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Posts Tagged ‘death’

Purple pain

With my teen years firmly set in the ’80s, Prince was firmly set in my musical consciousness. His songs were fun, catchy, danceable and clear indicators of his genius.

But his music and persona have become part of the fabric of my family’s life, as it’s turned out, so his death today comes as a shock.

My husband, who has fantastic taste in a variety of music, and dance skills to match, has a large stack of Prince’s CDs. And in the early days of our acquaintance (in a church congregation at college, surprisingly enough), his lip-sync and dance performance of “When Doves Cry,” complete with eyeliner, purple jacket and white ruffled blouse, for a talent show gave me the notion that he was something special. Maybe that’s why I said yes when he asked me out a month later.

228122_10150184386647400_5199462_nFive years ago, when our oldest was a teen, it was announced that Prince was adding a last-minute concert in Fresno, near us. As soon as tickets were available, I pounced. I bought them for me and my husband and my teen. And we partied like it was 1999 (only it was 2011).

Just last year, when that oldest daughter got married, we knew we had to have a special father-daughter dance at the reception. It would be something that reflected US. We deliberated, brainstormed, and came up with something perfect. And it included Prince, naturally. I thought it was awesome.

The Prince is dead. Long live the Prince.

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My last blog post was about my goal to take better care of my health, with a multi-pronged approach. I did well for a few weeks. And then I didn’t.

The catalyst for getting completely foiled, at least for the past month, was my grandmother’s death. It was expected; she was 99, and my family and I had had a good visit with her a few months before, as we knew she was declining after a long and full life. But the day she died, I got drained, emotionally and physically, and I just had to step out of the Atkins diet that seems to work for me, at least scale-wise.

Since then, I’ve wanted to get back into focusing on my eating and doing all the other things necessary to take better care of my whole self. How well have I done? Crappy. That’s what.

Here’s the deal: I’m a mom. I have a husband and four daughters, and they are all in vital stages of their lives. Parenting them now is in a way more demanding than it was when they were little; then it was mainly sleep deprivation and not being able to catch much alone time. Life was just a lot simpler then. Now, there’s so much more of a mental game to it than just being the taxi driver. I’m there. I’m on call. I’m helping figure out all kinds of important things for the next week, the next month, the next year: their LIVES. Even my oldest, who is married and “on her own,” still needs me, and I am still there for her whenever I can be. Even more, our relationship has a new dynamic and dimension, one we’re still trying to adjust to, I think, almost a year on.

Add to my momhood my personal leaning toward taking care of other people all the time, and my own self gets left in the dust. This past month or so has been a pressure-cooker, a meat-grinder, of calendaring and coordinating activities and appointments; responsibilities, obligations, big questions, long to-do lists, and hardly having a moment to breathe and just think about myself. Granted, I know from sad experience (over and over and over again) that is a recipe for disaster, but after all these years, I’m still trying to figure out how to cut the recipe in half or something.

So I sit here again and contemplate how to take care of myself physically: eat better overall, less sugar, more fruits and vegetables (which I do really love and eat probably more of than the average person, but still)… all that jazz. Figure out how to decrease emotional eating (THAT’s a biggie). Mix up my exercise (I’ve been dedicated to working out for 25-plus years and I really enjoy it and how it makes me feel), do some more fun and different things. The pressure cooker of the past month or two is likely to be turned down a few notches for the near future. Maybe I can make some strides on me.

What I know is this: appropriate self-care can take a lifetime of practice.

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Today is the anniversary of my father’s death — officially (he was on life support for a day or two and then “declared dead”). I think he was really gone very late on the 13th or early the 14th. His brain experienced two big hemorrhages and I’m sure it was really “over” fairly soon. I clearly remember the moment at 9 p.m. that day that I got the call he was unconscious. I know I went into shock myself: I sat down on the couch and was just stiff, cold and shaking.

I was not at all prepared for him to die. He was only 71, and he had worked ridiculously hard (we joked with him that he worked TOO hard) to keep himself healthy by eating well and exercising. I thought for sure he’d be around a good long while. The shock of that unexpected loss took a long while to shake off.

Six years later, I’m accustomed to his being gone. When I think of him, I don’t experience a painful stab in my chest as I did for a long while. Now it’s just a small pang of longing, much less painful. It hits in the same place, right in my heart, but the wound is no longer a gaping hole. It’s scabbed over, enough so that no one else even knows it’s there, I’m sure.

This year brought me another unexpected loss. I saw the loss coming, so I guess saying the loss itself was unexpected isn’t accurate: the grieving period I went through was what took me by surprise. Because who really thinks about the notion of mourning for a beloved child who has grown up and flown from the nest?

My firstborn got married, to an incredible young man who’s just about as incredible as she is. I was thrilled about the union (once I processed the notion of her being married pretty young, which I hadn’t seen coming either, but that’s another story. The very short version: she found a wonderful person, we love him, we love them, and it was right. Plans/expectations are one thing, but life always throws interesting curve balls.).

To say the period of engagement/wedding planning was stressful is almost a cliche. Very few people say their engagements were breezy and stress-free, and, yeah, it was busy and had its bumpy moments. Bringing two families together, planning, coordinating, … it can be tough. But all through it, you know you have this amazing day to look forward to. The reward’s huge. And the wedding day and reception were beautiful, sweet, poignant, fun, full of love and friends and family celebrating together. It was a wonderful memory.

I was thinking I’d need some “recovery” time afterward to wind down from the stress of preparation. It didn’t go quite as I’d hoped, because then my girls were all home from school for the summer and I had precious little time to myself. And my personality, my particular mix of needs, requires a certain amount of alone time, to just process the rest of life, to take a breath.

As it turns out, I realized a month or two ago, I was mourning all summer. But I didn’t really recognize it as such because it wasn’t as clear-cut a “grieving situation” as, say, my dad’s death, and my younger kids kept me so crazy all summer I didn’t get to really think much and just let everything go through my brain, my emotions, my self.

One day in the middle of the summer, I did have a moment where it struck me that I felt the loss of my daughter almost as a death. It was just one day, one morning. We hadn’t seen her in a week or more, hadn’t really had any quality time with her (she lives with her husband about a 45-minute drive away from us, and they live next door to his parents, so they get to be with his family all the time and we make a lot of trips up there to see her; as time has gone on, I’ve been able to decrease the number and frequency of trips a bit so it doesn’t seem like we’re there all the time). And I just said to my husband, “I feel like she’s dead. She’s gone. How strange. It feels like I feel with Dad.” It was so clearly a loss, and it hit me square in the chest, same thing. We saw her the next day, I think, and my husband and I ended up taking her and our 13-year-old to lunch at a salad place, and that one hour being our “old” selves in a familiar environment “like we used to be” before it all changed so much made that feeling go away, or at least recede into the background for a while.

Nearly five months after the wedding, I’m starting to feel a little more myself again. When you’re in mourning, you’re a reduced version of yourself, parts shuttered, shut down, the world seeming a little dimmer. I’ve felt the world brighten up again, I think, and I’m coming back into my own. I was sad for a few months. One consequence, in my arsenal of bad habits, was that I just ate. And ate. I went through quart after quart of ice cream. I must have gained 15 to 20 pounds over the summer. I was swallowing the pain. That last consequence I’m dealing with right now, and making progress: I put myself on a low-carb diet. I was just feeling physically cruddy, and I know all the sugar I was eating was making me feel even cloudier than the grief was. A week and a half in, I’m feeling clearer and physically much better. It’s a gift I’m giving myself: to take care of my body.

So life brings grief in various ways. Death is an “obvious” vehicle for it. But we must mourn all kinds of losses. I’m reminded occasionally, with my 17-year-old, that I mourned the loss of a “normal” child when she was born because of her Down syndrome. There are days that remind me she’s not like the “typical” teen at this stage: she’s not going to be driving (not anytime soon, for sure), she can’t babysit. We have to check on her personal hygiene sometimes, and we have to remind her about appropriate behavior around other people. It’s a loss, and I am reminded more of that now because our family dynamics have changed so much since our oldest got married and moved out.

The reality is we need to be gentle with ourselves when we mourn any loss, and realize that we have to take time to grieve. We must move through it. We also need to realize that others are mourning losses as well that may not be visible to us. Be sensitive to anyone’s mourning periods of any loss. They may breeze through the period of mourning, or they may slog through. I felt “weak” somehow this whole summer because I just wasn’t myself. I felt silly because so many of my friends had children leaving the nest, whether it was for college or for church mission opportunities or some through marriage. They all seemed to be just fine. Why wasn’t I? The truth of the matter is that it didn’t matter how other people fared, when it came to my own feelings. I had to be respectful of how I felt and how I had to work through it. I hope it makes me more sensitive to others through whatever losses they’re grieving.

Life is beautiful. It is bittersweet. It is a hodgepodge of opposites: highs and lows, gains and losses. Despite the pain of grieving, I’m grateful to be on this grand adventure.

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I’ve been able to attend two really beautiful funerals this year, both for people who were extraordinary, and who had wonderful families. I was struck both times by what a special experience it was to share in the remembrance and celebration of the lives of these people with their loved ones. At both, there were many, many experiences shared, sweet and tender memories and funny ones, recounted with laughter and tears.

But how often do you hear people say they enjoyed attending a funeral? That they looked forward to the funeral, that they cherished the time they took to be there?

Americans (and probably many in modern, Western cultures) are far behind some more “primitive” cultures: we do not appreciate the death process or anything surrounding it; we tread with great trepidation around death; and we don’t honor those who are aging, stepping ever closer to death each day. It’s a serious problem. We have become obsessed with youth, with appearance that speaks of youth, with the notion that all that attends death is blessedly far away from the young. I’ve written at length about the problems our image-consciousness (tied in part to the beauty of youth and unwrinkled, unblemished skin) is causing us as individuals and as a society. I’ve not written much about how it’s separating us from those in our culture who have the most to give and share with the rest of us: their wisdom, their fascinating experiences, their character.

Some cultures truly revere their elders. They hold them in high esteem, treat them with great respect, seek them out, not only include them in decisions but hold them as their highest decision-makers. Their middle-aged citizens and children look up to them and learn from them, seeking to be more like them.

In our culture, ageism is the rule. We hire young workers at the exclusion of older ones. We worry about the capacity for wisdom and clear thought of those who aren’t young any longer. We put them away. We don’t want them as leaders because we are sure they’re “out of touch” with “reality.”

And then there’s death. We fear it. We fear the process leading up to it; we fear what happens when and after we die. There is little of reverence and appreciation for the process, even when someone is able to leave this existence with a minimum of pain or discomfort. We are somewhat conditioned naturally to keep away from dead bodies, and we have very little cause to interact with them. I have had the opportunity, however, a few times in my church to help dress women for burial, and I have found it to be not “gross” or “weird” or “scary” but, instead, a privilege. I have found it to be a sacred experience and a lovely last opportunity to perform a service for women who have meant something to me in my church congregation. But, again, we hear little of this kind of experience and of reverence for those who have died.

One Foot in HeavenI was able to read a lovely book this year written by a hospice nurse about the experiences she’s had helping people and their families as they have passed from this life. In One Foot in Heaven, Heidi Telpner tells readers about “good deaths” and “bad deaths” and reminds us all that we all will one day experience death ourselves, and most of us will have to deal with family members’ or friends’ deaths in some way or another. As much as we may (mostly successfully) manage to evade staring down death during our lives, it is still there. It still happens to us all. And the more we are comfortable with it, the more we and our loved ones can experience “good deaths.” Telpner tells about the poignant experiences she has had getting to know good, interesting people with loving and supportive families and how their deaths have been sweet and calm. She also tells about the people who personally fought death or had family who fought the reality of impending death and made it difficult for them to die peacefully. It’s a fine primer for all of us, to remember that death is inevitable, but how we approach it can make all the difference in how we and our loved ones live — and how we prepare to die.

So I find myself still getting surprised looks from others at times when I mention how grateful I was to attend some really beautiful and inspiring funerals, that I have been blessed to be able to provide a service to a person whose body is being readied to be buried but whose spirit is still living elsewhere (as I believe). I’d love to see this change, to see our culture become more age-friendly and even elder-centric. But I’m not holding my breath: we have a long way to go.

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Earlier this year, I learned that a man who’s like a second father to me had cancer. He was doing so well for so long this year (from my standpoint of living at a distance from him) that I’d almost forgotten the clock was ticking on my time with him.

I was able to visit him for about an hour when I was in his state for a family event. I cherished those moments sharing him once again with two of my children, letting them spend a little time with this great man. I did know it was possible it was my last visit with him, but I hoped it wasn’t.

Now, his time on Earth is over, and he’s moving on to a new stage of life, one where he will be reunited with his sweet, sweet wife who died some years ago.

I met Robert Harbertson when I was assigned as a missionary for my church to the visitors centers at Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Rather than spending 18 months going “door to door,” as many are familiar with our church’s missionaries, I had the unusual volunteer opportunity of basically being a tour guide, of showing visitors from all over the world around Temple Square and introducing them to some of the history and beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This amazing, dear man was assigned to be in charge of all of us young volunteers (as well as the older ones, retired couples serving together). As such, he was an authority figure and a parental figure, who watched out for us and made sure we were safe and happy and thriving and getting along with each other. I saw him every day and knew he had absolutely my best interests at heart.

My 12-year-old says now her favorite story about him (I’ve told my children — and anyone else who will listen — plenty of good stories) is his opinion on the thickness of the peanut butter in my daily sandwich. Mind you, this same man handed down a rule that we young missionaries were not to comment on others’ food choices; we had missionaries serving there from countries all around the world, and sometimes they ate some strange-looking things to us Americans (or maybe vice versa). He didn’t want any comments on the “weirdness” of cultural food options to make anyone feel hurt. Even so, one day I was sitting at our lunch table and about to sink my teeth into a perfect peanut butter sandwich: it was made from the homemade whole grain bread provided in our break room and a very thick layer of creamy, gooey peanut butter. He reached around me and actually handled my sandwich, squished it, and said, “Sister Carmode! How much peanut butter did you put in that sandwich?!” I told him to mind his own business. Well, basically. We still had a good laugh.

President, as we just tended to call him, had a stern facade, which could be mighty intimidating if you didn’t know him, and if he had the need to make a point. But after just a short time of knowing him, I was wise to his game: just ready to pop out from behind the stern face was a huge, impish grin. He was also competitive, reminding us that he played college basketball, and we learned at the beginning of a spiritual address from a top church leader that President and this apostle regularly played a serious game of racquetball. I’m sure it was take-no-prisoners.

Here we are together at a 20-year reunion.

Here we are together at a 20-year reunion.

But at the heart of this stern, rule-making, authoritarian figure was a warm, gooey heart that held a spot for little ol’ me. He was in charge of probably 100 or more young women during his volunteer time, but he could make me feel I was the only one he had to take care of. Honestly, I love and miss my dad a great deal, but thanks to a very tough upbringing, Dad wasn’t a naturally, unconditionally-loving kind of person. So being in President’s care, having that place in his big heart, not just during the time he was assigned to watch out for me but in the two decades since, was a window into an experience I hadn’t quite had. It gave me a better understanding of what it means to be loved unconditionally and a boost to my feelings for myself.

When I was dating my husband, I took him to visit President and his wife, and he got their stamp of approval. It just so happened that was 2 1/2 months before my parents got to meet my then-future husband. I visited President on my way across country during one of our long-distance moves, with my firstborn baby girl. I’ve visited many times over the years and had little booster shots of that man’s love, all the while giving my girls the opportunity to experience it a little themselves.

We met in a place where a famous choir often sings “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” Now, I sing it to President. I look forward to meeting you again.

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Next week will mark five years since my dad’s death. I expected I’d write a post then to observe the occasion, but I’m finding I’m missing him a great deal right now, so that anniversary post is happening now.

Dad’s death was unexpected and a completely devastating experience I was wholly unprepared for. I felt sure I had a good decade or more with him so I wasn’t at all ready to face the possibility of him not being in my life. His loss upended me, changed me utterly, and created a crater in my very self, as if a fiery asteroid had crash-landed in my torso. Time passing and the reality of no more phone calls or visits or little notes or pictures in the mail have forced me to accept his absence, but the crater is still there. Only problem is that it’s somehow been covered up over time by the accumulating detritus of life, so few observers have any idea it’s there, this charred chasm.

Dad and Cathy LOVEDad and I were close. I have come to appreciate that calling him one of my best friends is not an exaggeration. He really was. He also could be completely exasperating and sometimes annoyingly clueless. He was a hypochondriac and an over-sharer, and loving completely unconditionally did not come naturally to him, thanks to a difficult upbringing. He was obsessed with taking care of his health and was a bit underweight, and he focused overmuch on other people’s appearances. Thanks to that, in part, I am overly concerned with how I look, a frustrating shortcoming that can sometimes take me away from what’s truly important in this short life. Honestly, I could write a few more paragraphs about how he could make me crazy, sometimes even angry.

Nonetheless, I adored him. I have so many treasured memories of time with him, daddy-daughter time. He taught me so much and transferred so many of his own “likes” and preferences to me that I feel sometimes I can just channel him. Dad took me to cultural events: orchestra and band concerts, ballet performances, plays (because he was a university professor we had access to some great performances at the various universities where he worked. And if they were free or a very low price, all the better: he really disliked spending money). He instilled his love of music and his humor. I can still almost hear him laugh. Just … almost … the sensation, the sound, is just out of reach, like a word on the tip of my tongue. I can imagine his reactions to just about anything. He loved card games and was quite competitive. He had so many distinctly-him mannerisms. I can practically bring him to life any moment by repeating something he’d typically say or by aping a habit. My oldest daughter in particular remembers those things pretty well and can accurately mimic him too, repeating how he’d bug the poor front-line workers in a McDonald’s about “What kind of oil exactly do you use in your fries?” or deliberately and dramatically placing a card down on the table when playing a game.

I’ve read over the years how those who are grieving do want to talk about their loved one who has left this mortal existence, that asking questions or talking to them about the person who’s died is actually a welcome activity, not an intrusion or painful reminder. No, we already know that the person we love is gone. We can’t possibly be “reminded” any more. It’s SO true that what I want to do is just talk about him. I want to tell everyone about him, to just talk endlessly about all his quirks, all his high notes, all characteristics in between. In talking about him, I’m bringing him to life for someone else, keeping his memory alive for myself.

I am at peace entirely with my beliefs on where he is now and what he is doing. I’m happy for him to be in this next stage of what I know is an eternal existence. He gleaned what he needed to from this stage of life, and he’s learning more and doing more where he is now. But that peace, knowledge, and happiness that I have for him doesn’t change how desperately I miss him being here, with me. I still miss him every day. I still wish I could pick up the phone and talk to him, maybe get his advice and input, just hear his voice. He was such a vibrant, oversize personality: he was impossible to miss. He spoke loudly and commanded attention (he taught TV broadcasting and spoke accordingly). He was funny and appreciated good humor. Not having that presence around now creates a Dad-size hole that won’t go away until I am reunited with him someday.

I miss you, Dad. It’s as simple as that. My heart will ever be broken till we meet again.

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For a long time, I was young enough that I could still think “that (fill in the blank with anything particularly tough or tragic) can’t happen to me.” Then, as I got older, got married, and started having children, those things did start happening, either to me or to someone close to me, so that lovely delusion of the young went “poof.” Bubble popped.

Marissa babyI definitely never expected to be “one of those people” who had a child with Down syndrome. I knew a few people over the years, through church congregations actually, who had a youngster or teen with Down’s in their family, and I really, really never expected to be in that position myself. It was something that happened to other people. Only when I was pregnant with my second child and I picked up the newly delivered copy of the Reader’s Digest that featured the story of Alabama football coach Gene Stallings having a son, John Mark, with Down’s that it hit me — hard — that I could have a child with Down’s too. And sure enough, soon after I had blood work results indicate an amniocentesis would be useful, which confirmed my gut feeling. Yes, I grieved. I was worried, I was sad, I was surprised. But soon after, I accepted this new reality, and, well, you can read a little bit more about my wonderful teen on some other posts.

Dad's camera photos Oct 09 041I also thought my parents would live forever. Only other people’s parents died. When my husband’s mother died just a year after our first child was born, I was sad for my husband and myself, but I still thought it would be a VERY VERY VERY LONG TIME before my parents left this life. It still was 12 years later that I had to go through that heart-rending experience, but it was still far, far earlier than I’d expected to lose one of my parents. My dad was only 71 at the time and very healthy, though a bit of a hypochondriac (yeah, it’s true, Dad.). Now I know just how fragile and unexpected life can be.

This year, a family member ended up paralyzed from the mid-torso down after a surgery. That’s the kind of event I have certainly never pictured happening to me, and to have it happen to someone I care about is something that weighs on my mind. My thoughts are with her so much. Sure, you read about these kinds of things, but … having it happen to someone close is still unthinkable. Until it happens, and it’s always in your thoughts.

I’ve now had friends lose children, a very particular kind of heartbreak. We lost the bishop of our ward, our local church congregation, three years ago this month, to a fatal shooting. It was headline-grabbing news, the kind that strikes your heart when you read about it happening to strangers. Having it happen in your own church building, to someone you know, to a family that’s extraordinary … well, it strikes your heart and stays there permanently.

Yep, here I am in my 40s and I’ve left behind those days of “it happens to other people.” Whatever “it” is, it can happen to me, my family, my friends. Life is fragile. It’s unpredictable. It can bring tragedy and pain and grief. Yet, at the same time, every day of life is also a miracle. It can bring refreshing rain or warming sunshine. It can even create rainbows. And when life offers up “those things” to each of us, we face the grief, we work through the pain, we move on. But we don’t have to do any of it alone. I find it such a blessing every day to know I have friends and family to turn to when life serves up the unexpected. And I try to make sure I’m there for them when they face “those things.” When “it can’t happen to us” turns into “it does happen to us,” we have each other.

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