An ode to Pat: Part 1

I remember yesterday and love at first fight
You, so arrogant and cocky
I hated your stupid face
So much that
If I knew that you were coming
I would take some extra care
Hair and makeup; skirts pulled up just so
All because you aggravated me
Not much has changed
Still, though
Can’t imagine a life you don’t inhabit
Even when you sing falsetto

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One last gift

My mother has been battling several chronic illnesses for a long time. But this last year has really taken its toll on her body and spirit. The last few months in particular have shown a drastic decline in her overall mobility and ability to do the most basic of tasks.

During her last hospitalization, Mom came to the decision that should her health decline to a point that death is imminent she did not want medical intervention to prolong her life. With that decision made, the focus of her treatment changed and she was transitioned to hospice. She left the hospital the next day and is currently at my sister’s house, where she is entertaining visitors from all over creation and is reaping all of the love and laughter she has sown all these years.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not all sunshine and daisies. Mom is dying and we all know it. We don’t know when – the doctors gave her anywhere from a few days to a few months. Some moments it seems like death is sitting in the corner and others as if it’s barely a whisper on the wind. But it is still there, swirling around the edges of our consciousness and adding urgency to our conversations and interactions. She feels it, too, probably more keenly than the rest of us. At times while you are sitting with her she will look up, her face calm with a hint of melancholy, and whisper your name. When you reply, she follows it with, “I love you.” Choking back tears, we all reply that we love her, too, and the conversation shifts back to other things or she will drift off to sleep, content that her message has been received.

It is both brutal and raw but there is a beauty to it as well. Our conversations have a heft, a weight to them that was lacking before. They are precious and painful and we are so very, very lucky that we get to have them.

Talking to the kids about this has really stretched the edges of my parenting skills. I have had several conversations with both of them about what is happening. During these talks it became apparent that my mother is giving me – all of us really – a final gift. She is giving me the ability to teach my children that courage and strength of character stay with you forever. I had several conversations with Dylan, who said he wasn’t sure he could see her without breaking down. This is what I told him.

We’re all going to breakdown. It’s grief, it’s supposed to hurt. Part of being a grown-up is learning to live through the hard parts of life without letting them destroy you. You are going to cry, a lot. But you will also laugh, a lot. We have been given a gift for which many people would chew off their arms – the ability to grant a dying woman her last wish and the opportunity to say goodbye. An awesome responsibility has been placed on us, and it is now up to us to show the emotional courage to pick it up and put her needs ahead of our own, regardless of how painful or difficult it is for us to witness.

Families are built on shared experiences and you don’t get to only attend the good parts. No one likes the bad parts but they’re important, too. If the good times are the bricks the family is built from, then the bad times are the mortar that holds the whole thing together. Without both, a family can’t exist.

When I heard that Mom made the decision to transition to hospice, I faced a slew of emotions. I’m not going to lie, most of them were negative and, in hindsight, a little selfish – a few too many “I’s” and not enough “Hers” in my thinking. After I saw her and talked to her about her decision, what struck me most was the peace she was wrapped in when she talked about it. She misses people: her mom and dad; her sister; her brothers; her sister-in-law and best friend; and all the other friends and family that have gone on before her.

Then there’s dad. Gone almost 24 years now, and very much on her mind lately, she’s eager to see him again. She misses him. I can’t imagine enduring that kind of loneliness and longing for so long.

What I worried was resignation to her failing body and health was, in fact, the opposite. Her decision was an affirmation of her ability for self-determination. Her decision was born from strength and, honestly, I have to support and admire that kind of courage. I hope if I am ever faced with a decision of this magnitude that I can find it within myself to make it with the same courage and dignity she has shown.

I saw her this past Sunday, and I asked her if she had any fight left. Her response? “Hell ya!” She added that she wasn’t giving up but she wasn’t going to fight the inevitable. When her time comes, she will greet it as a blessing rather than fight it as a curse.

Mom has always been a fighter and she instilled that fighting spirit into each one of her five daughters. Although we all embody it differently, we are branches on the same tree. I am the living embodiment of her stubbornness. I have been, and continue to be, the person who will cut her nose off to spite her face. I also have to learn every lesson the hard way.

Mom and I didn’t always understand the larger parts of each other’s personalities but none of those differences matter standing this close to the end. All that matters now is what we still have left to learn from each other. Thankfully, Mom was always “mom” enough to give me the room to figure out the important lessons myself, and most of the time had the grace not to say I told you so when I finally grasped them – however long that may have taken (or in some cases is still taking).

Saturday was a hectic day. We drove to Maine to watch Dylan play lacrosse and then we all drove to my sister’s house in Worcester, where mom is staying. It’s a pretty big family and a good deal of it was already there when we arrived in the early evening. It was loud and boisterous and filled with love and laughter. All 16 of her grandkids showed up that day and her happiness about that was evident from the smile on her face. She sat perched in the middle of the hospital bed, primped and ready to receive the latecomers. She was alert and full of Irish mischief. We looked at pictures and listened as she told us about all her visitors that day.

After we all caught up, the kids spent time with her individually. I don’t know what they talked about and, quite frankly, it’s none of my business.

It was hard watching them wrestle with the knowledge that this may be their last meaningful interaction with their grandmother. They knew it, I knew it and she knew it. I am grateful for her grace and encouragement to all of her grandchildren as she allowed them the gift of saying good-bye to her in their own way on their own terms. I was talking to Dylan via text (he’s back at school) and I told him what I was writing about this week. He told me that he also wrote about Grammy this week in class. When I asked what he chose to write about, he told me he wrote about how she always believes in him.

Her life has touched so many people. Her five daughters and their spouses, her 16 grandchildren and their spouses and significant others, her four great-grandchildren, dozens of nieces and nephews and their children, and scores of neighborhood kids all knew that help was theirs for the asking. She made a place for everyone and anyone and her influence will continue to be felt for generations.

What an amazing legacy she will leave behind.

Update: Mom passed away surround by three of her five daughters and several grandchildren on September 28, 2014. Just in time to see Dad on his birthday which is today, September 30th. I imagine they are having a wonderful time.

Originally published to The Old Colony Memorial on September 24, 2014

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The Light Box

From the light box in front of Southgate, you could see Hyde Square to the left, to the right you could follow the trolley tracks all the way to Forest Hills; Boylston Street was straight ahead and Moraine Street was at your back. Sitting on the light box was like being in the middle of EVERYWHERE! ~ Melissa Brady

The light box ruled my life. Of all the places from my teenage years, this is where many adventures began. Whether we ended up at Daisy Field, the Pond, or Parley Vale, the Connelly Library, or Kelly’s Rink, we generally started out at the light box.

Southgate is gone, so is Greasey’s. Ditto Kelly’s Rink. Different people live in our homes. Yet, the light box remains, waiting. It stands as the guardian of our youth, a witness to our hopes and fears, our triumphs and failures. It was our gathering space, the hub of our universe.

Jamaica Plain (JP) back in the 70s and 80s was starting to change. It, like many Boston neighborhoods went through a difficult, turbulent metamorphosis. Busing altered the schools and the communities. Many families moved their kids to Catholic schools while still others left entirely. There was a lot of turbulence and violence, poverty and addiction.

But it was always beautiful, even with urban blight. There was, and remains, an incredible array of natural landscape to serve as our backyards: The Emerald Necklace, which includes Daisy Field and Jamaica Pond. Of course we had the Arboretum and other, smaller, urban oases. Continue reading

Decorating the tree – my favorite part of Christmas

Today is a “busy” day. I have lots of busy to do: house stuff; Christmas stuff; work stuff; volunteer stuff. Stuff. All of it necessary and all of it demanding my attention today. I like doing stuff. Keeps me busy and out of trouble (mostly).

Looking forward to the Christmas stuff the most. I love this time of year, moreso now that I have kids. It was Dad’s favorite holiday – favorite! I think that’s where it starts for me.

Decorating the tree is what I enjoy most. Every year the kids get ornaments. Some from their grandparents, some from aunts, but mostly from Pat and me. In the ornaments we give, we try to reflect an event or interest they had that year, a chronicle of their lives. They love this day as well. I have saved every box. Each is labelled with their name, who gave it to them, and the date. I love their questions and comments. I love seeing their faces as they uncover a memory, see it grow in them, and watch with joy as they re-live a happy time or a effort well done.

With Christmas music playing in the background, the sparkling cider or cocoa, the laughter and the reminiscing, it’s really my favorite day of the season. It reinforces the family and traditions we are trying to teach the kids. Family is the basis of everything; of brotherhood; of tradition; of good will; family is the basis of Christmas. At least in this family.

It’s why I don’t understand the “War on Christmas” drama. At all. Not one single bit of it.

Have you ever wished anyone a Merry Christmas and had them snap at you? I haven’t. But even if you have, it only means you have met one of the eleventy-billion assholes that inhabit Earth at any given second. I have slipped up and said Merry Christmas to my Jewish friends. Know what they said to me? Happy Holidays or Peace or they’ll give me a blessing in Hebrew. Know what, I’m not offended and neither are they. We’re grown-ups. With enough drama in our lives already that we don’t need manufactured, Bill O’Reilly, hyped-up nonsense. Not today, not next week, not ever.

Anything that makes people stop, appreciate the world around them, focus on others instead of themselves, is a good thing, right? An ability to share our traditions and share the traditions of our neighbors; expanding the joy of the season to others is a positive, affirming action. A blessing. I spend the season counting mine, loving my family, and being good to my neighbors; I try to surprise myself.

Live your life your way. Open your heart to new and different ideas. Expand your idea of brotherhood. Plenty of things want to do you harm, don’t mistake the real ones for the manufactured ones. That’s when we all lose.

Me, I’m going to spend this season like I spend most of them, working and shopping and singing. I’m going to wish everyone I see a Happy Holiday, Merry Christmas, Peace, Shalom, or Happy Festivus. I never know what’s coming out until it’s already out. If I offend you, that’s your problem, stop trying to make it mine.

The after

I love holidays. All of them. I have a few favorites like 4th of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas. The holidays with spectacle. I like the build-up (although Christmas seems to get more ridiculous each year). Seems to be the more work I have to do, the better I like the holiday. Hmmm, sounds like an issue.

The holidays of my youth are legendary. Thanksgiving and Christmas especially. They started early, we hosted legions of family, and they seemed to last for days. You never knew who was going to show, but whoever did was welcomed and fed.

As much as I like the planning and the executing. As much as I like the dining and the presents. My favorite part of holidays is The After. When everyone is fed, presents are opened, everything is cleaned, the last guest has gone. There is a peace and serenity that exists. Everyone is home and happy. There are no intrusions. There is only family. Content. The reason you make the extra effort.

I’m happiest then. I have a great sense of accomplishment. I have a great life. I have a husband who adores me (although he’ll probably deny that), amazing children, sisters, nieces, nephews, friends, a crazy old mother, in-laws that I don’t see enough, and cousins that are scattered to the wind.

Last night, for the first time, the kids noticed The After. As we settled into the living room for a movie, everyone was cozy and content. No one fought over seats, or bickered over the movie, it was just us – coming together as family.

After.

Thanksgiving kitty: Gizmo, the cat who hated everyone

Pat and I got Gizmo our first Thanksgiving together way back in 1992. Gizmo was never a happy cat, not even as a kitten. He lived his entire life as a grumpy-old-man-cat.

The only person he liked was me and he wanted to be with me constantly. Giz got less attention when I started having kids, Dylan first and then Emma. They took most of my time and poor old curmudgeony Giz got pushed aside. That’s ok I think he liked the abuse.

The kids wanted him to like them, especially Emma. She wanted the fluffy kitty to play with her and be her pal. Gizmo would look at her with a sneer, as if to say, nope. Never. Not gonna happen. To amuse ourselves we would make up songs about poor Gizmo. Our favorite was GIZMO (like BINGO) “There was a family had a kitten and Gizmo was his name-o, G-I-Z-M-O.” Not terribly original but we liked it. What, we’re easily amused.

Gizmo

Gizmo

Gizmo lasted a long-time. He outlasted Baby Kitten and Jake (our other cats). I knew his time was getting close. He was having trouble with the stairs and he was losing weight. One day he disappeared. It was the week before Thanksgiving, fitting really. I looked around for him but no luck. Life keeps its own schedule and we were getting ready for a trip to Baltimore for a family wedding (shout-out to Chris and Cora!) so I said very little about him to the kids and prepped for our trip.

My plan was to do laundry Wednesday, pack Thursday, and leave directly after school Friday for the 8 hour drive to Baltimore. I washed my first load and tossed it in the dryer. When I went to retrieve the laundry, it was still wet. I figured I forgot to press the start button – it had happened before.  Popped it on again and went to bed. Next morning, laundry is still wet. Great! Dryer’s broken. I’ll deal with it after work. I get home and run outside to check the vent for clogs. That’s when I find Gizmo.

Dead. In his favorite spot, the window well. Hard up against the dryer vent, blocking it.

So now I have: a dead cat, dirty and wet laundry, and children I have to tell that their cat is dead. Joy to my world. I cover the cat, package up the laundry to take to the Laundromat and sit down to tell the kids Giz is dead. They react how I expect them to react. By then it’s late, so Giz will have to wait until morning.

Friday dawns, cold and rainy – pouring to be precise – and me with a cat to bury. Out in the garden, I dig a hole and place Gizmo in as gently as possible. Now before I can close the hole, the children need a service – a freaking graveside service, in the pouring rain, for a cat who hated everyone. And who gets to officiate at this service. That’s right, me. As I stand in the garden, wet and cold and not a little irritated, I’m thinking to myself that my kids are never watching TV again. Ever. Stupid cartoons. With their stupid pet burials and elaborate services. Hate.

We eventually make it to Baltimore; Chris and Cora’s wedding was beautiful.

If you think that was the end of our Thanksgiving travails that year, well, you’d be wrong. But that’s a story for another blog.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Enjoy your families and count your blessings.