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.


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.