down a little. And suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. I felt nauseous again. I tried to trick my overactive brain into shutting down and sleeping at night by heading to bed before I got too tired. I got on the scale and realized I’d lost more weight. Oh, I love the lower numbers but this has been one hell of a way to slim down.

I need to stay busy. I go to the gym. I pull my husband out on impromptu dates. I do some baking. I play basketball with the kids. I do some laundry. I make myself read. I take more walks. I make meals. I watch television and movies. I try to avoid thinking too much but I still do. And yes, tears fall but I try to stop them from spilling over because I am tired of crying. I’m again heading another way. The path doesn’t feel right, but onward I go. Because I can’t let go, even though my heart has had enough. I can’t give up when I need to give more. That’s what life is all about. I just wish it weren’t so hard. I miss you, Dad. So much.

As I worked to finish this post, Ziva was again at my side, staring at me with her sweet brown eyes, wagging her tail. She doesn’t know my heart has been broken this summer. She doesn’t know I’ve lost my Dad. But she’s there for me, just the same. And she’s teaching me to simply savor the moments of life that are here for me now. Without judgement, she reminds me to take each moment as it comes, to feel the wafting breeze as it comes through the trees on this beautiful August day, to not worry over the demise of the deck flowers that have had too much water this summer, but to be happy playing with the little grasshopper that jumps out of the plant pot onto the decking, to jump at the light spots which streak our path. Because this too is what life is all about. And this is what helps me hang on.

Monday, August 5, 2013

His Arms Around Me

Yesterday morning I awoke to the feeling of my husband’s arms wrapping around me. It’s a beautiful thing to be married to your best friend, and this summer, with the canyon of grief and pain I have struggled through following the sudden loss of my father, I have once again been reminded of how lucky I am to have trusted my gut all those years ago when I first met Eric.

We met on an early summer church youth group trip to a rock slide near my hometown. Being three years older, he was in the senior section of the fellowship group. I was in the junior section. I had joined the group to be with my friends, as my own church did not have a youth ministry. My middle school boyfriend was in the group too, and I remember he was rather annoyed at how my face lit up when I watched this older teenager who was easily the center of attention. Eric was (and is) a happy, easy-going guy, quickly striking up conversations with people, affectionate and flirtatious. I couldn’t keep my eyes off him, much to the dismay of the boy I was dating at the time. When Eric came by us and offered to take a picture of us, I couldn’t help but feel awkward over the whole thing. After that outing, I spotted Eric mowing the church lawn one day as I rode by. I pointed him out to my Mom who was driving and I remember laughingly asking my Mom to “Drive around the block one more time!” My Mom giggled when this became a regular request of mine throughout the summer.

When the school year began, I saw more of Eric. I was now a freshman in high school and he was a senior. I knew my place, being so much younger, and I never imagined this older teen would notice me, but he did. We began flirting with one another. Eric started taking me home last, after dropping off everyone else who had begged him for a ride home from school, practices, and the like. Our first official date followed a pep band obligation at our high school. Dressed in our matching white pants, white turtlenecks, and blue school sweaters, the two of us split a small fry and a coke at McDonald’s. It was the start of our February vacation and over the next several months, we became inseparable. I remember the exact moment when I knew I had fallen in love with him. We were in his car, parked in my driveway, and he started laughing over something funny I had said. Something in my head and my heart just knew, at that moment, that this was real.

But we were young. Eric went to college that fall. I could not completely commit to a far away boyfriend, and I dated others, but Eric stayed in the picture. He never dated anyone after me, and when I realized I didn’t want to risk losing him, I stopped seeing others too. I went to college and we married in my junior year. I was just 20 years old. That was nearly 25 years ago. College degrees, careers, setting up house, children, so many adventures....our life together has been rich.

But there have been rocky times too. Times of misunderstandings, times of heartbreak. To fall in love at the age of 15 and to be with that person thirty years later is remarkable to me. It appears that we’re a rarity. Those thirty years have not always been easy. We grew up together in the years of our marriage. And we made mistakes along the way. Sometimes, there weren’t mistakes, only the situations we found ourselves in. This last year has been especially hard. It was about one year ago that we learned his Mom’s cancer was back in force. She died three months later. Just as we were coming to terms with that loss, my father died unexpectedly. In the two months since his death, I have been met with extenuating situations that have only complicated my grief. But through it all, Eric is there for me.

When my parents came to our home for Christmas that last time, in December 2011, my Dad spoke to me from the heart (as he always did). Dad said, “Anne, you know, we are all part of a family when we’re born. But then we fall in love and we choose to spend our lives with another. Together we raise children, and we love that family we’ve built together very much, but over time, those children grow up, and each of them leaves to build lives of their own with others. And we return to being with the one we chose, the one we fell in love with”.

Yesterday, my grief, despite the warmth I felt upon waking in Eric's arms, was making me restless. I needed to "run away". After not taking my hints, I sat down on the couch next to Eric and I insisted to him that I had to get out of the house. "Where do you want to go?" he asked me. "To the woods or to the water. I don't care. I just need to go. Will you go with me?" I asked. "Yes", he replied quickly. Within five minutes we were out the door. We headed to the water. At the ocean we walked, we took in the sights, we strolled the beach, we outran a thunderstorm. We took in a stupid movie, ate popcorn, and chocolate. It was what I needed and I returned home with a calmed spirit.

Eric and I share a belief that we were always meant to be together like this, and I suppose what it comes down to is that we’ve continued to make choices that strengthen that belief. There are times when he or I could have chosen differently. We could have chosen to give up, to stop trying, to give in to pain and to let it conquer us. We could have gotten too comfortable, too complacent, too lazy. We could have been too proud, too fixated on being right, too offended by a careless comment, too frustrated with the other. Instead, we keep choosing each other...we continue to fall in love, year after year, day after day, hour after hour.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Pizza Posts

Back in April, the day after the Boston Marathon bombings, I was "scolded" on Facebook for posting a picture of a pizza my family and I were enjoying for dinner. Of course, I never intended any offense. I had earlier written of my shock at the senseless act of violence and had said a prayer for all those affected by the bombings. But I found myself apologizing to the "friend" who told me that in light of the tragedy, that my post was unimportant. At first I felt embarrassed. I thought, “Wow. I’m truly insensitive. Of course, my pizza is a stupid thing to post today”. But then, I gave this more thought. The woman who had scolded me was someone I had met only a couple of times. I had never truly known her, nor had she ever known me. Her comment felt patronizing. Was I wrong to have posted something so frivolous that day? Bad timing or not, I was on a weekend trip with my family. What was I allowed to post? What was appropriate and what wasn’t? Who was she to critique my sharing of a family experience? The next morning,  I made the decision to "unfriend” this acquaintance.  It was something I did out of respect for myself. 

You see, it’s not that I can’t take or don’t welcome criticism when it’s warranted. I’m not so sensitive that I cannot listen to rebukes or challenges. I realize that the woman was hurting. She had a direct connection to some of the wounded. Maybe it was good for me to apologize to her the way I did and maybe it was insensitive of me to unfriend her. But I did both and I stand by my decisions.

Two weeks ago, when my Dad died the day before Father’s Day, I knew what the next day would bring. Everyone would be wishing their fathers a “Happy Father’s Day”. There would be last minute reminders to send cards and gifts that I would see on television and radio commercials. Facebook would be bombarded with pictures of happy sons and daughters celebrating their Dads. I thought of how I had planned to call my own Dad that Sunday and how his Father’s Day card would arrive on Monday, a few days too late for him to have received it. I thought of the bag of gifts I had purchased for my husband, a father of three, and the card for him I had not yet signed, and of all the future Father’s Days I’d see pass without my Dad. Despite this, I browsed the beautiful messages and pictures that came up on my feed on Father's Day. I didn't resent anyone's post.

This past week I witnessed disgruntled store customers making their way through cramped grocery aisles on the Fourth of July. I overheard people complaining about cell phone plans and broken appliances. And in the midst of my grief over the loss of my Dad, I have found myself smirking at all this. None of these concerns of people are “important”. But unless you are touched by tragedy, you don’t stop to think that way. And it’s my opinion that THAT is okay. It’s okay to live your life--proudly posting pictures of your Dad who is alive and well on Father’s Day or frustratingly complaining about cramped grocery aisles or broken appliances. It’s okay. Life goes on. And even when you’re the one affected by death, life’s reminder that none of us are immortal and that there are more important things to be concerned with, the world is going to continue turning. As it should. Pizza posts and all.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Several Funerals and a Wedding

With two elderly grandmothers, my great-uncle, and a handful of great-aunts, attendance at wakes, funerals, and cemeteries were a natural part of my childhood. I was never uneasy when I went to them. In fact, as my Mom used to tell people, at Aunt Irma’s wake, I even reached over my aunt in her casket and kissed her goodbye. I remember going to a number of funerals at St. Louis’ in Auburn. The ornate church was pink inside with numerous paintings. I can still recall sitting in the pews, gazing up at the beautiful arches. After the service, I followed my parents out of the church. Holding Mom’s hand, we stepped into a black limousine for the ride to the cemetery.

I never feared these services as a child. When I moved away from home, however, my attendance at funerals became less frequent, almost non-existent. There were a couple of heart-wrenching funerals for students of mine who died in accidents. At those, I steeled myself to face the faces of teens I knew who were also in pain. I went to a few wakes also, those for parents of a few of my friends. And then, a few years ago, my Dad called me at school, asking me if I would come home to sing Ave Maria at the funeral Mass of my Mom’s best friend, Pauline. I never considered saying no. So home I went. I stopped on the way to buy a dress and a new pair of shoes and I arrived at the church early enough to practice with the accompanist. I sang the song but I felt a little shaky. Instead of gazing up at the arches of the church, I saw the faces of Pauline’s children and grandchildren and memories of visiting Pauline over the years of my childhood flooded my head. In adulthood I had become so much more aware of the passing of time and of how sad it is to say goodbye to a loved one.

At my Dad’s funeral two weeks ago, I experienced something new. Knowing Dad had asked me to sing a few songs, I enlisted the help of my two daughters. I somehow knew that if I stood to sing alongside Sydney and Emma, I would find the strength to do as Dad had asked. I was right. Sydney played guitar and Emma harmonized as I sang my Dad’s favorite hymn, On Eagle’s Wings. The girls and I cantored the entire service and after Communion, I stood to sing Ave Maria. Unlike the way I had felt at Pauline’s funeral, this time I was completely calm. I sang easily. Every measure of music was an offering of thanks for the years I had with my father. I read my music but I looked out over the congregation of my family and Dad’s friends and I knew I was giving Dad the gift he had asked for. I think I even smiled.

There was no wake. There was no casket. No limousine ride. No visit to the cemetery. Dad had been specific with what he had wanted for his service and as in life, he was frugal. But it was a beautiful send off. I saw Dad’s children and grandchildren taking part---reading, carrying his urn, singing, speaking, honoring the good man who had helped raise each of us, and in my brother John’s face, I saw Dad’s pride that I had followed through with Dad’s wishes and had sang at the service. I don’t think I will ever forget seeing my Dad in John that day.

After the Mass, as we greeted those who had come to pay their respects, I embraced Dad’s loved ones and listened intently to stories and well wishes. After the people left, as I gathered up flowers, music, and programs, I took one more look inside the church where my parents had brought me to Mass each week. I saw my Dad sitting in his pew. I saw him lectoring. I saw him serving as a Eucharistic Minister. I saw him walking me down the aisle on the day of my wedding. I gazed up at Jesus on the cross and I told Him to take care of my Dad, the man who had most powerfully led me to my own faith. Turning back to find my husband and my children, I then crawled into my own limousine, a dented black Grand Caravan, and together we drove away.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Oh Dad. You're everywhere.

Oh Dad, from the time I was a child, being forty years older than me,  you reminded me that you would not be around forever. It sounded morbid. But I understand what you were doing. You’d talk about the circle of life and of all the generations that had come before you. Still, Mom and I used to tease you for your serious matter-of-fact talk, “Where you going, Dad? Are you leaving us soon?” we’d ask. Mom would brush off your talk. But you gave me decades of preparation for this. And in the past few years, you ramped up that preparation. You set out your wishes. You made clear your intentions. You did not fail us children in any way. Oh but Dad. I wanted another summer of daily living with you. I wanted more time. But Dad, this summer I am seeing and hearing you everywhere. I just can’t believe that you’re really gone.

You were everywhere today. I saw you in the faces of old men who held the door open for me, and in the Maine Maritime football t-shirt I saw another man wearing. I thought of you making pancakes for us and I saw you again pretend to drop mine on the floor. Oh how you’d laugh at the memory of how I called you out on that-- the one time you really did try to serve me a pancake that had fallen. Oh how I miss your laugh!

I saw you ordering ice tea with lemonade and I heard you call the waitress “honey” or “darling” before you stopped, attentive to my lectures to you on how those names sounded sexist or too flirtatious.  I had a panini for lunch and heard you exclaim how delicious these warm sandwiches are--how the cheese melts and the bread gets so crispy. I remember how thrilled you were with all the different kinds of cookies I baked and packaged up for you and Mom this past Christmas. Oh how I will miss cooking and baking for you!

I hear you snicker at how I prefer liquid soap over bar soap and tissues over a cotton handkerchief. I see movies and books I want to buy for you. I think of the list of movies you borrowed from me for those long winter months, and the way you’d loved the first Ken Follett The Pillars of the Earth book. While out shopping today I even saw dresses for me that I knew you’d exclaim made me look beautiful.

I see you bend over the recliner to ask Mom if you have kissed her yet today, and I see you brush her cheek with your lips before you turn around to wink in my direction. I love how devoted you always were to Mom. Always a gentleman. I hear you telling Paul one more time to make sure he wears his retainer now that his braces are off, and how you wish you had worn yours like you were supposed to, all those years ago. I hear you telling Eric about the next project the two of you would do at camp this summer. I hear you ask me where your packets of Sweet-n-Low are in my cupboards, and I see your flashlight on my bedroom bookshelf, the one you placed there so you could use it to navigate your way in the “Walker Inn Suite” each Christmas Eve.

When we went to Goodwill today, I thought of your joy at finding another bargain at the St. Martin’s Thrift store. I saw your old red truck behind me on the road and I could have sworn I saw your yellow AARP Fraud Fighter t-shirt in the audience at Sunday’s matinee. I heard you singing the show tunes from my latest musical and asking the girls to write down the lyrics so you could learn them.

It is the dailyness of life that we seemed to appreciate most when we were together. We were relaxed and natural in our time together. No formalities. No need to impress. They say that when a loved one dies, there are so many regrets. But, I don’t know, Dad. I know I never liked listening to you discuss the world I’d live in after your death, but I was listening, Dad. More than you may think I was. And one thing I know for sure, is that the only regret I truly have is that we do not have more time to enjoy all the little things we would have continued to share together. But I promise you, Dad. I am going to live and love this world fully. I am going to continue to appreciate each day and I am going to love my children fiercely until the day I join you again. Be ready for me when that day comes, Dad. I owe you a pancake with special seasoning.