Catching Up, Part 6

November 1, 2017

Another thing you missed while I was away: the death of a close friend from graduate school. By his own hand.

I actually hadn’t spoken to him in several years, because he withdrew from everyone when he dropped out of grad school due to his mental health issues. Despite the ongoing issues, he ended up having a really nice life (career, same steadfast wife, beautiful children)… until he left it.

But during grad school, he was a profoundly delightful friend to have. One of my top 5 most enjoyable people to be around, ever in my life. It’s hard to wrap my mind around someone being depressed enough to upend his life by dropping out of grad school, let alone to end his life, yet almost all day every day having the most dazzling smile, the sweetest twinkle in his eye.

Out of everyone in my life with whom I’ve lost touch over the years, which is a long list, even before his death he was the person about whom I’d most often thought, “I really miss him.”

I commiserated with our mutual friends via phone, email, text, even snail mail, but I didn’t make it to the funeral (in the city where we went to grad school, a thousand miles away). I don’t have a lot of regrets in my life, but I do regret not going. The logistics didn’t make sense, friends coming in from out of town that day, school field trip I was scheduled to chaperone the next day, blah blah, but I should have dropped everything and gone. I will go next time. I wish there wouldn’t be a next time, but I know there will, because welcome to getting older. I will go next time.

Instead of going to the funeral, I listened over and over and over and over to an album that he and I both loved when it came out, Hot Fuss by the Killers. It was still on my regular rotation (including heavy rotation during all of my hours alone in the pottery studio all those years) for the next five years, until my twins were born and I stopped listening to music. But out the album came again when he died, and I’d cry and cry, even to the fun dance songs.

What breaks my heart the most is that as a young child, he was bereaved in exactly the same way that he bereaved his children. That, and the subsequent shitty treatment by the replacement stepparent, were sources of pain always hiding right behind his smile. He talked to me many times about the evil stepparent (who was still making his life difficult, even though my friend was in his mid/late 20s when we were in grad school), but we never once talked about his late parent. That pain was too great, even more than 20 years later.

I know that his mental illness was a disease. And I know that the disease makes people not think straight, including about taking their own lives. I know these things, but I do not understand them. I have a fundamental belief about the world that if you love your children enough, you would absolutely never leave them. Obviously we don’t have control over every kind of disease, accident, natural disaster, etc., but in my heart I believe that to love your children fully means that you will not allow anything to make you take yourself away from them. That if you love them enough you would never abandon them to go live without them, and you would never abandon them to stop living. I get that my fundamental belief is not true for everyone, and I get that my dear friend’s pain was so great that he did what he did even knowing who he was leaving behind. I get it, but I don’t get it.

And to think that his young children, one at an age where he will remember both the joy and the grief but the other so young that he may never have any memories of my friend, may go through all of this pain, and then in 20 or 30 or 40 years could possibly choose leave their family behind just like their father and grandparent, it tears me up inside. Even now, with some time having passed, it just breaks my heart. It also breaks my heart to think of my friend’s surviving parent, losing a spouse this way and then decades later losing a child the exact same way.

And it breaks my heart to think of my dear friend as a little kid, bereaved in this exact way, and then for the rest of his life harboring a pain so great that he’d end up doing the exact same thing, despite being the most fun person in any room, despite being universally adored, despite having the best smile of anyone I’ve ever known.

I really miss him.

Blank Pages

March 19, 2012

Photo albums rarely seem to have the right number of pages.

All of the old albums that I’ve seen from my grandmother, or DH’s grandparents, have exactly the right number of pages because they were bound by hand. Same with my wedding album — I inserted exactly as many pages as I needed into the book, and when I received some extras, I took the book apart and inserted more.

Most of the albums from my childhood have the right number of pages too, because my father (and later, I) spaced the photos out in such a way that they fit the album exactly. As an adult, I bought a 200-slot album for a trip that DH and I took; I had 205 photos to put into it, so I took out the 5 that were least worth keeping.

I’ve seen a few albums that didn’t have enough pages. A bunch of photos were arranged more densely on the last few pages than in the rest of the album, or a little stack of photos was stuck between the pages, loose.

I’ve seen some photo albums that have far too many blank pages at the end. Most of the albums that I have from adulthood are like this actually, because they are ongoing records of our life together: we have one album of photos of our friends from college through the present, one of family, one of the two of us… The advent of digital photography also has something to do with the blank pages, as very few photos have been printed and put into those albums since I got my first digital camera in 2002.

Many albums I’ve seen from other people, though, are not intended running records. They cover a specific event, or a specific time period. They seem to have bought an album that was too big. Or, conversely, they didn’t take enough photos to fill the pages. It feels… not quite right. Incomplete.

When my mother’s health started to turn and she first went into the hospital, I bought her a little album and printed out a bunch of photos of then-infant Burrito and Tamale so that she’d have something to look at while she was hospitalized. While I sat by her bedside, trying to catch the doctor during his once-a-day visits, I put all of the photos into the album in chronological order, complete with little Post-It flags to label each one: how old Burrito and Tamale were, who else is with them, what the photo depicts.

The last time I updated the album for my mother, Burrito and Tamale were 14 months old. There were 9 spots left in the album. I wondered if the next time I saw her I’d have to buy a second album, or maybe I’d move everything into a new larger album.

The next time I saw my mother, less than 3 months later, she was non-responsive and on the verge of death. I had some new print-worthy photos but there was no point in updating the album, which she would never look at again. She didn’t even have it — or anything but her purse — with her in the ICU, not having known when she was whisked to the hospital for the last time that she’d be staying there for weeks, and certainly not knowing that she’d never be coming out.

When I cleared out my mother’s home after her death, that album was one of the few things I took back with me.

Today, exactly one year later, those 9 pages remain blank. Not quite right. Incomplete.


March 12, 2012

Almost a month ago, I got an email from WordPress that I need to renew a domain name. For my mother’s memorial website.

That means it has been almost a year since my mother died.

I keep putting off the renewal.

I’m not sure if it’s because I don’t want to acknowledge that a full year has passed, or because I want the reminder email to stay at the top of my inbox.

Maybe both.

Thoughtful ThursdayThis year as I’ve sent out our holiday cards, I’ve taken a different tactic than usual for updating the list.

In the past, with these types of lists, address books, or birthday calendars, I would delete people who had become obsolete — either because they’d moved out of our lives, or because they died.

This year, I instead hid those lines on the spreadsheet. I did this for a couple of reasons: first, there are a couple of people whom DH has had me remove from the list at some point only to request that they be added in a subsequent year; hiding allows me to restore their address rather than having to contact them. Second, it’s hard to know what to do with people who have died. I remember reading a blog post from Mel several years saying that when people die, she leaves them in her address book untouched. At that point in life, her approach was very different from mine: I made a dramatic point of deleting them, a symbolic goodbye. But, I don’t think deleting works for me anymore, nor do I want to look at a potentially painful entry without warning. Hence, hiding the row.

Past deletion has come back to bite me: for example, a relative died last year, and I deleted his birthday from my list. Now, I couldn’t tell you his exact birthday. I know the month, but not the date. And so, when his daughter was suddenly sad on that day, I had no idea why, and I didn’t treat her as gently as I would have until someone else filled me in. Even if the deceased person can’t celebrate anymore, others might want to honor them — or mourn them — on that day, and it’s handy to have some kind of reminder.

There are some entries that I won’t forget, whether or not they appear on a list. I will never forget my mother’s birthday, for example, nor her address, nor the fact that she used to be at the top of my list and she isn’t there any more.

What do you do with obsolete entries in your address book, birthday calendar, etc.?

Thoughtful Thursday

Some of you have seen recent news stories about a woman who recently died from childbirth complications. I was particularly interested not only because of the many parallels to my experiences — infertile for 7 years, boy-girl twins from IF treatments, planned c-section because one baby was breech, severe hemorrhaging after delivery — but also because I actually am separated from her by only one degree, through a common friend.

When our friend passed along the horrible news, I scoured the website and the news articles, curious about the extent of the parallels between our lives and wanting to know more about this truly special person. And yes, some degree of lookie-loo motivation too, there but for the grace of G-d go I.

When I told DH about her and the parallels, his reaction was to refuse to listen to another word about her, horrified at the parallels, there but for the grace…

DH can stop me from talking to him about this family, but he cannot stop me from donating to help a bereaved husband and overwhelmed father of newborn twins take care of those beautiful babies.

When you see someone just like you befall a terrible fate, do you want to know more or shut your eyes and pretend it never happened?

Thoughtful Thursday: Natural

November 17, 2011

Thoughtful ThursdayOn a different photo topic from being photogenic

I had another instance of getting the wind knocked out of me this week. Burrito and Tamale both love technology (despite not being allowed near any electronic gizmos). They discovered the answering machine that is part of the cordless phone base. We switched to machineless voicemail a year and a half ago, so the answering machine has just been sitting there, idle. At the time of the switch, we happened to have saved a few messages, then never deleted them.

Burrito and Tamale decided to press all of the buttons. They played the messages.

  1. Work thing for DH which is now very much moot.
  2. “How are the babies?” message from former coworker.
  3. Random message from my mother.

It was such a shock to suddenly hear her voice, out of nowhere.

I can still hear her voice in my head, but I don’t really have any good audio or video samples of her.

There were a few videos my dad shot when she was sick, in the hospital or in a rehab facility, to show me her condition. Not an accurate representation of her usual self.

During better times, whenever my mother was in front of the camera, she became decidedly unnatural. Still camera: bizarre, stilted pose with fake smile. Always the same one, but not a body position or face that she ever made off camera. Video camera: the most talkative person in the world suddenly clammed up.

DH is totally himself on video. With a still camera, he psychs himself out sometimes, and either smiles too much or not enough. When we just had professional photos taken, out of 300 photos, the only ones where he looks natural are a few where he forgot about the camera and focused on interacting with one of us. He does look good in many of them, but it’s just not quite him.

I like to think that I act and look pretty natural in front of the still camera. When a video camera is pointed at me putting me on the spot to say something, like the videographer at a wedding, I have nothing to say (sorry about your wedding videos, everyone). With everyday videos, though, like the ones we take of Burrito and Tamale, I am absolutely myself. For good or for bad, that’s me.

How natural are you in front of the camera?

Thoughtful Thursday: Wind

September 15, 2011

Thoughtful ThursdayThe last time the wind got knocked out of someone in this house, an infant Burrito kicked the nanny in the stomach during a diaper change.

The last time the wind literally got knocked out of me, I was 7 years old in gymnastics class.

The last time the wind figuratively got knocked out of me, I was in the car, last week.

About a mile and a half from my house, there is a retirement home. I very rarely drive in that direction, so in 5 years I’ve probably passed it only half a dozen times. Aside from driving by, the only time I’ve ever heard it mentioned was last year, when the town parents’ group was organizing the children to visit the home for Halloween in their costumes to amuse the residents. I didn’t bring Burrito and Tamale, mainly because it seemed wrong that my mother should be in a similar assisted living facility thousands of miles away but that Burrito and Tamale would be oohed and aahed at in their costumes by other kids’ grandparents but not her.

Sometime between last Halloween and now, the home, which was formerly independent, was bought by a national chain of assisted living facilities. The same chain that owned the facility where my mother spent most of the last year of her life.

I didn’t know this until I drove by last week, when Burrito and Tamale started daycare on that side of town. When I saw the new sign with its too-familiar name, its too-familiar font, its too-familiar color scheme, I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. The wind got knocked out of me.

I will be driving by several times a week now, so I suppose I’ll have to get used to it. So far, the punches haven’t been as hard and the wind is no longer being totally knocked out of me, but I’m torn between averting my eyes and stopping the car to stare at the sign.

I have no idea if I’ll bring them there for the Halloween parade this year.

When was the last time the wind got knocked out of you, literally or figuratively?

Thoughtful ThursdayWhen I was on the airplane on my way to college, before the start of my freshman year, I had an irrational thought. When the plane landed, how did I know it was really the city where I planned to spend the next four years? They could just slap a sign on the airport and I’d believe that it was any city. It would clearly involve an elaborate hoax, not only the sign people at the airport but the airline and all of my fellow travelers. The hoax could even go beyond the airport if you planted a monument here, a regional food there. When I got to school, how would I know it was really the college it claimed to be? How long could they keep up the charade — all four years? I told you it was irrational.

I haven’t experienced anything like that until recently. I keep wondering, what if my mother isn’t really dead? Maybe she just stopped calling me. The only thing keeping me from this train of thought is that I watched her die. Maybe she wasn’t really dead and the medical staff lied? No, I watched her breaths slow and slow and cease. But maybe that wasn’t her? No, it was her. Because she was so sick she didn’t look entirely like herself, but it was her.

A year ago this week, my mother was living in her own house, driving her own car, going about her usual activities. And then all of a sudden she was in the hospital, and nothing ever went back to the way it had been. I know none of that was a hoax, because I could hear and see her new reality. But the absence of someone, there are a lot of things that could explain that. She could be hiding out. She could be giving me the silent treatment. She could be dead.

Sometimes, someone is late coming home, or you don’t hear from them for a while, and you wonder if something awful has happened. And sometimes something awful does happen and you wonder if it didn’t happen after all.

Have you ever wondered if anything was an elaborate hoax? Have you ever had a hard time believing that something was true?

Thoughtful Thursday

Welcome to the June Intelligentsia, the people who have commented on every Thoughtful Thursday post in May.

#20: Elana from Elana’s Musings
#19: Lost In Translation from We Say IVF, They Say FIV
#17: A from Are You Kidding Me?
#12: Strongblonde from Strong Blonde
#4: Tara from Turkey In My Oven
#2: St. Elsewhere

Thoughtful ThursdaySince my mother died, going to the mailbox has been a strange experience. for starters, I can no longer look forward to the letters my mother used to send every few days (even though we talked on the phone every day). Instead, the hand-written letters have consisted of condolence cards from people who either don’t use email or who have thought that the death of one’s mother deserves a physical card (including a couple of bloggy friends). I don’t know if the trickle of letters has dried up, or whether there are any others that will unexpectedly show up in the future. Even though they usually make me cry, I really appreciate each one.

For quite a while, I waited for the death certificate to arrive — not because I want it, but because various bureaucrats demand it before they will let you move on with your life. Eventually that came. My father told me that seeing his copy hit him hard, and so I expected the same, but really it was just a piece of paper.

During the same period, I have also waited for two items that I won in an online charity auction. The first one eventually arrived, and was delicious (s’mores with homemade marshmallows):

I’m still waiting on the second one, two months later, which is slightly annoying but also brings great excitement to each visit by the postman (or could it be the UPS guy? Burrito and Tamale also love seeing him drive up in his truck, not even knowing that he might be bringing cake — not that I will be sharing with them).

There’s one other unusual item I’m still waiting for: when I called my aunt to inform her of my mother’s death, she told me that she’d send a bunch of photos from my mother’s childhood. I had not spoken to my aunt in literally 20 years, and except for a couple of brief in-person visits when I was a kid, the extent of our contact was always me answering the phone and her immediately asking to speak to my mother. The notification call was the first real conversation I ever had with her. She told me that she has asked my mother for my contact info many times, but that my mother refused. These photos are even more precious than they would normally be because I have no photos of my mom before college — in fact, in my entire life I have only ever seen one photo of her as a child, one of her father (who I only recently learned has been dead since before I was born), and zero photos of anyone else from her family. I asked my mother to acquire these photos over and over for years, but she always put me off (sensing a pattern?). I have photos of my father’s ancestors going back four generations, and photos of my husband’s family going back three generations — photos that were guarded through wars, the Holocaust, and emigrations — but I do not have a single photo of my own mother as a child. Yet. Until the day, whenever it may be, that my aunt’s package arrives.

What is the next interesting thing that you expect to show up in your mailbox?

Thoughtful ThursdaySandal weather is suddenly upon us. I’ve worn socks and shoes, or usually socks and boots, every day for a loooong time. My feet are not ready for sandals, as I am in desperate need of a pedicure — or at least a DIY painting.

Why have I let it go so long? Not because it’s been not-sandal weather, as usually my toes are red regardless of the weather. Not even because of Burrito and Tamale, though free time for grooming is shorter than it used to be.

It’s because my last pedicure was in December, with my mother getting a pedicure in the chair next to me.

I haven’t been able to bear to take the polish from that pedicure off, no matter how overdue it has been.

I’ve sort of been waiting it out, knowing that it would grow out/chip off eventually. I’m not sure what I think will happen once that polish is totally gone. I’m also not sure what I think will happen if I take the polish off myself.

It’s irrational and pointless, and I know it, and I hold on anyway.

Are you holding on to anything that serves no purpose, that you don’t even understand?