Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Grieving Girl's Guide to Life

About 5 years ago, the guy I was replacing at work had a hell of a year. He had fallen in love the year before with a co-worker in his language classes and had just proposed to her. Shortly after the ring was on her finger, she became pregnant. They sold their condos, bought a big house in the country, bought a car, had a wedding, had a kid, then found out they were going to have to move to India in a few months.

"You know," I remarked, "you can space out this adulting thing. You don't have to do it all at once."

"I know," he chuckled, “But sometimes all the adulting just happens at the same time."

Truth.

To catch up:

When my mom died last December it was one of those things where when people ask “was it unexpected? Was it sudden?” my only answer was “kind of? But also not?” Basically, what I could say was “Five days in the hospital and she was gone”.

And that's that. It was, and continues to be, the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through, but life kept going, almost immediately. Two weeks after she died, I found out I got a job in the U.S. and would have to move in 2016. Two weeks after that, my maternal grandfather died. Two months after that, I found out that getting a visa for TB to work in the U.S. would be superfun! (note: it would actually be the opposite of superfun) and it would be  much easier if we just got married. But he insisted that he wanted to ask me, so I agreed. And on June 30th, under a sky full of stars, TB proposed to me with a story worthy of any Simpsons fan (more on that in a later entry)

Since that moment I've been running. In order to keep my upcoming job I have to become fluent in Spanish before next summer, which, when you're starting with a half-level above "dos cervezas, por favor" is a challenge, to say the least. The second half of 2015 has been full of getting my grandfather’s house ready to sell, planning a wedding, and conjugating verbs like it's my job (it is).

In 2016, language gods willing, I'll pack up my house, rent it to someone who won't destroy it,  find and rent a house in the U.S, and start a new job, all while grieving the two best people I ever knew.
I have no idea how I’m going to do it all, or if it’s even possible.

But adulting doesn’t wait until you’re ready – it just happens and expects you to catch up.

Thanks for running with me.


*Adapted from an earlier post on Offbeat Bride's forum before they closed in November 2015

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

One year.

This blog has remained so quiet, not because I've had nothing to say, but rather because I've had too much. Every time I looked at an open page the weight of the white felt like a burden, so I quietly closed the window and moved on. But I wanted to mark today because, of course I do. I won't try to sum up how things have been, but suffice it to say, 2016 has the potential to be the weirdest year of my life to date. But we're not there yet; we're still here. It's difficult to capture this year which has been, simultaneously, disquieting and quiet. Quiet is good, though. Quiet is welcome here.

If you'd asked me a year ago where I thought I'd be now the answer is where I currently am; in bed. It was hard to foresee a time when I would be able to push the covers off myself, put on clothes and head out into the world. But about a month later, I did. And then two weeks after that, I did it every day for a week. Then I just kept going, because you basically are left with two choices in this life: wither or tumble. So I tumbled back to work, through deadlines and meetings, through birthdays and wine in cheap paper cups, through lunch dates and portfolio changes and everything else that was thrown at me. And yes, sometimes it felt hollow and hard, but other times it felt normal and fine, and good, and sometimes even great. And the world unfolded as it does, leaving me more afraid and worried than I've ever been, but also so surrounded by love.

And there is, of course, always her. I remember realizing one day that she wasn't the first thought I had when I woke up in the morning and a small part of me was relieved. But every day, she's there. Just under the daily routine, waiting. I haven't figured out what to do with her yet. But for now, we can share the same space in silence, like sitting next to her on a church pew or park bench.

I wanted to share the words I wrote a year or so ago for her funeral. It would be easy to say these were the hardest words I ever had to write, but that would be a lie. They were the hardest words I ever had to read aloud, but writing them came quickly, all at once in a late night cascade. I withered while they tumbled.

I still have no idea what I'm doing and Im still scared every single day of my life. But I've made it one year. It's possible. And that's enough for today.

-----------


Friends, family, well wishers, in the interest of honesty, I would like to begin with a confession: I didn’t finish this speech until hours before we all gathered here. This is not unusual – since I was 8 years old and had to complete a report on the rather vague topic of “Canada”, I have never started a paper, project or presentation more than 2 days before it was due. I’ve had book reports where I haven’t even taken the book out of the library until the weekend before. And throughout my school years, primary through to University, I could always count on my night owl mother, rolling her eyes, exasperatedly sighing “Oh ______” and then rolling up her sleeves, sitting down at our electric typewriter, then our monochrome computer, then our PC and using her rapid-fire typing skills to commit to paper whatever drivel I’d managed to coax out of my beleaguered brain at 1 in the morning. I only tell you this rather embarrassing fact about myself, because it’s a really good example of what kind of mom my mom was. She would admonish you, encourage you to do better next time, and then sit down and bail you out. Every time. Not because she wanted to protect you, but because she knew you better than you knew yourself. And she knew you were trying. And she loved you.

My mother had more love in her than should have been possible for a mere mortal. So many of you have mentioned her kindness, her smile, the way she never had a bad word to say about anyone. And yes, yes that’s how she was in public, but let me tell you, in private? She was exactly the same. She was kinder than anyone I’ve ever known. Almost infuriatingly so. You could rant and rave about something or someone to her and she’d nod and listen and agree with you, but even then, you could tell just by the look in her eyes that she thought you could do better. And begrudgingly, you’d try to, without even realizing she’d tricked you into being a better person.

It was a joy to know my mother. She made friends easily, and couldn’t have chosen a better part-time job than Avon representative. Customers became companions within a few campaigns, and every time she thought of giving the business up, she always came back to it, because it gave her a chance to chat and laugh with the people she’d grown so close to. And also because she got her mascara for 40% off.

My mother’s tastes were not easily defined. She was as at home at the Chateau Laurier for Afternoon Tea as she was at Miller’s Oven in Manotick, enjoying a piece of blueberry shortcake. She loved classical music and world travel, but also enjoyed bargain-hunting in Syracuse and, inexplicably, the Big Bang Theory. She was game for just about anything, and we always shrieked in delight when she’d deign to do something silly, like take a goofy Christmas card photo, or make a face for the camera, because she always left the monkey business up to the three of us. But sometimes she would cave, giving us a little glimpse of the goofball she could be, if the scenery wasn’t always being chewed by her hammy family.

She was the first person I wanted to tell something to because she always had the perfect reaction. She was overjoyed, bursting at the seams with pride when it was good, and aghast at the world we live in when it was bad.

Music was one of my mother’s great loves. A talent that she and my father shared, and which has bypassed my and my sister’s generation entirely. And yet she bore our failings with good humour, of course, telling us our ear-piercing, godawful version of A-Ha’s Take On Me, was not the worst thing she’d ever heard, which is a lie. She introduced us to her love of musicals early in life, and loved to plunk away at her keyboard whenever new music came in for her choirs. I actually think my sister and I may be her choir’s longest-standing audience members, always there for a Christmas concert or a Family and Friends event, though we fully accept we are not their target audience.

My mom always enjoyed a good glass of wine. Or a bad glass of wine. Just wine, really. She was great at a party, always the mingler. My sister and I loved going to events with her because she always got the really good gossip from people without even trying. And, even better, she was willing to share the best stuff. I have inherited many things from my mother – my eyes, my empathy, my inability to watch sappy Tim Hortons commercials without crying– but her ability to drink consistently throughout an evening and still carry on in-depth conversations with all those around her is not one of them. I’m sorry mom, I know this continues to be one of my great failings.

My mother instilled in us a deep love of family. She loved hers with all her heart and I can’t count how many of my friends became “Honourary ” with a wave of her hand. Her brother Ron was a treasure to her, her closest friend and constant confidante. They were two peas in a pod, more alike than any non-twin siblings have any right to be. She started a craft business with her sister, Deb. She never let us leave a trip to the ‘States without making sure that there was scores of cheap pipe tobacco for her father in the glove box. She loved my sister fiercely, and it was a delight to watch them work together, whether it was perfecting a parallel park, or mastering a particularly tricky cross-stitch pattern. She used to play non-competitive combined-score Scrabble with her mother for hours at our dining room table, and I like to think they have now taken up the habit again.

I’m 32 years old, and I have never missed a birthday, a mother’s day, a Christmas, a Thanksgiving, or an Easter. Because family was love, family was everything. And we did so much loving in the 64 years we had her. But it still feels like we could have done so much more.

And should you need to know further proof of her love, recall that she was with my dear father for 38 years. I love my father completely, but sometimes 38 minutes can feel like I’ve run a marathon. But she still listened to him, and even though she rolled her eyes and sighed more often than you might think humanly possible, she loved him, whether they were travelling through Europe or just sitting in front of the fireplace on a wintery night.

I feel like I could sit here for hours, sharing memories, telling you about a Christmas Eve spent eating oranges and coffee cake in an aging hotel room, about the way weeding her garden felt like church to her, about an unfinished Christmas stocking, about morning puppet shows, about how she’d once wanted to teach music to children in Northern communities, about how the only things as good as her hugs were her strawberry pies. But frankly, there are sandwiches to be eaten, and wine to be drunk, and if I told you everything to love about her, we’d be here for another 64 years.

In times like these, it’s normal to feel helpless, to feel like you want to do something to ease the heartache, to make this terrible journey that we must all make, just a little easier. It’s become almost a cliché - “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” And already so many of you have gone ahead and done so much. We deeply appreciate every meal cooked, every kindness extended, every trip made to be with us. But what more can we do, you ask. Well, okay, since you asked so nicely, I’ll tell you. If you knew her,tell us about her. Tell us about the stories she’d tell when she was with you. Tell us about how she was when she was younger. Tell us what she loved, and what made her laugh, so we can add to the long list of memories we’re cloaking ourselves in like a blanket. And most of all, tell us the things that she wouldn’t tell us herself, because I bet she was hiding some really righteous gossip.

Talk about her, think about her, laugh about her. Because I have to believe a love like hers doesn’t just disappear. It has to go on, in all of us. It’s too powerful not to.



Monday, July 27, 2015

33.

I've got this thing for the number 15. It seems like big things, bad and good, happen for me on the 15th. I broke up with my long-term boyfriend on a 15th (of February. I'm a jerk), I moved into my first apartment on a 15th, passed the test that gave me my current job on a 15th and my anniversary with TB is on the 15th. I remember thinking to myself last year that 2015 was going to be insane. It just had to be. Superstition was on my side. I mean, 2014 had been an effing rollercoaster ride. More travel in one year than I’d done in my whole life, landing a job I wanted, cool responsibilities at work, and, of course, more loss than I could fathom.

Imagine my surprise, then, that 2015 has been one long flatline of mostly even-keeled quiet. No travel outside the country, no big changes on the job front, just a lot of keeping my head above water and trying to go through the motions of everyday normal. Whoo!!
I had wondered if I should even do anything for my birthday – having a birthday on a holiday always leaves the question of a party up in the air – but once I heard my best pal Jax was in town for the first time in probably 7 years I knew I had to do something.

Sparkler fights: fun and inadvisable
Two years ago my birthday was, by far, the best party I’d ever thrown. 30-40 people showed up, there was chaos and trays of drinks set on fire and our brand new dog was scared shitless (just kidding, she’s never shitless) by the revelers and their propensity toward picking her up like a baby.

This year’s fete was a lot smaller- a more manageable 15-20 people- and a lot less work. We decided to have a barbecue, get some beer and then let off some fireworks and sparklers in the backyard.

Proof. (pun cheerfully intended)
Confession: TB barbecued, bought the beer and then let off fireworks. I put on a tshirt and made jello shots.

It was actually pretty great. I had two friends from miles away come out, at one point there were three dogs in my house – two pugs and a boston terrier – so you know I was into that, and everyone seemed to have fun. We let off the fireworks in our (very close to power lines, very urban) backyard and didn’t know we had an audience until tiny voices began chanting “We want fireworks! We want fireworks!” and we realized there was a trio of pint-sized piros watching from our neighbour’s balcony. So, you know, at least they weren’t going to rat us out to Bylaw.
Pepper pug is as much fun as she looks

People went their separate ways around 9:30 or so (my birthday fell on a Wednesday this year so the bureaucrats turned into pumpkins) and then we headed down to watch the professionals do their explody colour magic. We ended the night with Jax, TB, my sister and I playing “Cards Against Humanity” where I found a brand new favourite card!

And yeah, I missed her. I missed her when my dad’s name was the only one written on my card, and when her alto voice didn’t match his bass singing me happy birthday over the phone. I missed her wearing her traditional red and white outfit (complete with socks) and I missed the ease with which she’d pick out a great birthday gift (my dad, on the other hand kept wringing his hands until he panicked and bought some random chez lounge. My sister set him straight and I got an awesome zero gravity chair for the backyard instead.) This will be the first year of my life without her and the first birthday of mine she’s ever missed. But, like mother’s day and easter before it, my birthday was still good. Different, and maybe more reflective, but still good.

I remember a moment, when we were outside and the fireworks were blasting and we were shrieking and drinking and laughing and I just thought “I am happy.” It seems impossible that I’d get to that point again, and it was fleeting, but it was there. It is possible. Happy Birthday to me. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

Take me to Church

"Being in my garden feels like church to me."

It's something she used to say, somehow making it sound both off-handed and reverent. As a child, I never really understood what she meant. Summer was full of so many wonderful things: swimming pools, garage sales, bike riding, popsicles - what was so great about standing in your own backyard, fingernails full of dirt,  sweat pouring down your forehead, back aching as you tugged at a stubborn weed?

I think I get it now.

Swiss chards and mustard greens - grow little hipsters, grow!

When we bought our house in September 2012 it already had a cute little planter box, mostly left unloved as the previous owners had been gone since April. There were some bushes spilling over from the neighbours' side, a stubborn pine tree hanging over the fence that did no one any good, and a largely empty stone-wall-bordered garden that ran the length of the fence. Lots of potential, but not a lot actively going on.

An awkward view of part of the fence-length garden
Since then, I've been given bleeding hearts and strawberry geraniums and rhubarb from my mom and dad, taken some incredibly hearty chives from my grandfather's garden, bought a lilac bush and a mock orange and a blackberry bush, and potted some lungswart and irises.  Last year we placed a pallet beside the planter box and I keep adding to the collection of pots we have on it so far, filling them with black earth and whatever looks the showiest at the garden centres. Our vegetable garden seems happy and fruitful (little edible garden pun there for you) and this year looks like it might be its best year yet.

Chives, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, greens, peas, and squash all doing their thing.
There's something deeply satisfying about a hobby that takes something small, gives it attention and watches it bloom. I feel like I'm responsible for creating a little joy, for making the world nicer, even if only in the smallest of ways. It's the same sense of pride I take when I look at Lily, no longer the terrified shaking lump we first met, but now a sweet, funny, sassy neighbourhood watchdog, loving, goofy and, okay, occasionally pretty skittish, but so totally ours. Our garden isn't perfect or pretty or pinterest worthy, but we made something out of nothing and that's never not remarkable to me. Every day I carefully part leaves, run my fingers over new growth, inhale the scent of mint mingling with chives and lilacs and think how astounding it is that all this can come from taking the tiniest thing and giving it love and attention.

I'm not religious, but I think I understand what my mother was talking about. Faith as small as a mustard seed is all you need to make big things possible.

Friday, May 15, 2015

It's not the big things

"But it is not these big holidays that make his loss hard for me, it’s really not. He was good at big things but he was best at the small things, at making me feel seen and heard and understood, remembering all of the things that made me Nora and loving me in spite of and because of them."

- Find the rest of Nora's awesome words about her husband, Aaron, here 



Nora gets it.

I crashed a little before Easter. I was given some assignment or another, went back to my office to make some edits and then just stared at my back office wall and felt the grief come in a wave. I closed my door, silently cursing the tiny window that looks into the hallway, and turned away from it, letting the quiet sobs rack my body. In between sobs I called my friend C who was in an airport in Moscow, trying to cram an overpriced sandwich in her mouth before boarding the plane to Armenia. 

"You got this girl. Fuck, I should have called you sooner. Easter, Passover, shit, I should've known this weekend was going to be hard on you."
"*I* didn't know they'd be hard! I was fine. It just happened!"

Of course, you're always fine until you're not. And thanks to C, just as quickly as it descended on me, it was over. I pulled myself together, collected the paper someone had slipped under the door (seriously? You can't wait 15 fucking minutes? Okay, then.), made the edits and went on with my day. 

I had been silently dreading Easter for a while, until that point. I was convinced it was going to be a shitty reminder of a holiday I don't care for (don't like ham or scalloped potatoes, not religious, can take or leave milk chocolate or jelly beans) that was only kept going because of the people I'd lost. The human brain is so weird. For years I groaned as my mom made us dress up, go to Church, eat a dinner I didn't like, all while taking up chunks of an otherwise perfectly nice long weekend. It occurred to me then that there was no one to make me do that any longer. I am what I always longed to be - an adult. And while I wouldn't go so far as to say I wish someone was ordering me into a poofy dress and shoving a plate of milky taters my way, I missed it, sort of. I was really struck at how the loss her and my grandparents has led to my own forced autonomy. 

The day itself turned out to be okay, uneventful, calm, and with TB's parents out of town, very lowkey and family-free. Passover fell on Good Friday, so I did that instead, singing the songs, eating the food and reading the words that connected me to my father's history instead. Easter Sunday was spent with Netflix and discount peanut butter cups, and while I couldn't get the nagging feeling out of my head that I should have been doing something, in retrospect, my only wish is that I'd spent less time worrying about it in the first place.

This was my thought process going into Mother's Day. Of all the tough days I had planned for after my mom died this one was, punnily, the mothership. A day meant for worshiping moms and all they've done for you. For many of my fellow 30-somethings, this meant a day to thank their moms as grandmothers, posting charming multi-generational photos of their happy, intact families. Torture for the unmothered, in other words. But I decided to take my therapist's advice and just face the day as it came, no concrete plans, no expectations, just as-is. 

And it was okay. Really. My sister, dad and I went to a plant sale together, where we bought seeds and flowers and raspberry bushes from a bunch of nice, if slightly odd, plant folk. We went to brunch, where we miraculously found a spot at once of my favourite breakfast places. Even surrounded by mothers and their kids, it was okay. We toasted her with excellent cups of coffee and mimosas, ate so much other patrons stared and talked about nothing of consequence. My father bought me a bouquet of flowers just because, and we went to my place and barbecued a chicken with a beer can up its ass, then polished off a bottle of wine. I stayed off of social media for the most part, which was a good move. And I didn't cry, not once. Mostly because, as Nora says, the big days, the holidays, the missed events, aren't always the monuments to sadness you think they'll be. Instead, it's in the small, silent moments - the fastening of a necklace, the curled up leaf of a lily, the death of a beloved celebrity - that you realize she's gone, and you wish she wasn't. 

Happy Mother's Day, mom.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Nothing Special

Watching someone die isn't like the movies - add that to the long list of things that cinema romanticizes. Death can be ugly, thrashing, coughing, noisy. Death can be sudden, uneventful, unaccompanied by the flatlining of a machine and fists upon a chest begging the person to "live, Damnit!" My grandfather's was quiet. So quiet we weren't sure exactly when it happened. I count his death as 2:37 in the morning, because that's when I saw the small blip on the monitor make the shape of a top hat, then rest. Unassuming, just as he was. "I'll just show myself out" he might have been saying.

There was a pause right after my grandfather died, just this side of awkward, where we weren't sure what to do. There's a little bit of a mental shift in that moment, when you go from surrounding your loved one to being in the room with a dead body. They wheeled out one of his roommates in order to give us privacy, and we spent a moment or two saying something to a person who was no longer there to listen. I don't remember what I said, but I must have said thank you, I must have said goodbye, I recall saying that I knew he wasn't here to hear me. I remember kissing a cheek growing colder and calling TB to let him know I'd be home soon. But the most stark thing I remember is walking out to the parking lot and seeing two people, one male, one female, illuminated by the overhead glare of the emergency doors. The man was speaking in low, hushed whispers, and then suddenly this high-pitched mechanical whine issued forth from the woman's chest as she balled up her fists against the man's shoulders and sank into a crouch. I remember saying "Wow. Someone's having a worse night than us." I said that, knowing that in a few short days we'd be burying my grandfather next to a grave that was still fresh. But my pain was dulled, an outcome I'd predicted as soon as I hung up from that late-night phone call. Hers was still brand-new and raw.

I don't know why I needed to tell that story today, but I think it has to do with my last post about perspective. Some days I feel like I'm lucky, but mostly, selfishly, I'm just relieved to know I'm not alone.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Here comes the sun

I'm nursing a micro hangover today and, armed with my made-up science that vitamin D would help it, I chose to sit outside for lunch today. The sun hit the side of my face in a steady swath of light as a coworker and I gossiped, eyes rolling and tongues clucking like the 1940s hens we are. With temperatures in the high teens all this week, I think it's safe to say that winter's finally behind us - thank god. This truly has been the winter of our discontent - a meandering, lollygagging mess of a season that sleeted over everyone's good cheer and reduced life down to a cycle of being cold and warming up.

Every step forward feels unsure and awkward these days. It's not fear exactly (though CS Lewis' remark that grief feels so much like fear is really spot on most of the time), but more of a tugging at the heart, the stomach, the ribs, telling you that moving forward is dangerous, that staying still is best. Even if things aren't ideal, the idea of making plans and following through on them seems foolhardy and unwise. The gut instinct is to just keep taking calming breaths and convince myself that everything's fine right where it is. And mostly, that's what I do.

Literally me.
I mentioned that with my therapist recently, and we talked about the resiliency of humans, and how, for some, even when our lives are demonstrably "worse" than they were before, as soon as we've begun to adjust to our new normal we want things to now stay exactly as they are. After my mom died, I was desperate to hold on to everyone around me. Then my grandfather died and I became panicked, looking for some kind of superstitious pattern or charm to keep me and my loved ones safe. Now, as I adjust to this life without them, there are moments where I'm okay, not quite happy, but okay, but I tell myself that will only be true as long as everyone stays exactly where they are, forever.
Which is impossible, I know.

I suppose this is coming to the surface now because this week, one of my mom's best friends died. She was a wonderful woman, warm and kind, attending my mother's funeral even as she herself fought brain cancer. My mom cried at the dinner table when she heard about her friend's diagnosis, fresh on the heels of another friend's illness. "All my friends are dying!" she burst out. We joked that she was the healthiest of the bunch. At my mother's funeral her friend and I shared a small, tight hug after the plates of sandwiches and cookies had been cleared away.

"Thank you for loving her," I said.
"Oh, but it was easy!" she exclaimed.

It's my strongest memory of the day.

And now another home is missing its fourth wall, another grandchild won't grow to know his grandmother's hands, another husband adjusts to a queen bed made up for one, a set of daughters is left to grapple with life without their biggest ally. And so it goes. Not just for them, or us, but for thousands every day, all over.

I'm somewhat grateful, in a fucked up way, to be able to see the world this way. To know that so many people are carrying on in spite of what's happened to them, not because of it. It's like learning a new word and then suddenly seeing it everywhere. So many people have lost so much, have suffered so much, and yet we still keep going, still breathe, still blink, still beat. Winter becomes Spring becomes Summer, whether we open the windows or not.