A penny from heaven

I found a penny today
it was shiny and new
like my grief
I wasn’t really sure how I was going to get through today without your call
 
Yesterday was hard enough but then I had the distraction of everyone 
So I didn’t miss it when you didn’t call 
Besides we both know your heart was never in it
and that you did it for me
For continuity
 
That penny though
As soon as I saw it
I knew it was from you
a penny from heaven – a gift
to celebrate my real birthday

It made me smile
but it also made me cry just a little
Not from sadness
mostly in resignation since I know
I’ll never get the calls or hear your voice again and that 
the gift of the pennies are all I have
to let me know that you’re thinking of me
 
I put it with the other penny you sent 
on the one month anniversary of your death
They hang on the wall above my desk 
taped to a square yellow sticky tucked in
with all the other mementos and things important
only to me
 
That way I can be reminded that you exist out there in the universe
but still remember that there are those of us still here that need a reminder that 
you are there looking out for us
 
I can’t help but wonder when the next one will turn up

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Shattered

I stand

In the burgeoning darkness of my sister’s yard; with

The phone pressed tight against my ear

My body coiled as I listen intently to the voice on the other end

 

They stand

               huddled around me

The glow of the phone illuminates my face

Daughter, sister, niece waiting anxiously

For the call to end

 

I reach

               behind me, seeking

With my free hand

Frantically seeking his solidity

To prop me up

 

I pause

               Gathering my courage close

I let them enjoy the final moment of living

In a world mom still inhabits

 

I choke

               On the words, slipping

From my mouth

As I shatter their world with my grief

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

wickedlocallarge

A Mother’s Way (Originally published to Plymouth Patch May 2012)

A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle ~ Proverb

As mothers, we share the honor and responsibility for raising the future. It is up to us to advocate for the best interests of our children. It also means that if a child does not have a mother who can support them – for whatever reason – the imperative then falls to us, the moms who can.
I’d like to focus attention, however briefly; on the one issue that I believe is the most important opportunity we have to impact the lives of all children, everywhere. It crosses all boundaries.
Education
We, as a country, need to reaffirm our commitment to quality public education. We also need to reaffirm our commitment to teachers.
Teachers are an integral part of education and they should be treated like partners. Recruiting and retaining smart, dedicated educators by making teaching an attractive and viable profession needs to start with a living wage. We need to stop making them the enemy and vilifying them as lazy and unproductive. Do bad teachers exist? Sure. But so do bad doctors and plumbers and parents.
Advocating for education is not a one-time deal. We will need to do it loudly and often. Investing in public education is not just about money. It’s about taking what works in the classroom and tweaking what doesn’t. We need to create partnerships in the community between parents and educators. We need to dedicate our time and talents as mentors and role-models. We need to empower teachers to spend more time teaching the fundamentals and less time “teaching to the test” and cowering in a corner practicing lockdowns.
I am not an expert on education or education reform. I am, however, a pretty keen observer and I trust what I see.
I was able to spend a lot of time in the classroom when my kids were in elementary school and I saw amazing things happen when teachers are able to develop relationships with their students. I have watched as children began to master near impossible tasks come away with increased self-esteem and greater confidence. Children, when encouraged to try in a supportive environment, will try, even if they fail. They begin to understand that learning is a process, a joy.
I’m not naïve enough to think that everyone will agree with me on this issue. Honestly, I don’t really care. I dare anyone to tell me that investing less in education is the best policy.
I’m not suggesting I have all the answers.
I don’t. But there are people, people smarter than me, who study education and understand how to fix it. We need to let them fix it but we need to make sure we continue to pay attention so things don’t get off track or completely derailed.
Reforming our education system will not come without a fight and progress will be frustratingly slow. It could, potentially, take a generation or more of reinvestment and reinvention of our public schools before significant gains are achieved. This is a long fight and it is not for the faint-hearted.
Together, we can change the world.
How cool is that?

A Sassy, Foul-Mouthed Brunette: The Girl That Slayed The Giant

WARNING: STRONG LANGUAGE AHEAD

andrea(If you’re new to the blog, I suggest you first read How 5 Little Girls Briefly Slayed the Giant.)

Andrea. I think about her often. I hope she’s happy; she deserves it more than any person I have known.

Andrea lived at the New England Home for Little Wanderers. Aunt Maryanne (one of the 13 permanent residents of Sheridan Street) worked there, cleaning up after the residents and staff. I always assumed it was an orphanage but all of the Little Wanderer residents went home on the weekends.

All except Andrea.

Andrea was a ward of the state. She had been in and out of foster care and, finally, had been permanently removed from her parent’s care after their umpteenth time of causing her actual, physical harm. I think the last straw was when her mother tried to drown her in the bathtub. Apparently beating and burning a child with cigarettes are not sufficiently cruel enough acts to warrant being removed from parental care.

Andrea, having no where to go on weekends bounced between the professional staff until she found a home on Sheridan Street. She spent every weekend and holiday with us, a fragile patch in our quilt of crazy. When she was introduced into our lives she was broken, in body and spirit. She was practically feral. She didn’t know how to use utensils, or clean herself, or anything really.

She was 6 years old, looked 10, and swore like a sailor.

It seemed to take no time for her to acclimate to the rhythm of life on Sheridan Street. She was wanted and she was loved and after a time she seemed to realize that and she relaxed. A little. With Andrea you had one simple thing to remember or you would set off a firestorm of cussing that would curl your ears.

Never, ever, try to take her food. Ever. Seriously. NEV-ER. Especially if that food was pizza.

Andrea loved Maryanne (her primary caretaker at home), Aunt Barbara (my mom), all the various kids and guests. But her special, all consuming love was reserved for one person: Uncle Jimmy. Or Papa Smurf as she would call him, laughingly. A completely appropriate nickname coined for him by Deb’s friend Robin, for at that time in his life, he looked, well, like Papa Smurf.

Dad treated everyone equal. Prince or pauper, you were good people until your actions proved otherwise. He treated Andrea like all the other kids, to him she was a kid no matter what lie in her past, and he treated her like he treated the rest — and tough luck if she didn’t like it. When she didn’t, she let him know in the most vocal, invective-filled way imaginable.

An Andrea rant was a thing of stunning simplicity. It consisted mainly of saying “fuck you” as loudly and creatively as possible. For example: fuck you, Uncle Jimmy, fuck, fuck, fuck, you. Uncle Jimmy. You fuck, fuck, fuck you. From a six year old. They’re legendary in our family and all it takes is one FU Uncle Jimmy to make all the sisters dissolve into laughter.

She would stand there red and angry; immovable; sputtering and growling (really, she would growl, grrr; low in her throat). There she was, not crying, chin up, shaking with rage, staring the giant in the face and telling him to go fuck himself. And Uncle Jimmy, the original red-faced sputterer, what did he do? Well, he looked right at her and laughed. A deep, rumbling, silent laugh that would have his whole body shaking. And that, THAT, would infuriate her and spur her to ever greater heights of fuck youing.

I was 17 when Andrea left us. She was adopted by a family that had experience dealing with children like her. Experience, the state decided, our crazy home did not possess. The family that taught her about love and family and fun and Christmas. Yeah Us. We weren’t a suitable family for Andrea. Us, the ones who taught her to share, and be social, and laugh, and be patient. Why? We didn’t meet state guidelines. We were also told that for her transition to be successful all ties would have to be cut; we never saw her again.

I remember the day she left. She was wearing Dad’s ridiculously large cowboy hat and carrying her favorite stuffed animal. I remember her waving from the car and the car pulling away.

In the action of her leaving, it was in that moment, that I thought Dad had finally met his match. A sassy, foul-mouthed brunette with an appetite for pizza and Papa Smurf. The battered and broken little girl who looked him in his eye and gave him hell, Her. She left him standing in his front yard, smaller than I had ever seen him.

Trying hard to hide his tears.

Why don’t you go sit on the couch, next to Mom

bruinsMy mom has changed very little over the years. Sure she is losing the battle with age. Her hair now sits, white, upon her head. She has trouble walking so spends her time outside the house in a wheelchair. She has survived more than a few brushes with the Reaper. She is a testament to medical science.

Mom’s heyday was the 70s. She was raising five girls and running a home. She babysat for everyone and anyone, she fed and housed any stray that Dad dragged home, and she did it without complaint or reward.

She did it because she has the same big heart that Dad had. She just didn’t publicize it.

Mom had a few vices. She drank hot tea by the gallon and she chain smoked — at first Pall Mall Menthols and later Salem 100s. Back in the 70s, when kids were allowed to buy cigarettes, one of us would be dispatched to F&M to get her more if she were running low. Imagine that happening today!

She loves sports and she is the quintessential homer. Her Red Sox. Her Celtics. Her Bruins. Especially her Bruins.

Back in the day, we had one TV. It sat in the bay window in the living room, with rabbit ears and human remote controls. Arrayed around the room was typical furniture – sofa, loveseat, chair, assorted tables. In the evening, the living room would fill up as we spread out to watch TV. Arguments about seating were legendary and alliances were forged and broken to make sure prime seating was kept by those with the foresight to get to the living room early.

On certain nights, the TV watching dynamic shifted – hard. Everyone scrambled to the floor. Fighting and shoving to get as far away from the furniture as possible. You had to be strategic, to close to the TV and you would be up and down – the official channel changer for the evening, but you needed to be far enough away from the couch to be safe.

The Bruins were on and Mom was going to sit and watch them. Terror stuck the sisters! Mom was not a quiet fan she was not a passive fan. Our mother, the calm that ran our lives, became a raging, crazy lunatic whenever the Bruins played.

We always seemed to have company. Always. On this particular night the Powderly’s were visiting, at least Dan and his daughter, Mary Jo. They lived just over the other side of Sheridan Street. Dad and Danny were childhood friends and Mary Jo was a constant presence in our house since she was best friends with Debbie, my oldest sister.

Dad and Dan settled in, each with a beer. Mom sat at the end of the couch, alone. While all of the sisters, plus Mary Jo, squirmed around on the floor. Mary Jo, puzzled, asked why she couldn’t sit on the furniture.

One of the sisters, not sure which, said “Why don’t you go sit on the couch, next to Mom”.

So off she went. It was fine, at first.

Then the game started in earnest. Her focus firmly on the game, Mom would start by talking to the TV – get him, GET him, GET HIM! Son-of-a-bitch GET HIM!

As the game progressed, so did Mom. She quickly moved from talking to yelling to jumping to flailing. At one point the action was so savage and quick, that Mom literally lept from the couch – scaring poor Mary Jo; who looked at our mother as if she had lost her mind.

That’s when it happened. Mom – sweet, lovable Mom –  worked into a frenzy by her big, bad, Bruins clenched her hands, raised them above her head, and – WHAM – punched, yep PUNCHED, a child. In the leg. Hard.

A child, by the way, that did not belong to her! The woman who wouldn’t harm a fly, who never

laid a finger on any of her children – yeah, that woman – became a crazy lunatic. Because of the Bruins. The Big, Bad Bruins. Baby.

Mary Jo recovered from her leg injury without any lasting physical damage. Although she kept her distance from Mom for a while after that incident.

Mom, she still loves her some Bruins (and all the other home teams) and watches as often as she can. She watches them alone. In her room. Perched on the edge of her bed. No longer chain smoking but still guzzling her tea – now iced. Intent on the action. Having the time of her life.

You don’t have to watch the game to follow the action. You only need to listen to the sounds emanating from the bedroom. Her shouts of joy, frustration, irritation, and incredulity tell a story more compelling – to me, a non-sports fan – than any announcer ever could.

All I know is, if there’s a heaven, God better be a Bruins fan! Or he’s in for one hell of an eternity