Death and The Holidays

26 11 2009

A year ago I wrote a piece “On Giving Thanks for a New Kind of Family” in which I reconciled my lack of ‘real’ family with the family I’ve created for my self – my friends  who have embraced me literally and figuratively with a fierceness and a love that humbles and touches me.    This year as I again faced a Thanksgiving day spent mostly alone – Kelly working and Liza  with her dad and his family – I found myself slipping back into those patterns of self pity.   Yet, anyone who knows me, knows the last thing I want to be is that person you see coming and think “great here she comes dragging her trail of dead family members behind her like some kind of badge.”  Of course I’m not entirely lacking in family. I have a wonderful big brother, but his busy life as a criminal prosecutor and the comings and goings of his three active teenage boys make it hard for us to get together more than once a year if that.  Kelly’s family has welcomed me into their midst with love and hospitality and I look forward to the day when they are all my in-laws.  And yes, next year at this time Kelly and Liza and I will officially be a family of three, a prospect which excites me and fills those empty spaces in my heart.  But that six-week stretch between Thanksgiving and New Years is full of reminders of my family holidays past and it is always a struggle for me to get through it in one piece .

A recent trend on Facebook has been to undertake a “thirty days of gratitude exercise” and today it seemed everyone’s post mentioned being grateful for FAMILY (all in caps naturally) and the cooking skills of uncles and moms and grandmothers, of baking pies with siblings and rousing games of flag football on frozen lawns.  To read these posts one would think everyone lived in that “very special” Thanksgiving episode of General Hospital where the Quartermaines stop bickering and welcome the Webbers and the Spencers to their house for a lavish dinner and everyone wears turtleneck sweaters whilst sipping wine in front of crackling fires.  Yet, here I sat in an empty house with the four cats for company watching a marathon of  “Ru Paul’s Drag Race “on the LOGO network.  (Frankly, I’m stunned I’m not inspiration for a Hallmark card with a holiday tradition like this. ) Yet, as I read post after post about large family gatherings and travels to distant places and family recipes handed down from generation to generation, I realized that my family has its own morbidly unique tradition:  we all die at the holidays.

Now don’t blanche at that statement.  It’s ok.  Death is part of life after all, and really, what better time to pass away than when your family is already gathered together and the churches are bedecked with evergreens and twinkle lights? When you’ve driven to as many family funerals as I have in front of the backdrop of holiday decorations you develop a certain macabre sense of humor about it.   It all started December 21, 1980 when my grandfather, who lived with us, had a massive heart attack in the back seat of my family station wagon and fell over and died on my 14-year old shoulder.  “He died with someone he loved more than anything, “ my mom would often say to me.  At the time I was traumatized but as the years went on, I realized I had the makings of one hell of a cocktail party story.  Friends sent casseroles and deli trays to my family and for the next decade we made deli sandwiches on Christmas Eve as a nod to those days following his death, and our truncated celebration that year was the first time I’d spend the holidays wrapped in the cocoon of my family as we mourned the loss of someone close to us.

Ten years later my father would pass away on January 9th after an all-too quick battle with malignant melanoma and his funeral took place in the same family church with the same nativity scene in the corner and the same wreaths hung by red velvet ribbons along the walls.   My father’s death is something I don’t speak of often.   I was his baby girl and he was my hero.  He taught me about Broadway musicals and crossword puzzles, how to read the New Yorker, the value of a good walking stick, and how to make the perfect bourbon and ginger for my mother.  His dual Irish/Italian heritage meant he was prone to downing more than a few manhattans each night and then crying while listening to Pavarotti sing  I Pagliacci.   Losing him left a wound on my heart and a hole in my life that has never been filled and not a day goes by that I don’t wish he were here to see me and his granddaughter who looks and acts so much like I did at ten.   For the next thirteen years we celebrated the holidays with out him, my mother alternating between Thanksgivings with my brother and Christmases with my sister, and always raising a toast to my dad on December 28th, their wedding anniversary.

Then in 2003 holiday death came calling for someone far, far too young.  My 45- year old sister was diagnosed with multiple myeloma right after Labor Day and died two days before Thanksgiving.   Shell-shocked at this unexpected loss, my brother, mother and I journeyed to Maryland on Thanksgiving Day for the sad occasion of her funeral.   I’ll never forget that long drive from the Baltimore airport to her home in Salisbury, tired, sad and hungry, we stopped at a convenience store for a Thanksgiving dinner of cracker sandwiches and peanuts.   When I returned to New Hampshire the following Monday I was stunned to see the world ablaze with Christmas lights and decorations.  Three weeks later we held a memorial service for Marie at our family church in Maine  — same nativity scene, same wreaths, same deli sandwiches.  By now we had the holiday funeral down pat.

With my sister’s death still raw my brother and I never anticipated that ten months  later we would be faced with my mother’s stage four breast cancer diagnosis.  Coming as it did in July of that year I remember sitting with her at her oncologist appointment thinking idly, “well we’ll have her for another five months,” so sure was I that she too would follow our family pattern of a diagnosis and quick death just in time for the holidays.   I didn’t count on my mother’s tenacity.  She fought back for the next three years, recovering from major invasive surgery, working through physical therapy, enjoying a brief remission, and several more trips out for lunch and dinner with her best friends, “the ABC ladies” who dined alphabetically through all of Greater Portland’s hot restaurants.   But sure enough in December, 2007 during a holiday visit from me and Liza, and my brother and his youngest son, my mom’s condition turned suddenly, horrifically grave and she was rushed to the hospital. There we were once again in the family waiting room under the soft glow of Christmas lights with holiday muzak in the background.  On January 3rd they told us there was no hope.  On January 7th she died and her funeral at that same family church was full of what was by now the comforting and familiar presence of pointsettias and wise men and murmured words of condolences over deli sandwiches from the local Shaws.   During those long sad final days by her bedside my brother and I would often smile wryly at each other and say “here we are again huh, planning a Christmas funeral.”  There’s more I want to say about my mother but that loss is too new still too fresh and who she was deserves more than a pithy sentence at the end of this paragraph.

I share this not to elicit pity or sympathy. My losses are no more or no less tragic than anyone else’s and if anything, they’ve given me, the queen of self -deprecation, some great material.  I share this as explanation for my obsession with gathering my loved ones to me during the holidays, for my insistence that the Christmas lights and decorations (including my impressive and often-mocked Santa Mug collection) come out the day after Thanksgiving, for my reluctance to be alone, for my need to hug Liza tighter than ever, for my love of Christmas carols on the cd player and endless viewings of the musical Scrooge, and for my tendency to tear up when Kelly holds me.   You see, this magical time from Thanksgiving to New Year’s for me is as much about loss as it is about light and giving, as much about pain and sorrow as it is about laughter and pecan pie. But it has given me a fierce appreciation for the people in my life who mean so much to me – for Kelly and Liza who are my world, for my brother Patrick, my sister-in-law Marti and my nephews, for my best friends Joe, Katie, Meghan, Dana, Margaret, Susie, Tara, June, Vicki and Lisa and Debbie,  for “my boys” Chris, Nathan, Jeff and Matt, my new gal pals Deb and Jenn,  and for my amazing cyber pals from Mothertalkers, Banshees and May 99 moms.   During this time I may write you a little more, I may hug you a little harder or reach for your hand more often, I may call a little too much. Or I may get quiet and pull back when I fear my neediness is becoming intrusive.  Bear with me.  You mean the world to me and when you’ve already lost your world three times over you want to hold on to what is left.   To say I am thankful for you would be inadequate.  To say I appreciate you would be trite.  To say I love you would be the truth — imperfect as it may be.   Happy Holidays to you… my family.


“There’s a Cat In the Freezer”, and Other Tales of Early Co-Habitation

13 10 2009

homeworkTwo weeks ago today I nervously reflected on what life would be like when Kelly and I joined households. I worried we’d bicker over cleaning or bump into each other in my tiny kitchen, that Liza would resent this other person taking away my attention and that none of us would get any sleep. My anxious tendencies in high gear I put all my acting skills to the test in order to appear calm as if I merged my life with someone else’s all the time. “Don’t freak out,” Kelly said on move-in day “when you see all the boxes in the basement.” Heading downstairs I found my desk, my clean quiet sanctuary for writing, bill paying, Face-booking and general escapism was now barricaded by box after box of Kelly’s books, pictures, kitchen gadgets and cat paraphernalia. Surely ever liquor store in sight had been raided for their boxes I thought idly while wishing that the Captain Morgan box held a leftover bottle or two instead of Kelly’s collection of private school yearbooks. “Heyyyyyy, no problem!” I replied with the exaggerated politeness of new college roommates on the first day of freshman year. “See how calm I am?” I said as I tried to figure out what we were going to do with three boxes of powdered sugar, two boxes of kosher salt and four bottles of olive oil, not to mention the seven (yes seven) varieties of shower gel our combined households had yielded. But that night as we sat, feet propped on the coffee table, wine in hand I looked around at the house, at the cats now venturing out from their hiding places under my mom’s old chair in the basement, and the soft glow of Kelly’s 42 inch flat screen tv and thought how nice this was going to be, this having Kelly with me every night as we blissfully headed into our future.

Then she started hanging things up.

Kelly possesses a wonderful and quirky collection of old school black and white photos of 1920s era sirens, a beautiful assortment of framed Charles Rennie Mackintosh prints, and pretty much every movie still from “Paper Moon” in existence. The ”who gets to hang what and where” discussion made our negotiations over which set of measuring cups and spoons we’d keep out look like child’s play. “Just because you HAVE all these things doesn’t mean you HAVE to hang them UP,” I said. “Just because you’ve ALWAYS had that stuff on the walls doesn’t mean you have to KEEP it up she replied.” We compromised, we haggled and in the end we both gave and we both got. She got to hang Paper Moon photos up our stairwell but gave in and replaced the twenties harlots in her classy black frames with great family photos of our Maine vacation and I agreed to take down a lovely but admittedly new-agey print about friendship. Her gorgeous prints look fabulous in our dining room but she conceded that really not all of them fit it and would be ok to leave a few down. The end result feels cohesive and very very much us.

Last Sunday I felt a new anxiety as I prepared for Liza to come home. I called her dad to see if he’d bring her by for a ‘dry run’ so she could scope out the changes to the house in advance. “I don’t want to come home to you ever again,” she said sullenly over the phone. “Ok then see you soon!” I said brightly in my “oh goodness no that remark didn’t hurt my feelings voice.” Then I went upstairs lay on my bed and cried. But God bless my ex-husband for coming through and bringing Liza over to see the new dining room table, the new artwork, the cats and much to her delight the new “way better than yours momma” TV. This dress rehearsal for the real thing seemed to do the trick and in spite of spending most of Monday worrying about how Liza would be when I picked her up at school, her re-entry into our home went surprisingly well. After a few bumps figuring out whether the cats would take to her (yes) and whether she wanted them in her room at night (no) we all settled in and Liza even opined that “it was fun here momma, I like having the cats.”

Ah yes. The cats.

While I’ve been pleasantly surprised that the cats don’t’ seem to be underfoot as much as I thought they’d be, and the shedding isn’t bad this time of year, and the Zyrtec seems to be keeping Liza’s allergies at bay, having four felines in residence has taken a bit of getting used to. They open my closet door and rappel up my hangers so they can nap on top of my sweaters, they tiptoe along the top of my bookcase, they commandeer the top of the fridge and climb in the dishwasher when I empty it in the mornings. One time I took some frozen waffles out of the freezer, set them on the counter and looked up to find one of the cats sitting in the freezer as if it was the most natural thing in the world. They can hear me flip open my laptop from 2 floors away and within minutes I will have one on the keyboard, one on my lap and one on my shoulders as if to say “whatcha writing?” A stuffed dog Liza won at an arcade has been kidnapped by one of our boy cats and we find it all over the house. But what has surprised me the most about living with the cats is something that I know I will take endless ribbing for because it defies my carefully cultivated ‘Cranky Yankee” demeanor: I love them. I love the way they cuddle between me and Kelly at night, the way one of them lies out side Liza’s door as if standing guard, the way they watch for me to come home from the kitchen window and the way they run downstairs with me in the morning when I feed them. I expected to grudgingly tolerate them. I didn’t expect to be so completely totally won over.

In the past few weeks our home has begun to settle into new rhythms and new routines – Kelly helping Liza with math while I make dinner, both of us teaching her funny songs and ways to remember her science vocabulary while we linger at the table. When Kelly leaves for work in the morning I open Liza’s bedroom door and she lies in bed cuddling with a cat or two while I shower and got ready. Her mood has gotten brighter. I’m smiling more. We ‘re all sleeping better. My thoughts during the day turn to home and wanting to be with my lady and my girl rather than finding reasons to work longer or take on more commitments. For the first time in over five years I have something to come home to that I’ve wanted for so long: A family, A real family under one roof. Here’s to the next chapter!

An Every Other Week Mother

24 09 2009

Thanksgiving week for most moms of nine year olds most likely includes a flurry of shopping and cooking. Perhaps board games with the family, visits from grandma, another trip to the movies for a second or third viewing of High School Musical 3, or decorating the house for the holidays. Most of my daughter’s friends have moms who are there every day of every week doing what moms do – whether they work outside the home or not — they are there in their lives every day of every week. Not my daughter. My daughter has an every-other-week mother.

Liza lives with her dad for a week at a time and then with me for a week at a time, changing houses after school every Monday. Don’t misunderstand. I am grateful beyond words that Liza is blessed with a father who packs lunches, and signs permission slips. Who can finesse a “ballet bun” in her hair on dance class days. Who takes her to the dentist and shopping for winter boots. I am grateful her stepmother provides a warm and loving home for her with the home-cooked meals that I seem incapable of producing, and craft projects and shopping trips that were truly designed to meet the mercurial whims of a tween girl. We are amicable and friendly – helping each other out when our work schedules intervene in the afterschool pickup/dance class drop off/ soccer game-to rehearsal carousel of Liza’s schedule. We have forged a new kind of family from our divorce. A family so strong that I hesitate at times to even call myself a “single mom” since I rarely if ever feel as though I am raising Liza on my own. I’m not. I’m just an Every Other Week Mother.

In high school and college I was awkward and shy. Fat and clumsy and completely baffled by the social mores of my peers I sequestered myself in the theater department where my social life consisted of the occassional cast party. But in my thirties and forties after surviving a divorce and coming out of the closet I found myself experiencing what one friend called my ‘second twenties’ On the weeks when Liza is living with her dad I find myself living a life I never lived in my all-too-serious youth. I go dancing at Women’s T dances in Ogunquit. I work a delightful second job in a friends bookstore where I’m not haunted by any major responsibilities other than correct change and ability to alphabetize. I sleep late on Sundays and read the paper over coffee with Kelly. I hit the gym at odd hours and eat meals of cheese and crackers instead of proper dinners. I send text messages to my new twenty-something friends from my “Company” cast and stay out until midnight on a work night. I put up the Christmas decorations alone with only the company of George Winston’s “December” on the cd player. I tell myself how great this is. This break. This quiet. This freedom. This….stillness of a house without Liza.

I find myself in two worlds, straddling the life lived by my childless or single friends and that lived by my friends with children. Some of my married friends with children say “I’m so jealous! I”d love a break from MY kids sometime. what fun you must have!” Others say “oh I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t go a week without my child. I can’t see HOW you can do it.” Yes. I do have fun. Yes. But every day and every night of those “off weeks” I feel a niggling in the back of my mind and an emptiness in my chest and I think “what is she doing now?” Does she miss me on those weeks when her life more typically resembles a traditional family? Does she wonder what I’m doing? How I am? Did she pass that test on state capitals? Did she practice her clarinet? Did she show her dad her loose tooth? How is her cough? How. Is. She? Every other Monday I tell her “you know you can call me ANYTIME right?” Yet the phone remains silent. I should be happy. This means she’s happy, she’s content and after all that’s what any mother wants for their child. Yet every day I hope for a call from her to show she needs me. Every day I battle with myself about calling her. More often than not when I do I call I’m often greeted with her relctant “what?” My calls intrude on a life she lives without me. A life I can not claim or encroach upon. I am unwanted and in that moment I feel like a lovestruck girl begging her crush to acknowledge her.

I’ve never been a great mother. At times I haven’t even been a good mother. But I’m her mother. An Every-Other-Week Mother. And I can only hope that, for Liza, that’s good enough.

On Giving Thanks for a New Kind of Family

24 09 2009

Thanksgiving morning, 2008. I woke up alone to a quiet house. No cooking turkey, no parade on the tv, no relatives crowding in to enjoy a feast and good company. Kelly worked until 1am so is no doubt still sleeping. Liza is with her dad and stepmom enjoying her own Thanksgiving traditions – traditions that haven’t included me since my divorce over four years ago. I am alone My only remaining immediate family — my brother– is celebrating with his wife and sons in Rhode Island but did send a lovely Thanksgiving card so at least I know he remembers he actually has a sister left. For a few moments I feel terribly lonely. But the sun is shining and it’s not too cold so I decide to put the ipod on shuffle and go for a walk to escape the too quiet house.

A few hundred yards down the road, after my ipod has already graced me with some Fatboy slim to wake me up sufficiently, I hear the first sweet tones of Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. As the familiar Shaker tune fills my earbuds I hear the lyrics my head — “’tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free, ’tis a gift to come down where we ought to be.’ ” As my Target sneakers pound a rhythm on the sidewalk I feel chagrined that my thoughts this morning were so focused on what I did not have and not on all the things I do have. The deaths of my father, mother and sister, left a huge hole in my heart and left me longing for the warm embrace of family especially during the holiday season. But I am not alone and I realize that I am so blessed to with friends who have helped me forge a new kind of family — my family. For them I am grateful.

For Kelly who surrounds me with love on a daily basis, who makes me laugh harder and blush harder than I ever imagined possible. Who celebrates my quirks, calls me on my attitude, finishes my sentences (not always correctly but it’s fun to watch her try), loves and understands my daughter, and anticipates my needs and whims in a way that truly humbles and astonishes me.

For Joe, who has been literally and figuratively at my side as my best friend for nearly twenty five years. Who still indulges my penchant for 1970s sitcom trivia, who calls on slow days at work to ask “what do you think Bea Arthur is up to these days?”‘ and who has shared every major milestone of my adult life with me. For his partner Edwin with whom I shared the single longest hardest laugh fest of my life, and whose gentle hugs, kind words, and sly wit have brightened my world.

For old friends from college and high school — Aprile, Heather, Meghan, Maureen, Rob, Patrick, and many others, who have found me through the magic of the internet and remind me that there was a time I had a Dorothy Hamill haircut or big eighties hair, when I wore big red glasses and hung out in the Fenwick theater greenroom, when I listened to show tunes when others listened to Springsteen, and whose fond reminiscences give me the link to my past that my family can no longer provide.

For my friends here in New Hampshire who bring me into the hearts of their own families to share holiday meals and traditions, who drink wine with me on countless couches and share successes, trials, losses and joys with me on a daily basis. Especially for Susie whose love and light has seen me through dark times over and over again, and Tara whose patience with my endless stream of snark is truly saintly. For my Leadership New Hampshire family — Matt, Kevin, Don, Robin,Tim and many others — who answered back when I reached out to them and had the courage to say ‘we’re worried about you, you need some help. Find your smile again. We’ll be here with you every step of the way.” And for my new “Company” family who helped me find that smile I thought I’d lost — for Jeff, Deb, Jen, Mario, Craig, Blake, Caity, Kirstin, Nathan, Sue, Nina, Amanda, Hannah, Sam, Bud, Jude, Bailey and Meegan — who taught this 40 something mom how to send text messages, made me feel young again, alive again, and awoke creative juices I thought I’d said goodbye to forever.

For the wild and wise women of Banshees and Mothertalkers and May 99 moms who have challenged, debated me, supported me, and even openly mocked me, just as ‘real’ families do. could not ask for better virtual families to be a part of.

And finally for the greatest gift of my life. For Liza. For this wild, stubborn, amazing, joyful, frustrating, enchanting, loving, willful child who stormed into the world nine and a half years ago and who has taught me more about love and patience and humor and life than I thought possible. We are each others family and the power of our two is great enough to conquer the world and all its fears and challenges and opportunities. What a life she has before her and I”m privileged to be her mom.

This day began mourning the family I have lost. But now Kelly is here, and breakfast is cooking and soon we will gather with June and her family to give thanks and laugh and overeat and I will look around the table and remind myself that family is where you find it and how you make it. And thanks to all my families, I will never ever be alone. I have indeed “come down where I ought to be.”
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Remembering Marie

24 09 2009

My sister Marie died five years ago today. For two short months in the fall of 2003 my 45 year old sister fought back against an atypically agressive multiple myeloma that ravaged her bone marrow, while radiation and chemo left her bloated like Jerry Lewis on his steroid medication (her words). In New Hampshire I waited helpess for the dispatches from Maryland. “It’s treatable” became “this is bad” became “come now” became ” you didn’t get here in time, I’m sorry. She’s gone.” I hadn’t seen her for two years before her death. Unable to be with her when she died it was as if my sister had just vanished from the planet leaving behind all things uniquely Marie — her tangled jewelery box, her hordes of bodice-ripper romances, her husband, her oversized sweaters, her three sons, her antiques, her dogs, and her treasured black and white photo of her and my brother Patrick as children. This last item was taken during what my sister called the “good years” before I came along.

In 1966 my family was the typical sixties family — mom, dad, 10 year old boy, 8 year old girl – -then bam! Mom gets pregnant at 40 (dad was 50) and along comes the baby and in one fell swoop dethrones the aforementioned 8 year old girl as youngest and only girl. My sister never got over the sheer indignity of it all. Or so she said. But I knew that beneath the digs and the comments was a sister who would be my champion until the day she died. Eight years my senior, Marie was old enough to act as surrogate mother while also young enough to play endless days of Barbies with me. In my teens she taught me about makeup and how to study for finals, about tampons and Cosmopolitan magazine, about footnotes and white russians. She counseled me on birth control and what to tell and not tell our mother. Her life to me was endlessly glamorous. As a pudgy, awkward 12 year old wiith braces I looked up on her 20 year old college life as the stuff dreams were made of. Endless streams of suitors, glamorous nights at the campus disco (this was 1978 after all!) perfect nails, violet eyes that would put Liz Taylor to shame, and the most finely honed flirting rarely seen before or since. She took me to the touring Broadway shows in Boston and on weekend trips to the mountains of New Hampshire, bar hopping in Portland, and on windy drives up the Maine coast. Never content with the way a room looked she compulsively rearranged furniture. I’d come home from school to find my room completely different from how I’d left it in the morning. When I was in college myself, blue and homesick she would appear unannounced at my Holy Cross dorm room door (2 1/2 hours from our home in Maine) and take me to lunch. She sent me letters written in her ultra feminie curly writing (where every “i” was dotted with a round ‘o’ of course) complaining about our parents, or called me to talk about what was happening to Luke and Laura these days. We’d make endless trays of nachos and drink gallons of wine and talk about how our mother liked our brother best of all and how unfair that was.

As we grew into women with husbands and families and trials and secrets and burdens and hurts of our own we dirfted at times. Always able to trigger each others temper we were often barely even able to be in the same room with one another. But come a crisis and that first phone call would come “Marie I did something wrong, I’m confused, what should I do?” “Katie, I’m scared, I dont’ think I can stay married any more, what should I do?” I remember the last such call, two weeks before she died. “Marie, I need you to know I”m gay. I need you to know this. I need you to understand” As usual, she was one step ahead of me. “Honey, I’ve known that for years, I’ve just been waiting for you to know it”.

Marie was a woman who wanted — status, titles, awards, prestige. But in her 40s she finally shed all that and found her happiness on Maryland’s Eastern shore, with a new husband who treasured her and the sons she adored. No longer wanting wanting wanting, and surrounded by her antiques and her friends she carved out a life of joy far away from the cold granite of New Hampshire and the rocky coast of Maine that had let her down. But New England would always be home. Frustrated by being sick and so far away from me during my own divorce she told a friend the day before she died “I’m going to go home. I’m going to go home to help Katie. I’m going home to her.”

I carry Marie with me every day. In her old fleece sweatshirt I sleep in, the bracelet I wear, the photo I touch each morning. She is my sister. And She is gone. But she is also home. With me.