Fireworks on the 4th

Not only did my mother love fireworks, she also loved to try and capture a good one with a photo. Usually they are pretty elusive, but my mom got a pretty good one in this shot here.
Not only did my mother love fireworks, she also loved to try and capture them with a photo. Usually they were pretty elusive, but she got a good one in this shot.

Two years ago today my mom sat in her wheel chair at MSUM’s Nemzek field.  A yearly ritual, we would park nearby, walk up to the stands, listen to the cover band play old American classics and wait for the lights to dim.  Once it was fully dark we would see the first reload shoot up with a “thwump”, a swirling smoke stream left in its wake, and then the first “pop” and “ahh” would echo the stands.  My mom was usually the loudest to “ooo” and “ahh”; sometimes a pop would sparkle so impressively she would start to clap.  She always remembered to tell us that the “palm tree” ones were her favorite—an opinion that I shared either because of her immense proselytization of their beauty and “awesomeness” or just because they really are the best and most awesome—I’ll never really be sure.

 

Two years ago was different though.  This time we sat on the side because my mother would never be able to make it up the steps of the bleachers.  We brought her walker/wheelchair and parked in the handicap spots about 100 meters from where we plopped our chairs on the grass.  It was still a great view and you could hear the music off the side of the bleachers.   My mother had wanted to go and had rallied a significant amount of energy just to make it to this unorthodox spot.  We talked about small things that I can’t remember much until the fireworks began. After the first pop or two it wasn’t an “ooo” and “ahh” that I heard, but a remark filled with knowledge and sadness, “I just keep thinking—long pause—that these are the last fireworks that I’ll see.”

 

And right away I quipped back with a, “You don’t know that mom.  You might be able to see them next year.  Things could get better like they have before!” But, she did know and had grasped something remarkable that few of us get to experience.

 

What would it be like to see fireworks with eyes that knew they were the last you’d ever see?  What would it be like to be aware that it was the end?  Even in old age it’s rare to know exactly when you’re going to go.  How good and bad and overwhelming and peaceful would it feel to get to say goodbye to someone with finality?

 

My mother, in her brown wig with highlights and her uncomfortable walker/wheelchair sitting outside the Moorhead football field, knowing this would be it; “ooo” and “ahh” she continued after we both let the comments be forgotten.  “These palm tree ones are my favorite.  I always love the way they sparkle.”

 

Me too mom.  And I still do.

Pretend Tomorrow Is from Me

 

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These past days (weeks, months?) I’ve been so caught up in a job and driving places and sharing in wonderful and major life events.  It’s been like a giant train speeding ahead and all I can do is look forward.

 

And there my mother’s ashes sit of the shelf.  Static. Cold. Still permanent.

 

This morning I woke up to the rain dropping through the leaves in my back yard.  I think of my mother. I think of the new house I just bought.  I talk about the first joint checking account I will open with someone.  I talk about all the weddings I’ve been to and that they were just the right kind of love.  I talk about you, and how I wish we could talk.

 

Last summer I got to write and grieve and write and grieve.   It was a fevered sort of peace that let me process and had me desperate to hold onto you.

Then I took a job, and it has turned out to be heavy, and distracting, and full of its own consuming challenges.  I can’t stop because the job won’t let me, because I love these little kids, because public education in the city of Philadelphia is a joke compared to what it should be and it tears my heart everyday that I can’t make it better.

 

You, there on the shelf, are you still a part of this struggle with me?

 

She comes back to me in waves while I’m moving through stress and joy and moments.

You still guide me when I feel like a failure and I need someone to tell me that they love me, that I can do anything, that there’s no reason to question myself because of course you know I can.

 

You are still there in pockets of my every day.

But I want to write you in permanently.  I want to welcome you back through the words of your story.  I want to remember you always:  not just in the tattoo I want to get or a picture that shows your smile.

 

Sometime in 2014 you sent me a card that says on the front:  “Every day is a gift” and in the middle:  “Pretend tomorrow is from me.”  You crossed out the part below that said “Happy Birthday” and wrote “Happy You are Loved day.”

 

Every day is a gift from you, mom. I miss you and I’ll never forget.

 

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i carry your heart with me(I carry it in my heart)

 

Letters to the Ones We Love (On Valentine’s day and not so special days in mid-July)

It’s Valentine’s Day weekend and there’s lots of love around.  Personally, I find this holiday to be a mix of the annoying (overpriced 7-course meals, hetero-normative displays everywhere, so much sugar) and beautiful (my students all saying why they love and appreciate each other, excuses to take time for yourself with the person you love, and really delicious 7-course meals).  But, my mom always taught me to cling to the best of things, so I’m sending out love and holding close to the love I’m given.

My motivation to write a book about my mother came from reading the journals I had written the summer I was home in Fargo taking care of her as she was dying.  Throughout those 3 months my partner Brandon supported me over the phone from Philadelphia.  It was also during that time that we decided to have a ceremony that would include my mom.  Not a wedding, but a day when we could share our love with each other and our families.  It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made. The pictures from our “Celebration of Love and Family” (as we chose to call it) are gems of my mom’s happiest moments 12 days before she died.

Celebrating love together
Celebrating love together

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.  The piece of journal writing I’m sharing today is from a not so special day when I needed support and Brandon was there for me.  He continues to be a person that I am so happy to be with while we break and rebuild.

My mom knew that I would be okay because I had you.  It is a part of what made her passing easier.  She loved you because you’re awesome, but also because she trusted you to see that I was well taken care of.  You love me in a way that she always did–with gentleness, blind (but you try to see my flaws too) optimism, and abounding support.

This Valentine’s Day I remember my mother who taught me I deserved to be loved, and think of Brandon who helped keep me together when my world broke.  This love is something I hope for everyone sharing in my writing today.  May you find someone to hold hands with as you live, as you break, and as you walk into the dark.

Happy Valentine’s Day.  Love to you all.

——————————————–

July 16th, 2014

 

Hey Brandon,

I’m writing to you while you’re so far away in Philly tonight.

It’s unexpected to see so many good things coming out of tragedies, but, I guess I’ve always thought that. It’s peculiar, but having to face death makes the richness of life come alive. Things that weren’t important, really aren’t important and of course the things that are you hug and hold dear.  I’m thinking often about what I actually want to do with this life because I’m so very aware of its limits.  

It means a lot that you’re willing to be here with me, emotionally.  I mean, I think it’s the right thing to do, but I’m sure it’s not easy.  You get to do all the support and none of the actual experience sharing.  You brighten up my family though, just with a phone call.  It’s funny how much they love you, how much they’ve taken you in to be one of us.  I’m pretty sure they think you’re the ultimate partner for me (and that’s probably a good thing).

Sometimes, when I think about how hard all this is, and that there will be a time when it gets even harder, I just imagine myself in your arms. It’s like I know I will be okay, because when I break you’ll just hold me together.  

It’s hard to be away from you, but this time it doesn’t feel hard for the same reasons.  I don’t feel a lessening of our relationship, even though the distance is real.  I’ve never questioned once while I’m here whether we should really be together. It’s nice to know I want to belong with someone.  It’s nice to know we can argue about something and we’ll both really listen to the each other.  It’s not nice to not feel you…that distance of skin is tangible.  It just makes me feel tired and like I’d really like to kiss you soon. 

I’m so thankful that I’m here.  

This past month I’ve started to accept the fact that I’m going to loose my mom.  That it’s going to hurt like hell, and I’m going to miss her everyday, but somehow I I will be okay.  

She was a lot happier today.  I think that’s where I want to turn my energy–not into trying to make her live forever, but in trying to make her life the best while I can. We are all going to have to die, so isn’t it best to go into the dark holding the hands of people you love.

I love you. You’re the best to share life with.

Betsy

Brandon, my mother, and I during our Celebration of Love and Family
Brandon, my mother, and I during our Celebration of Love and Family

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart)

“Getting Better” or How Grief Lets You Grow (even when you don’t want to)

Time is hard, and time is healing.

 

Mom, I’ve been doing so much better.  I can talk about you and feel pride and love instead of pain. I can go out and enjoy time with friends and not feel overwhelmed with thoughts of retreating into the corner to be alone.  I can think about the future and feel good about moving forward without being afraid to go anywhere without you.   I’m healing. I’m moving. Which is so scary mom, because it’s still away from you.

 

I think about you in every major decision, whenever someone is in pain, whenever someone is proud of me, or I hurt, or my life changes–you are a part of my future, even if I can’t tell you about it.

 

Today, sitting in a coffee shop with a good friend, I think about how you would laugh with me at the barbie doll girls sitting next to me, brood with me over the rudeness I felt when someone questioned my intelligence because I’m female, and cry with me when the house I was so excited about slipped through our fingers.

 

And because I can still remember you and feel you, it’s like you are sharing these things with me.  I still fear that I’ll keep forgetting you, that time will erode away the strength of my sense of you.  Will I be able to remember your scent, you hugs, the details of your smile and love 30 years from now?

 

Time is hard…and time is healing.

 

Grief has a way of making you change and develop even when you don’t want to, maybe especially when you don’t want to.

 

I can cry now. I couldn’t for about 5 years, unless it was about losing you.

 

I would never wish for this, but now that it is a part of me I will not begrudge it either.

 

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A happy memory: My 27th birthday, the last I got to share with my mom. I’m thankful to be able to look back at this and smile. We shared so much love and fun!
—–

 

When I came across this list from americanhospice.org it rang true for me.  I was happy to feel that I have been healing.  I know my mom would be proud of me to know that I am growing on and growing stronger.

 

I hope that others can feel resonance with the progress of this list.  Maybe you feel some of these changes happening in you after you’ve felt pain or loss.  Maybe you haven’t yet, but you will.

 

As we all move forward through the complications of life, filled with loss and joy, I hope time can continue to bring growth.  Time is hard, but time is healing. Time is hard, but time is growth. Time is hard, but time is life–and she would want us to live it well.

 

You Know You Are Getting Better When…

By Helen Fitzgerald, CT

The progress through grief is so slow, and so often of a “one step forward and two steps backwards” motion, that it is difficult to see signs of improvement. The following are clues that will help you to see that you are beginning to work through your grief:

  • You are in touch with the finality of the death. You now know in your heart that your loved one is truly gone and will never return to this earth.
  • You can review both pleasant and unpleasant memories. In early grief, memories are painful because they remind you of how much you have lost. Now it feels good to remember, and you look for people to share memories with.
  • You can enjoy time alone and feel comfortable. You no longer need to have someone with you all the time or look for activities to keep you distracted.
  • You can drive somewhere by yourself without crying the whole time. Driving seems to be a place where many people cry, which can be dangerous for you and other drivers.
  • You are less sensitive to some of the comments people make. You realize that painful comments made by family or friends are made in ignorance.
  • You look forward to holidays. Once dreaded occasions can now be anticipated with excitement, perhaps through returning to old traditions or creating new ones.
  • You can reach out to help someone else in a similar situation. It is healing to be able to use your experience to help others.
  • The music you shared with the one you lost is no longer painful to hear. Now, you may even find it comforting.
  • You can sit through a church service without crying.
  • Some time passes in which you have not thought of your loved one. When this first happens, you may panic, thinking, “I am forgetting.” This is not true. You will never forget. You are giving yourself permission to go on with your life and your loved one would want you to do this.
  • You can enjoy a good joke and have a good laugh without feeling guilty.
  • Your eating, sleeping, and exercise patterns return to what they were beforehand.
  • You no longer feel tired all the time.
  • You have developed a routine or a new schedule in your daily life that does not include your loved one.
  • You can concentrate on a book or favorite television program. You can even retain information you have just read or viewed.
  • You no longer have to make daily or weekly trips to the cemetery. You now feel comfortable going once a month or only on holidays or other special occasions.
  • You can find something to be thankful for. You always knew there were good things going on in your life, but they didn’t matter much before.
  • You can establish new and healthy relationships. New friends are now part of your life and you enjoy participating in activities with them.
  • You feel confident again. You are in touch with your new identity and have a stronger sense of what you are going to do with the rest of your life.
  • You can organize and plan your future.
  • You can accept things as they are and not keep trying to return things to what they were.
  • You have patience with yourself through “grief attacks.” You know they are becoming further apart and less frightening and painful.
  • You look forward to getting up in the morning.
  • You stop to smell the flowers along the way and enjoy experiences in life that are meant to be enjoyed.
  • The vacated roles that your loved one filled in your life are now being filled by yourself or others. When a loved one dies he or she leaves many “holes” in your life. Now those holes are being filled with other people and activities, although some will remain empty. You are more at ease with these changes.
  • You can take the energy and time spent thinking about your loss and put those energies elsewhere, perhaps by helping others in similar situations or making concrete plans with your own life.

You acknowledge your new life and even discover personal growth from experiencing grief.

 

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)

The Two Home Syndrome

Sometimes I tell people I have two homes:  one, a city, and the other, a family.  I never wanted to move back to Fargo; it makes me feel like my mind is in a box and I should marry my high school sweetheart and settle down with 2 and a half kids.  To my mother, it is a happy place, a place full of friends and love and smiles.

 

My mother moved to Fargo with her family in the 8th grade from Deerlodge Montana. She talked with me about how she made a small group of girlfriends that would laugh and be silly with each other; inciting the reprimand of a few teachers more than once (I did that too!).  She kept these same girlfriends through high school and even into college, as she stayed in Fargo to double major in Early Childhood Development and Chiropractic at NDSU, living at her parents’ place for the most of it.  It wasn’t until she was 22 that she left the city in order to attend Northwestern Chiropractic College in Minneapolis.

And then, my parents moved back here; a newly married couple wanting to start their dual practice.  It made perfect sense to move back to this quieter community, buy the practice and the house from her dad, and start the set up of a little family, a little office, and a little home.

Although she thought of other places (my dad tells me at age 26 she dreamed of moving to the breathe-taking Coeur d’Alene, Idaho), Fargo always made sense to my mother.  Even if she was not one to follow rules or social expectations, she was one to follow her heart. In Fargo she would raise a family and know her kids would be safe, she could find a church and develop a relationship with a spiritual community, she would know the grocery stores, shopping malls, cheapest places to find wine, and would never have to go too far to find a friend (or make a friend) to laugh with.

Even though she did entertain how grand it would be to move out of the house that also held her late childhood, once we were born I never heard her consider leaving the city.  It is as if they had an unmentioned bond with no need to challenge its worth.

So, when I moved away and didn’t come back…I know it was hard for my mother.  When something is hard for the mother you respect and adore than that something is hard for you too.  I don’t think we ever truly understood the love that each one of us had for our cities. Each time my mother would visit me in Philadelphia (5 times all together?) I could hear her straining to be positive, always picking out the nice things she could say, before something she didn’t like would slip out.  To her, Philadelphia was rude, dirty, big, and scary.  She loved the trees and really genuinely tried to see the rocks as gems, but sometimes people just don’t like the same things.  She wanted her quiet, friendly Fargo; I wanted my rude, authentic Philly.

 

That’s where I found myself in the summer of 2014 as I visited my home in Philadelphia but missed my home, my mother, in Fargo:  home and homesick–permanently torn in alternative directions.

But it should be easier for me now, because I’ve grown used to the tension.  No matter where I go she will never be there, but also now she always will.

 

Home with no more far away.

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart)  –E. E. Cummings

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Her Secret Cupboard

My mom has a secret cupboard where she stores extra presents that she bought.

I guess it wasn’t actually that secret; my brother and I knew that if we looked in the cupboards in the basement across from the big freezer we would ruin our Christmas/Birthday surprise.

Surprisingly, it was easy for my brother and I to resist the urge to spoil our presents and we mostly left the cupboards alone. That task became more difficult as time went on, though, because my mother had a bit of a present buying addiction and the cupboards had a way of overflowing. She would buy gifts from January until December and usually by around October she’d bought more than enough presents for everyone she knew, so she’d start buying “emergency gifts” or extras for the next year.

It was one of her best and most hoarding-like qualities.

Even though she gave gifts prolifically to those around her and her family, those cupboards in the basement across from the big freezer are still full of “extras”.

This summer I found two Dr. Seuss books there (Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat) that I brought to my new elementary classroom. I knew that she would have wanted to give me a starter care package for my new job and my new kiddos—the cupboards made sure she still could.

And last birthday my dad ciphered through the “extras” and gave me the “Happy Birthday” black socks with cake pieces all over them. This Christmas he found a beautifully hand painted mug still with the tag on the bottom from Ten Thousand Villages, but politely with the price torn off (my mother always taught me it was rude to let someone know how much you’d spent—or saved—on their present).

This was the best gift. This was the gift that read “From: Mom”. This was her still giving and giving even a year and a half after she was gone.

I wonder if some tiny part of her knew…
Knew that she would have to leave early.
Knew that she didn’t want to.
Knew that we would need a cupboard of presents to last us through the years.

I haven’t ravaged through all the extras yet, I still want to be surprised by my mother’s quirky gifts at Christmas and birthdays. But, I have taken a peek and seen baby clothes and house warming wine glasses.

These things won’t make up for the fact that she won’t be there when we move into our first house or if I adopt or have a baby, but a little part of her will be there.

A little part of you will always be here.

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart) –-E. E. Cummings

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