Posted in Ancestors, Apprenticeship with my own passing, Lanscape of Loss, Lila Stories, Losing a friend, Markers, My Bonnie

Where to die?

Sea Mandala, by Pengosekan

This morning I noticed that the faucet in the hotel room shower reminded me of those cow skulls you see from places like Arizona.

“I’m afraid of places like that,” I say to myself, as water pours over me. “They’re too dry.”

The more I age, the more I need water nearby.

And then I think about the sea vs. lakes and streams, and I consider where I want to live at the end of my life and where I want to die.

My mind flashes to the space where my Mom lived out her last days–in a hospital bed in her living room, surrounded by windows, a block from the bay.

“I want to die there,” I think, which is absurd because I never lived in that house and my mother’s estranged husband lives there now–with his girlfriend and her kids. (I would call him my stepfather but we went to highschool together. He was my boyfriend’s best friend.)

“Do you mind if I die here, Dan?”

It wouldn’t be the weirdest thing to happen in my family. My father, the surgeon, was the one to pronounce my mother dead in the livingroom of the home she shared with the man with whom she left him.

I left them all a quarter of a century ago for the mountains which is where I now live on a canopied road that runs alongside a brook.

My house sits above a pond belonging to the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception where I celebrated my 50th birthday 5 years ago next week.

A good friend from highschool came up from the shore for that weekend; it was her first time in Vermont; and last month, her husband came up with their oldest son to spread some of her ashes on the water here.

If I were to die like my mother, with time to consider such things, I suppose I’d welcome a view of the Atlantic. I was born beside that sea.

Mine was a December arrival, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is funny because my parents got pregnant out of wedlock like Mary and Joseph, and my father was a Jew (His grandfather was anyway) which is why the Catholic Church refused to marry them even though my mother was a Catholic born on Christmas Day.

Hate hides in so many places, fed by fear and superiority as if “All Men Are Created Equal” is not self-evident but something that has to be, in each generation, proven.

The Sisters of Mercy tended my mother’s labor at their hospital across from the beach in Sea Isle City so if not the beach, then maybe I could die in some house of Mary, like the one across the pond from me in the Green Mountains–the summer camp belonging to the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.

Some find my absorption with death maudlin or worse—premature—as if there is the promise of tomorrow for any of us.

My sister died beside a pool. My grandmother on a bridge. My mother beside the bay windows. All in their 50’s. The first two by total surprise; the last with two months warning.

I suppose if I outlive the lot of them, I’ll be reborn. Last week I took the ferry across the Delaware Bay to visit my great-aunt ahead of her 92nd birthday.

Her mother, my great-grandmother lived into her nineties too.
“I’m ready to go,” she’d say when I’d come to sit beside her as she woke from her afternoon nap.

I massaged her legs under the blankets in a hospital near the sea in the days leading up to her death.

Born a Jefferson, my great-grandmother’s people go back to the 1700s in Delaware and Virginia. I imagine she never questioned belonging, though being born female in 1898 meant she wasn’t considered equal in any way–not with regard to property, opportunity, representation or even bodily autonomy.

Some things haven’t changed.

Belonging seems essential to living and dying, doesn’t it?

I suppose no matter where I die, I’ll carry the sea with me inside.

Advertisements
Posted in Ancestors, Apprenticeship with my own passing, Lanscape of Loss, Lila Stories, Markers, My Bonnie

Inside the Mess


December 4th

RESIGNATION:

My maternal grandmother, Loretta Frances Kelly, had a pile of books toppling at her bedside–on the night table, on the floor, on the bed itself–along with teacups and tissues, a blue bathrobe and laundry all strewn about the room. (We are Irish.)

Just now, Loretta says ”Hello,” from underneath the toppling pile on my desk; and even as I cringe at the chaos, I marvel at my growing capacity to work inside it; so long have I depended upon tidiness to sustain me. (I am English on my father’s side.)

My desk looks like this because of a multi-day power outage that came on the heels of 2 weeks away, while in the throes of getting 2 journeys for women underway (one local, one correspondence) while launching a third one online for the Season of Advent. (Do I need to mention Christmas shopping?)

I am preparing. I am emptying. I am readying. My heart.

I am polishing the first chapters of my book–to send to readers—a first—despite several years of work.

I AM DOING WHAT I LOVE.

It is no simple thing for me to make that claim.
It has been hard won.

“I can’t find my own pulse.”

A little more than a decade ago, I said these words to myself (in my journal) and then to my husband (letting him read my journal) and finally, I had the courage to speak them aloud–to a circle of women around a fire.

“I can’t find my own pulse.”

I pressed my fingertips against my wrist as if to illustrate.

It’s hard to imagine now that I’d lost touch with myself. I could blame it on motherhood, on giving up everything to offer what they needed most (and what I hadn’t had), but the truth is that I’d lost touch with myself long before that, and it was their passion that helped identify the absence of my own.

“You should do it, Mommy,” my young son said when I took him to sign up for art classes after we discovered that he was too young.

I’d had only done what I was good at. I have always done what I am good at. Even when it isn’t good for me. (I am Jewish on both sides of the family.)

Last month, I enacted a ritual, or should I say, I attached a ritual to suffering to ennoble it.

As I awaited the effects of a particularly strong single-dose antibiotic, I filled the empty medicine bottle with tiny strips of paper upon which I wrote all the ways I was ready to let go, namely all the ways I held on too tight as a girl after all the adults let go.

Trauma.
I’ve had my share.

My attention grew sharper and sharper so that others might have some semblance of a childhood, of continuity, of care. The truth is that caring for all of them was my anchor even as I was theirs, until finally, having gone on too long, it weighed us all down.

Did anyone wonder the toll it took on a girl, on a teenager, on a young adult, on a new mother to be there for everyone else? Did I wonder? Not until everything was righted around me, and I began to daydream of suicide. (I wasn’t righted inside.)

“I can’t find my own pulse.”

This week brings my personal New Year–on the Immaculate Conception of Mary. (I went to Catholic school like my mother and her sisters and my sisters.)

Each year, I worry that I won’t extract enough marrow from the occasion of my birth.

Last night, I worked until 1 in the morning (when typically I’m in bed before 10) so that I might have time to fit in ice skating today. (I couldn’t sleep anyway.)

As a girl, I once had an ice-skating birthday party. WIth foot-long peppermint sticks. And a pink, strawberry-chip cake.

JOY.

Yesterday, I took my laptop to one of my favorite Christmastime cafes. 40-minutes away. Impracticality has always been hard for me. I grow food instead of flowers. (I am a first born. Born of two first-borns.)

RESIGNATION.

Here I am, impractical, working too late, and writing in the center of MESS after ice-skating in the middle of the day.

I’ve been humming a lot lately too and singing to myself. I hadn’t noticed this until my Aunt and Uncle pointed it out over the Thanksgiving holiday when I stayed with them in Cape May.

“You must be happy to be home,” they said.

I remember when I stopped singing. After the miscarriages. (Our boys are in college now.)

“Are you happy?” I remember my first love asking each time I left him to travel abroad. I didn’t understand the question until he left me and I met Casey.

And now I realize that I was terrified of claiming happy. Have always been. I had been happy before and it had not ended well.

I AM HAPPY.

This Saturday, I turn 55 which ushers in a potent time frame in my extended family, when many members exited the show–my paternal grandmother Lila Jane Burrows (whose loss gave rise to my current work of memoir), my mother Loretta Cecilia Kelly, aka “Bonnie” (a Christmas baby and a kindred soul who is planting the seed for my next memoir while I say, Please, no), my older sister Sandy Brennan Clark (who I didn’t know existed until I was grown and who I only met once for a few brief moments and whose name I’ve never written publically before), my mother’s younger sister Trish (who was just a few years older than me and with whom I once traveled to Key West) and their brother Bill (a gentle soul, named after his father), and finally their mother, my maternal grandmother, with the pile of toppling books, who outlived them all, making it to 61.

Should I die like them, too young, as only the good do (they would say), I will die in peace, in the sweet embrace of joy, reclaimed and released.

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, Markers, My Bonnie

Grief & Pregnancy


I often think of my 20-year-old mother today. Irish Catholic. Exactly 8 & 1/2 months pregnant. Her President, the age of her father-in-law, shot dead, beside his wife, on a Texas street.

My mother was 17, the same age as my son, when she went door to door with her younger sister. “The Kelly girls,” the neighbors called them. It was their mother Loretta who sent them out to canvass the neighborhood for Kennedy.

When I think of the unbearable grief that I felt on 9/11 & 11/9 and on the December day when children were shot inside their first-grade classroom, I wonder that today is not my birthday.

And I wonder, what my young mother felt in those last two weeks with me inside.

And I wonder if the sweet sensitivity of my own son is in part due to the grief I held as he came into the world and she left it.

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, Light, Markers

love’s surplus


If able and inclined, raising kids helps open us to unconditional love which may have been buried in our own childhood.

Once the kids are gone, we may find ourselves with a surplus which we might invest in each other, and more poignantly, I find, in loving oneself, unconditionally, for perhaps the first time.

 

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, Light, Markers

The edge of now…


An increasing number of headachey days have been amplified by increasing bouts of indigestion and now depression, followed by this afternoon’s surrender to a napping meditation which stills me into the magnitude of my son’s footsteps in the room overhead, soon to be silenced by his absence; and didn’t I, once upon a time, numb my head in pain, so that all of the nerve endings were preoccupied, staving off the terror of too much understanding, which crept in at the edges of childhood, without proper companions to ease the way…

…And while this awareness does little to dispel the intensity of an approaching migraine, it does awaken me into my body, into the re-membering that I am not alone, that there are companions at the edge, at every edge in fact, even death; “a wide-open eye in the dark,” said the Benedictine monk of prayer, and hasn’t my life been a constant prayer, and didn’t I hold the hand of those more terrified than me, and come to sit beside others at their own edges; and once arrived across the shore into the sovereignty of my own belonging, didn’t I return to the dark, with a light, to find myself, and wasn’t she waiting, in the corner, and not just trembling, but beaming, welcoming me, here, into my body, where I find an unexpected lightness of being, like I did this afternoon in meditation, like I do on the mat, and for no other reason than instead of abandoning, I entered, Now.

Posted in Artifacts/My Bonnie, Lanscape of Loss, Light, Markers, My Bonnie

My Mother’s Cup

The sweetness of being with the same man for 32 years is that he thinks to leave this morning’s tea in the fine china that I bought for my mother at the London Design Centre off of Haymarket in 1984 during my semester abroad.

She kept it in her china cabinet all those years because after all, she was a coffee drinker; and perhaps I’d always meant it for me… in the future… when I’d be without her… welcoming a connection to my past and to her gentleness and to the light of consciousness between us.

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, Markers

Benign

This year we all 3 went to the dermatologist for a full body-scan. and I mean full. wow. i’m so glad she was a she.

“You kind of remind me of Harrison Ford from Indiana Jones,” I joked, feeling like South America, as she adventured around my body with headlamps & magnifying lenses.

The other not so funny thing was that my 2 guys–with the lighter, more susceptible skin, whose bodies I’ve long protected–got an easy pass a month earlier; while I, with the olive hue (thank you Mom), naturally drawn to the shade & to wearing a hat as I age–left with something “to watch” on both my nose & temple. though to be fair, my youth was spent in full, sun-drenched, seaside abandon. baby oil. tinfoil. hours & hours under the mid-day sun. like a job.

Before I removed the gown and redressed myself in jeans and my purple Lucky Brand top, there was something else. a small innocent freckle, on the inside of my thigh, of all places, and just because it had the audacity to be a shade too dark.

She pointed out two nearby comps, one and two shades lighter. I squinted but barely noticed a difference.

I’d like to take that off, she said, if that’s ok. Now.

I tried to be grateful.

2 needles & a tiny chunk of flesh later, I left the examining room with a bandage and an interior hobble, but even so, stopped at the front desk to courageously ask how soon to expect the results (despite the reminder that it was “probably nothing.” )

I spent the next week in a meditation on the word, Melanoma.

I know someone from the shore who died from something on his leg, and worse than that, I watched a made for television docudrama–this week, in 1973–that never left me. I was 10. She was 20. And dead. Leaving behind a baby. Because she chose not to give up her leg. I remember balling. I lived in Colorado at the time and John Denver’s music was the soundtrack, and my favorite song was the title of the film.

I tried not to take it as a sign.

I’ve worried about it ever since.

Growing up a doctor’s daughter (and granddaughter and great-granddaughter), it’s easy to be preoccupied with health threats before your time. They arrive on the phone and at your front door and at your kitchen table and intrude upon holidays and graduations and birthday parties.

I recall early attempts to remember the difference between words like “malignant” & “benign.” They both sounded bad to me.

After the “procedure,” we left town for a college visit with our younger son and then continued north to see our older son in his “home” in Burlington. This provided just the right alchemy to ponder, despairingly, how all things end, and so I took the opportunity to mention to my family, something I’ve long held inside.

Just so you know, if I ever do get cancer, I said, I’ll probably want to just die like that mom in Sunshine (on my Shoulders) rather than subject myself to all kinds of disabling treatment.

This pronouncement was not met favorably, and my youngest assured me that he’d have something to say about that if the time came, and I had to laugh at all of us, in our presumptive authority over life and death.

The call came in sometime yesterday. 2 days later than expected. No one was there to receive it. My husband and I were in bed when our youngest arrived home late from work and pushed play on the answering machine.

We could barely make out the messages from upstairs:

A personal call from his dentist.

A robo call from someone trying to scare us into calling them back about something related to our finances.

And the final message, which I couldn’t quite make out, particularly over my son’s exclamation of joy and relief.

Benign.