Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Taking Back the Holidays: An Update

A few months ago I proclaimed that I was "Reclaiming the Holidays". This was our fourth Thanksgiving and Christmas without Sue, and I had a plan to use the power of positive thinking to keep me from wishing the season away. I had plans to use every tool I had to enjoy myself rather than hide in bathrooms, crying my eyes out.

I think I did a pretty good job. I worked hard to keep my attitude in check. I maintained an internal dialogue about how everything I was experiencing should be looked at as a gift. My first gift came in the form of Sue's oldest, home from college for a visit. We went running together, had a movie and lunch date, and had many good conversations. It's hard for me to put into words how thankful I am for my relationship with him. In fact, my relationship with all four of her kids has done more to heal the gaping hole in my heart than anything else. 

We had a big "All Cousins Sleepover" to celebrate Sue's youngest daughter's 11th birthday, a tradition that started before we lost Sue. It was wild, crazy, loud, and oh.my.gosh do nine kids eat a lot! Her other daughter (now 13) also has a close-to-Christmas birthday, so we celebrated that in a quieter, girls-only sleepover here at our house.

Much like when Sue was alive, there was a lot of kid-swapping over Christmas break. The cousins spent enough time with each other to get sick of each other and start acting like siblings. It amuses me when that happens. I hope as they grow up and start leaving home, they maintain that closeness.

In the midst of family gatherings and activities, I became an official Red Cross volunteer and worked at my first two day-long blood drives. One was at the local fire station, and the other at the high school. At the blood drives I was surprised and happy to discover another gift: I can now share Sue's story without crying. I was able to tell her story to many donors. Several people shared with me that they never really knew anyone who benefitted from blood donations, so Sue's story inspired them to keep their regular appointments. Two first-time donors hugged me and said that they are now donors for life after hearing her story. I am so inspired to continue my work with the Red Cross, and tell everyone far and wide the importance of blood donation!

There was so much good over the holiday season, but of course there is sadness. It is a quieter kind of sadness now. No, I didn't hide in a bathroom to have a breakdown (a huge victory! I did have some weepy moments but never in a bathroom!), but there were empty chairs at our holiday tables. No amount of positive thinking can change that. There are four kids who opened their presents on Christmas morning with no mom to watch their smiles. There was no post-holiday phone call from Sue to me, in which we discussed how THIS Christmas, surely was the best one yet!

No, what we are left with here is a different kind of Christmas. It was, like I'm finding with all big events now, a heart-twisting mash-up of joy and sorrow. I know that for the rest of my life this will be the case: those chairs will be empty. For the rest of my life my heart and mind will flutter between the precious memories of the past, the "what could have been" images of how life might be if we hadn't lost Sue, and the bright, beautiful here and now. I have so much hope for the future.

I hope, dear reader, that you found hope and joy this holiday season, no matter what trials you are facing. And if you spent time crying in a bathroom, know that I'm proud that you came back out and kept trying to find the good. There really is so much good.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Burden

I brought her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and an iced tea. I set the plate on her lap, along with a napkin, and moved the table next to her so that she could reach the drink. She was in her bed. She had not been able to go up or down the stairs in over two months. She told me, "I'm a burden. I'm a burden on my husband, my kids, my family--everyone. I'm not saying this to be dramatic or depressing, it's just a fact that I've been thinking about lately."

I don't remember what I said in response. I know I tried to tell her she wasn't a burden at all, that it was my pleasure to help her any way I could. I know she argued back. I know it made me sad. I want to go back and have a re-do of that conversation. I want to tell her what I know now, with the perspective of time and much mulling over. 

What I know now is this: there was a huge burden, but it wasn't her. The burden was her illness.

The burden was what she carried. And it was so heavy that we all worked as hard as we could to hold on to parts of it for her. The burden was the wicked illness that attacked her body, making her nauseous and unable to eat. The burden made her unable to stand and walk. It made her feel unbearable pain. It was enormous.

When she died, the burden broke up into pieces, and each of her loved ones now holds a chunk.

Depending on the day, my chunk of the burden feels either easy and light, or like I'm carrying a 500 pound boulder on my back.

No, sweet sister, you were never a burden. You held your burden as long as you could, to keep it from falling on the rest of us. Now it is broken into smaller, more manageable chunks, but they are sometimes still very hard to hold.

You were strong, you tried so hard for so long, now we can take over and you can rest.

I love you.

Friday, November 11, 2016

I Am Reclaiming the Holidays

I haven't really enjoyed Thanksgiving or Christmas since 2009.

Yes, despite everything I have to be thankful for, despite having four wonderful kids with whom I can share the magic of Christmas, I've been just barely making it through the holidays, let alone enjoying them.

In 2010, it was the first Thanksgiving and Christmas without my dad. It was hard, because his birthday is right around Thanksgiving, and he loved the holidays more than anyone I know. We had lost him only two months prior. It all felt forced and difficult.

In 2011, we were a little more used to not having Dad, but it was still hard. I didn't look forward to it, in fact, I dreaded the holidays.

In 2012 Sue was very sick around the holidays. I remember getting calls from her in which we discussed what we might do if she was in the hospital on Christmas. She was miserable. We faked it through those holidays, despite the fact that she wasn't in the hospital after all.

In 2013 we had lost Sue. My nieces and nephews were trying to see what life was like on the holidays without a mother. I was deep, deep in grief myself. I don't remember much about those holidays except escaping to cry in the bathroom a few times.

In 2014 we had made it through a whole year, plus, without Sue, but I wasn't feeling much better where the holidays were concerned. I remember waking up on Thanksgiving and crying, just wishing I didn't have to fake it through another holiday. I did end up enjoying myself at Thanksgiving and Christmas, it was just took so much effort to be happy.

In 2015 it was another year of merely "making it through". Again, things felt a bit lighter, but still not joyful.

Now it is 2016 and I am tired of dreading the holidays. I'm tired of crying in bathrooms, wishing happy days away, and being grumpy every time I hear a Christmas song. I know how disappointed my dad and Sue would be if they knew the extent of my holiday crabbiness. 2016 is the year that this will stop.

I will enjoy the holidays this year! I will listen to the Christmas songs and sing along at the top of my lungs! I will bake cookies and bask in the glow of Christmas tree lights!

The thing is, friends, we don't know how many Thanksgivings we will get. We don't know how many magical Christmas mornings we will be allowed to experience in our lifetimes. We need to squeeze out every bit of joy we can find, wherever we can find it. I used to be a person who loved the holidays. I want to be that person again.

When my kids wake up especially grumpy, positive that they will have a horrible day, I always tell them the same thing: It is up to YOU to DECIDE what kind of day you will have. You can CHOOSE to be grumpy, or you can CHOOSE to have a great day.

It is time for me to make the choice to feel joy, thankfulness, and contentment in the coming holiday season. I'm starting today!

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Another Birthday and Blood Drive in the Books

It was horrible, I thought, that I couldn't schedule the blood drive in memory of my sister on my actual birthday. In fact, I cried about it a lot. I talked with the lady who schedules the blood drives and explained why it was so very important to me to have it on my actual birthday, the third anniversary of the day Sue died, but it didn't work out.

I hate when things don't go according to my plan.

I began planning the blood drive, while also completely avoiding thinking about my birthday. When well meaning friends would offer up a suggestion of how I could spend my birthday I would either 1. Cry, or 2. Change the subject. It took me weeks to stop obsessing over it. Once my birthday was about two days away, I finally came up with a plan.

My husband, Frank, took the day off from work to spend with me. I knew that I wanted to go for a walk and out to breakfast. When the day came, I decided I didn't want to go for a walk, I just wanted to go out for breakfast. And so began me just sort of taking the day minute by minute. We came home and I decided to spend a few hours watching trashy TV on the couch. We went to the Halloween parade at our little boys' school. I baked cookies for the blood drive. I took a breath, then another, then another, until finally the day was over.

I was so relieved when the day was over.

It's so hard not to relive the day she died over and over as my birthday progresses. It's hard not to think, "At this point of that day, we were driving to the funeral home to make the arrangements." or "At this time, we were telling the kids their mom was gone."

It was the worst day of my life. And I don't know how to handle it yet. So I just go through the motions and white-knuckle it until my birthday is over. Honestly, I kind of hate having a birthday now.

But! The next day was the blood drive. I was busy all day with preparations, then running the drive, then cleaning up. I got to see so many wonderful and kind people. So many people care enough to either come to donate, or come to visit during the drive. I feel so purposeful during the blood drive. I feel like maybe some good has come out of Sue's death.

We collected 35 pints of blood, saving up to 105 lives (and as I know from Sue's situation, we could also be prolonging the life of many people's sisters--this is my favorite thought as I watch the blood bags fill up). We had 4 first-time donors, and we collected $225 for a donation to the Red Cross in Sue's name (raised by a silent auction of my mom's quilts).

I made it. I lived through another birthday/anniversary of Sue's death. I ran another successful blood drive in her memory.

This is starting to feel like something I can conquer, year after year.

Sue, meeting my youngest for the first time, 2009

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

That One Summer

We would lie on the dock, beach towels protecting our backs from the cracking, peeling paint and splintered wood. She would bring out her tape player so we could sing along to our "jams". We would talk and talk, about our family, our hopes, and our secrets, or sometimes about nothing and nonsense. 

We spoke our own inner language, which consisted of so many inside jokes that at times an eavesdropper would be left wondering how any of our words fit together to make sense. 

We were always laughing. It was always just so FUNNY, those shared memories that could be brought forth with a single word, or sometimes even just a gesture.

We would have cold Diet Pepsi, one for her and one for me, sitting between us. An opened bag of Cheetos would lie there, too, haphazardly spilling a Cheeto or two onto the dock. 

We would watch the boys on jet skis or boats and wonder out loud if there might be a cute older brother/younger brother set among them. They were too far away to judge their cuteness, though.

The sun would bleach our hair and tan our skin. When it got too hot, we would hop off the end of the dock, landing in the cool water, our feet touching sand with little patches of tickling seaweed. We would dunk under, wet our hair, flip or twist it just so, and stand back up to reveal fancy supermodel hair, or The George Washington, or a giant handheld Mohawk. 

As the sun would dip just slightly below the trees, we would know that Dad would be back at the house, making us some dinner. We would jump in and back out one last time, gather our empty bottles, Cheetos, and radio, damp towels wound around our bodies, and walk home.

Monday, July 18, 2016


It was a rough drive to the hospital. Every bump in the road caused her to cringe or yell out. She told me to take my foot off both the gas pedal AND the brake to make the jostling just a little easier on her.

"I don't know why it helps," she told me, "It just does."

It was terrifying, knowing that how I navigated each dip or rough spot on the road directly affected her pain level. My arms ached from gripping the steering wheel so tightly.

I sat in the waiting room with a book. We were there to see if they could get her some relief by draining some of the fluid from her abdomen. There was a lot of it, it caused her immense pain, and it was one of many parts of her body that was slowly, horrifyingly, getting worse.

The lady at the desk called me over. 

"They are ready for you to go see her. Room 6-B."

She was joking with a nurse when I walked in. When she told me that they didn't do the procedure, they couldn't do the procedure, because what everyone thought was fluid was actually her own organs, painfully enlarged, I needed to remind myself to breathe. 

We had reached a point where the doctors and nurses at the hospital couldn't help her. She was too sick.

I was shaking. I asked her, in as calm and normal of a voice as I could produce, "What do you want to do now?"

She took a deep breath, smiled, and said, "Let's grab some lunch!" 

I navigated her and her wheelchair through a sea of hospital workers. We needed to see all possible lunch options at the hospital cafeteria before we could make our selections. I rolled her past Saran wrapped sandwiches on paper plates, "No," she said.

I pointed out the pizza station, where the sad, droopy slivers sat waiting under heat lamps to be chosen. "No way, not pizza." She replied.

I steered her around the soup and salad bar, naming off the items that she couldn't see from her chair. 

"Let's see, there are black olives, chickpeas, some kind of cheese, maybe cheddar?" I reported.

"Chickpeas? Cheddar? Olives? Let's DO THIS!" She smiled.

We spent a considerable amount of time building her the perfect salad, with the perfect soup to go with it. We were a clumsy pair, her with trying to reach and assemble her salad from the chair, me with trying not to run over hospital workers with my less-than-stellar wheelchair steering skills. We bumped (and apologized), we dropped toppings, we laughed too loudly, we took too long making our choices. But when we were done, we had made it just how she wanted.

We got settled into a table and took a breath. 

"You have no idea how good it feels to have all of these choices," she said, taking a fork-full of salad. 

"I honestly can't remember the last time I got a chance to choose every part of what I ate and get it set up just how I want it. Thanks for doing that for me. I know it wasn't easy, but I'm so happy with this lunch! Perfection!"

I sat and stared at her for a moment, struck by how, over the past few years every single choice had been taken from her by her illness. She couldn't choose to be the wife and mom she wanted to be. She couldn't choose to make dinner for her family. She couldn't even choose to stand up and walk to the bathroom when she wanted. There was only one thing I could think of that she could still choose and she had chosen it that day. 

She had chosen to smile and be thankful.

I'm smiling today, remembering this particular day, and feeling thankful that she was mine. She was my friend, my sister, my role model. And I am who I am because of what she taught me.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Thoughts on Graduation

Sue's oldest child graduated from high school last night. It was so emotionally draining that I'm spending some time resting this morning. It was a wonderful night, and I was so proud. I'm not sure I've ever felt quite so proud. However, when facing happy life events, the grief is always there too.

All day yesterday I was humming a line from an old Queen song that says "pain is so close to pleasure". I understand what that line means now. I'll try to explain my pain/pleasure: 

I am SO PROUD of Sue's boy! So much pleasure! But Sue would be proud too, and she's not here to see this. PAIN. Look what he has accomplished! He has such a bright future ahead! More pleasure! But she will miss all of it. Ouch.

It's hard to put into words how daunting it is to think of all the milestones we have ahead: more graduations, first big jobs, weddings, babies, holidays. She won't be here for any of them. Not one. She never even got to see any of her kids get a driver's license. 

But here I am, watching, enjoying, being a part of her kids' lives. Why am I here and she's not? Why did her body get sick and shut down and I'm healthy? 

I don't know.

I do know that one of my biggest goals in life is to step in and feel all the emotions she would feel. I will take the pain so I can have the pleasure. 

The pain is overwhelming. But so is the pleasure.