Children and Funerals

We took all four kids, ages eight, six, four and two to the viewing last night. We were all close to Aunt Leola and the kids adored her.

My boys both did well. Happy go lucky Caleb at age four does not grasp things yet. He doesn’t pose deep life questions either like his older brother always did at that age. Jack, age eight, has already been introduced to death and he is stoic, strong like his father. He locks emotion away and doesn’t know what to do with it. He bottles it up. Remains quiet. He reacts to sadness by laughing. By fidgeting. So my talks with him and sharing of life take far different tones and private gear shifts than talks with my other kids.

Maggie, age six, however, had the toughest time processing things last night as this is the first human death she is cognitively aware of. She emotes. She feels things far too deeply. (I dread the curse I passed down to her!) And I feel responsible for teaching her how to tame that side of her nature.

We stood in front of the open casket talking, I on my knees, she leaning against me.

We talked about more questions she had, so many of them repeats, differently worded, from earlier this week. She’s been clinging to me all week.

How did her body get into the casket?
Did she die in those clothes?
How were her clothes changed?
Why did she look different?
Where were her legs?
What is a heart attack?
Why do brains stop working?
How do bodies die?
Can people live past 99?
Will she be scared in the big box?
What will the funeral be like?
Why do we put people in the ground?

Will we die?

I walked her in detail through the physical process of what the funeral today would look like. Who would be there. What it would sound like. What her experience would be like.

We talked of the split between a body and a soul. How Aunt Leola’s essence, the soul that she embodied, the vibrant life that Maggie had sleepovers and fingernail painting parties with, was no longer stuck in her body’s shell. And how Aunt Leola firmly believed that her soul would be free to enjoy a beautiful Heaven after her body died.

Maggie suddenly wanted to give her aunt something. Anything. So she found a penny in her coat pocket and placed it in Aunt Leola’s hand. Caleb, following his sisters cue, took off his favorite Olaf bracelet and placed it in her other hand.

They all verbally said goodbye.

We moved to a soft wingback chair and Maggie sat on my lap with her face buried in my chest crying.

She said she feels so so sad.
That her insides hurt.
She pointed to her rib cage.
She said she wishes her aunt were alive again.

She said she misses her smile.

I said I did too. I cried with her.
I ran my hands over her hair and rubbed her tiny nose. I promised her for the millionth time in her life that any question she ever has, mommy will be here to answer for her.

After a few minutes, she stopped crying.

We watched a beautiful slideshow with photos passing by and talked about enjoying life like Aunt Leeky (our family nickname for her) strived to.
We talked about loving people while we were alive. And about making good memories with them.
We talked about how it’s up to each of us individually to consciously initiate wonderful moments that remind us of the gift of life. And how she too will grow through life learning to offer love to others and make beautiful memories of her own. And how every opportunity she has to smile, she should grab it and multiply it.

We talked about how human grief works.
The coming and going.
The ups and downs.
How one minute she will feel happy and then the next minute she will suddenly remember what happened all over again…and the sadness will wash back over.
Like the ebbing of the tides. In and out.

And that it’s ok to cry.

And that it’s even ok to stop crying.

And that it’s ok to tell people the truth.

Everyone kept asking me if I was ok. Asking her if she was ok. That seems to be the opening words for everyone at times like this – “Are you ok?”

It’s an unintentional covert attempt to avoid uncomfortable emotion. A viable way to comfort our own self during someone else’s pain. To massage our inner conscious regarding the person we are asking this of.

I told her it’s perfectly fine to just say no.
It’s such a stupid question when a loved one has died anyway. Of course we are not “ok” at the moment.
I told her it’s even acceptable to not answer at all if she doesn’t want to.

And I gave her the words “…but I will be.”

Because OK will come later.
It always does.
“Ok” is the portion of hope we are all gifted, the portion of hope that exists. The portion that we can continually reach for day by day.

And I must say, never in my entire life have I wished the wise Fred Rogers was sitting beside me than when I was holding my child in that funeral home making this all up on the fly, hoping that by some chance I’m doing this mother gig….. “ok”.

God, I sure hope so.

Childhood Questions on Death

Welcome to my week….. I just had a long discussion with my six year old daughter about human death, what happens to our bodies after death, what many believe happens to our essence after our bodies die and how everyone will pass through death at some point.

She had many questions.
She looked into my eyes and asked them.
She wanted to know where our aunt was now.
She wanted to know if there would be a funeral.
She wanted to know if she could go say goodbye.
She said she didn’t like it. I said I don’t either.
She held me tight and I smelled her hair.
She cried in my arms for the longest time.

This is not her first experience with death. But it is her first cognitive awareness of acute human loss.

Is there a correct way to teach another human how to grieve? How do we teach another human to process the sudden pain of loss? Is it even possible to teach it?

During my lifetime, Ive heard the words “Don’t Cry” so many times.

Over and over, DONT. CRY.

As if tears are a sign that we’ve somehow lost the battle? As if we are somehow worse off for actually letting all the pain out?

When I’m hurting I want to curl up in someone’s arms and cry too just like Maggie was curled up in mine. Despite my love affair with words, silent touch conveys far more to me than language ever can.

So I let Maggie cry.
I didn’t stop her.
I just held her.

And then…. she ceased crying.
Now she’s eating ice cream and watching Disney Channel.

Goodbye, Leola

Our family has experienced a sudden, devastating loss. My mother’s wonderful younger sister, Leola, passed away unexpectedly in her sleep yesterday. She was 72 years old. She’s the second of mom’s nine siblings to pass since 2013. 

I snapped this photo on Christmas Day two weeks ago at her daughter’s house. My mother is on the left. Aunt Faye is on the right and Aunt Leola is in the middle. Aunt Mae, the fourth of the “sisters” had just stepped out of the frame and I just kept on snapping photos, hoping to catch my mama, Priscilla, smiling. Aunt Leola was tickling her big sister, hoping to provoke a smile too. 
I didn’t know it would be the last time I saw her. I don’t even remember if I hugged her goodbye that day. 

But the radiant joy you see here sums up her entire life – and it’s always been the vision I have in my head when I think of my sweet aunt. 

She was spry, energetic, and one of the kindest creatures you’d ever meet. I don’t often admire someone for their religion but this is one lady who lived her personal Christian faith deep and wide – not through damning or shaming, but through songs and praise and smiles and laughter. She was the only person I’ve ever known who could touch me and say “You’re upset, honey let’s pray about it” and I fully believed that somehow, some way, a supreme being actually DID hear her. 

Her husband of almost fifty years, Olin, an avid Elvis fan, had passed away three years ago and she’s spent the past few years happily traveling back and forth between here and Oklahoma where three of her four grown children live. She was brave and headstrong, never fearing to hop in a car and travel the open road alone for thousands of miles. 

I never really knew when she’d be around. Mom called her a gypsy because she had a love of traveling! Sometimes she’d text me randomly. And just a few weeks back she dropped by my house one morning and spent a precious few hours with me chatting. 

She’d often pop in at my Mom’s to visit for a few minutes, grab a water, use the restroom or deliver some trinket that she thought my mother would like. Their visits always reminded me of the eternal bond close siblings share and how wonderful it is to have a sister to lean on at any stage of life. 

Last night, two of my mother’s brothers sped down here from Lexington to make sure they were with her in person when the news landed in her ears. And they sat on the couch side by side with her, holding her as she cried – over seventy years of shared family memories between them. 

And as I watch the closeness of my moms family this week and how they come together during times of crises and sadness, I know I would give every single thing I own to experience the bond of a brother or sister. 

Even if it means that some day I’d have to say goodbye.

Goodbye, 2013! Life is Still Beautiful

With all the 2013 status reflecting going on, I tried to do a bit of reflecting of my own today…and I kept falling short. I could only think of how much this year sucked monkey butt. Everyone’s lives always seem so much more adventurous, financially stable, trouble free and happier than ours via the social media rise-colored lens. 

So in my sour convalescing mood, it was very hard for me to find any redeemable credit in this particular year…a year filled with painful memories of watching one young uncle lose his life to cancer (merely three months between diagnosis and death) and another uncle who passed suddenly just before Thanksgiving, more grey hair popped out on my own head and my hands showed their very first signs of aging, our front yard, porch, van, and arbor was ripped to shreds when a pine tree toppled in a storm (demolishing five years hardwork of emotionally irreplaceable hand built carpentry, painting and flower plantings), our second child started her own speech therapy (mama guilt overload!), other random emotional turmoil….and my purse (along with my kindle and fully loaded wallet) was even stolen right out of my car. 

Nothing good came of this year, right?

And then I looked at Facebook again. 

My own. 

And I was met with a huge snapshot diary of not merely all of the downs this year brought, but some fantastic UPS as well:

A full two week trip to visit Kevin’s family in upstate NY in January…in the snow!

Funfilled playdates all around the midlands area with the kids, holiday parties galore all year long, bike rides, walks, zoo visits, Monkey Joe’s, parks, swimming, BBQ’s with good friends at Pine Island, leisurely days watching the kids play in the lake!

A full week at Myrtle beach (with Kevin’s family again! Love them!), followed immediately by a wonderful combined birthday bash for Jack, Jojo and Caleb at the lake celebrated with 100 friends and family…who helped in raising over $1,000 in donations for charity. 

Ran in three really fun 5K’s, learned how to work all the weight machines at Gold’s (and actually enjoyed it), took zumba classes and spent so much time in yoga that I could pass as a pretzel on my good days.  

Tons of moms nights with some of the most fantastic moms on the planet. Good times, great laughs! Dinners, drinks, pool, white elephant games, craft nights, book clubs, Pinterest parties, football, chili, haunted houses, movies, and even the hugest sun/bonfire ever.  
Our oldest “baby” earned his brown belt/black stripe in karate, graduated preschool, started Chinese immersion school (in which he is doing very well!) and whipped out a semester of violin lessons. 
We watched with pride as both of our oldest kids played Tball together on the same team and conquered yet another small bit of social fear. 
And our youngest learned to stand….walk…run…climb…bounce on the trampoline…and say I love you. (Plus we didn’t forget him for Christmas this year). 
I’ve also formed some terrific new friendships with some extremely wonderful people and strengthened ties with older ones. Women who I can call up and say “Hey, my uncle died, I need you”…women who deliver surprise flowers on my door step on my birthday…or who sit on the floor helping me make stupid fluffy clouds out of yarn for hours as birthday favors…or who stay up late at night chatting with me about the deep empirical, all consuming things in life… or who stay at my house til midnight after movie night teaching me how to dance (although my moves still aren’t quite like Jagger). 
And I adopted my very own little brother – a fellow Fred Rogers fan who I consider a writing genius (and who I often bug way too much for writing tips).    
And all that…that only covers the main events. 
Happy statuses, fun conversations, tagged photos of fun times, monthly albums…they’re all here to remind me that life’s moments are not lived on isolated islands. 
 The events that cause trauma to my heart and soul aren’t to be put on a pedestal, magnified to such an extent that they overshadow the happier moments that soothe and make living worthwhile. The bad AND the good surround us all. It’s merely the memories we feed that determine our future outlook. 

I must remember this. 
Must etch it on my forehead somehow. 

So here’s to 2013! And to 2014!

The good and the bad. 

The happy and the sad.  

Here’s to being able to look back and remind ourselves that 

Life, on the whole, is Beautiful.

Loss of a Grandmother

Time nor space nor age nor maturity can provide complete relief from internal losses we have suffered during this human journey. Whether a sudden sniff of faint remembered odor, a sudden shift in the coolness of air, or a certain twang of a familiar country song note hit just right, we are transported back in time swift as warp drive. 12 years in and today I still find myself suddenly longing for my beloved Granny!
Just shy of 5 feet tall, this tiny little country powerhouse survived the worst that life in the mid-20th century could throw at her, starting with the death of her mother at a young age, the Great Depression, the birth of 5 children during the 1940s, a massive heart attack, and the eventual death-by-cancer of her husband, whom she went on to live 22 years without. She also raise numerous goats, chickens and crazy tall ears of corn – all of which provided me with a wealth of fond childhood memories.
At the age of 80 you could still find her out front chopping wood for the iron cast stove in her 1940s cozy cinderblock 5 room home she had lived in since her youngest child (my father) entered school, hoe’ing one of her many garden plots, and calling on “them dadburn chickens” to come in their pen at night.

She could play a thoroughly wicked game of poker and taught all of us yougins the fine art of Go Fish, Old Maid and Gin Rummy, holding well worn cards with beaded, arthritic hands, capped in chipped ruby red nail polish…all while a lit Salem dangled from her leathered smiling lips. But don’t sip from her red solo cup mistaking it for her always-on-tap sweet tea or you may end up with a mouthful of Granny’s hard whiskey! If that DID happen though, be prepared for haughty laughter over the sound of the slamming forest green wood screen door in your rushed attempt to spit it out in the front yard! Ehem.. not that I would know personally, of course. 😉 Then there were the spooky fall nights, filled with crackling stove fire, 80s country music playing softly from the old grey tape deck, the eerie creak of the back porch swing, and whispered tales of UNK, the resident headless ghost who wandered Granny’s yard peeping through windows in his tireless quest for a new head (preferably from a brown haired child with a red shirt and white shorts…or whatever look you happened to be sporting that particular evening).

And now here I sit, well over a decade since I last heard her voice. I have so many questions I would love to ask her that never occurred to teenage-me! Questions about birth, raising multiple children, overcoming modern materialistic desire, what her thought about war were and how she survived without air condition. And although her voice timbre is almost faded from memory, and I’ll never get the answers to specific questions, her age-old life lessons still ring fervently in my ears.

And I hope she is proud of me.

Cancer Takes My Uncle

This past week, in the front bedroom of a small white 2 story unassuming peaceful country dwelling just past White Knoll High in Lexington, lay a small man barely 6 decades old, his shaved bald head pressed awkwardly into a white pillow as he slept. The peppered grey unruly beard upon his chin was the only vestige left of his earlier normal appearance.
In a mere 3 months time, his entire innocent body had fast succumbed to the most vicious mutant cancerous cells; his breath (even in sleep) now came in painful shallow, uneven gasps as his skeleton-thin chest heaved from life’s most basic instinct. Pillows were strategically positioned to elevate his spine and relieve pressure from the bone crushing tumors. A window air unit a few feet away was turned to low, spreading the sweet smell of cut gardenia blossom that sat in a vase nearby. It’s steady hum along with the soothing baby blue and white linen color scheme offered a sort of mind cooling atmospheric peace.He had no children, and no wife to comfort or grieve him. Instead, round the clock vigil was being kept by 3 of his 8 siblings. Other extended family members had been in and out for weeks, bringing food, cutting grass, and providing solace. But these 3 were a permanent fixture at their youngest sibling’s side. There would be no more graver a sin than to leave him alone now! He needed their presence, and their unmentioned sacrifice came as no surprise.

This proud family exuded love and dedication in their very bones – a heritage given to them by their parents who had bravely endured life (and death) together during some of the most heinous moments of the early and mid 20th century.

In a rocker at the foot of the man’s queen size bed, sat a tough, strait back, solemn purple-heart decorated Marine who had himself looked upon Death intimately during his years in the tropical jungles with the Vietcong. His civilian life the past few decades however had been dedicated to the housing, love and care of this youngest brother, who due to severe mental challenges and failing eyesight had been unable to provide a solo life for himself.

Just beyond the bedroom door, in a quaint old fashioned kitchen with black & white checked tile, RX medicine bottles sat organized and labeled in a plastic tub on the round oak table. Picking up the morphine and mouth syringe, his older sister adjusted her glasses, caught a ragged breath, and steadily measured out the appropriate dosage, which was being administered every two hours to edge the pain. What better a caretaker than she, who had provided the same tender end-of-life nursing to her own beloved soulmate of over 40 years as he suffered through the wretched stage 4 prostate cancer that finally claimed him in 2009?

Setting down a small bowl of finely puréed food they had attempted to feed the dying man earlier, the younger sister approached. “Sit down and rest, please, sissy. I will take it in this time.” she offered, absentmindedly smoothing down the front edge of the emerald blue kerchief she kept tied around her own fuzzy bald head, as her stomach rumbled in remembrance of too many skipped meals. A perpetual tiredness shown in her beautiful aging eyes, belying her own struggles with chemotherapy the past 6 months. No time for self pity. She paused only long enough to pop a lone gummy bear in her mouth. A moment later, medicine in hand, she eased into the quiet bedroom…and shut the door.

This morning, June 27, 2013, at 6:35 am, the morphine dosage was no longer needed. Instead, the pain ceased forever for the dying man – my poor uncle, my mother’s youngest brother. He was part of a very proud, close knit family of 9 children from Winnsboro, SC, born during the two decades spanning the late 1930s and late 1950s.

Uncle Floyd was an Artist, quiet, a loner, and laid back. He was not one for ridiculous small talk….but catch him at the right moment and his insight into life and sudden wit would overtake you, leaving you breathless. In life, he never had the opportunity to be a leader. But now, as the first of the 9 siblings to cross that great divide between here and eternity, he has earned his place as a leader amongst them….a General in combat, who fought his way bravely forward, alone, despite the frailness of his humanity. And like all good leaders, he will be there, waiting, hand outstretched, laughing his unique trippy laugh, encouraging us, as the rest of our family someday embarks, one by one, across that dark and lonely chasm between life and death.

But until then, the pain of his sudden and permanent absence is raw. He will be sorely missed here on earth.