Tuesday, April 4, 2017

For Mama: Happy Birthday

I miss how she used to dance in the kitchen.

She had this thing she did with my sister where she would throw her arms up in the air and sway her hips and move about in a circular motion. Humming this drum beat while she did it.

My dad would watch her from the other room, pretending to be horrified.

My sister would egg her on. She probably started it actually.  On occasion I would join them. My brother would look upon the scene and smile and shake his head.

We would all end up laughing.

I loved her laugh. It was this high pitched giggle. Think of a happy humm mixed with a little bit of Ernie from Sesame Street.

Sometimes her face would crinkle up while she did it.

It was adorable.

Aside from her laugh which brought joy she made another sound that brought fear.

My mom had this piercing get-your-behind-over-here-right-now whistle. The crazy thing was, she didn’t have to use her fingers. All she did was twist her mouth in this sideways smirk and blow.I swear her whistle could be heard 300 miles away.

Okay, maybe not 300, but it didn’t matter when you are 7. It sounded like a bazillion trillion miles.

We usually heard it in the summertime after hours of playing outside, covered in sweat, smiles and bugspray. A whistle meant dinner was ready. It also meant we were late. So when we heard it we would drop everything and run.

I loved summer. Swingsets, ice cream, fireflies, long green grass. No school. NO school.

I think my mom loved it more though. It was her favorite time of year. She was a teacher during several points of her life and summer meant no school for her too. It also meant that the kids were home and the days were longer which meant more time outside.

She loved being outside. I think it was just in her blood. That and feeding animals.

If there ever was any kind of animal that wandered into our backyard my mother would feed it. It didn’t matter what kind of animal. It didn’t matter if it would become a frequent diner or a visitor passing through. Rest assured, that furry nomad would not leave hungry.  

There was a bird feeder, several small bowls scattered about and what we would call “the stump,” which is this magical place where leftover food would mysteriously disappear. It could be the most disgusting leftover meatloaf from the church potluck that no one wanted, it didn’t matter, mom would take it home “for the animals,” put it out on the stump and it would be gone.

There were racoons, deer, dogs, cats, squirrels, chipmunks, you name it. The only thing missing from our backyard was a Disney soundtrack.

It really wasn’t a surprise she loved animals and the outdoors so much. She grew up on a farm. My grandfather trained horses and my mother learned to ride at a very young age. She became quite good. One of my favorite photographs ever is one taken of her practicing barrel racing in her backyard.

She is a young woman sitting astride a horse like a pro, a determined yet calm look on her face. I know that look well.

But, as fate would have it, a few years later she met my dad and fell in love. And as love does sometimes, it  makes you put aside certain habits and hobbies and take on new ones. My mom stopped riding horses and learned to swim.

And swim she did. For almost 30 years she would get up around 5:30 in the morning on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and drive to the local YMCA to swim laps.

She was a creature of habit regardless of her situation. She loved to tell the story of how she was pregnant with my sister and past her due date. Instead of hoarding precious pre-newborn resting hours she went to the “Y” as she always did. The young lifeguard on duty, upon seeing her waddle out of the YMCA dressing room, had a look that was part horror and part desperately hoping that he would not have to use his minimal first aid training to delivery a baby.

I don’t have many memories of her swimming at the YMCA. But I do remember her swimming a lot up at “The Lake.”

Now “the Lake” is a lake about an hour away from my parent’s house. My paternal grandparents had a little cottage on a lane that is now used by my extended family. It was an Akemann family summer staple.

Being at “the Lake” meant boat rides, playing cards, playtime with my cousins, reading and of course, swimming.

I swam for fun. My mom swam for routine, with that same calm determined face.

I still see her so clearly doing the breaststroke up and down the roped swim area.

She rarely put her head in the lake though, too murky.

“The Lake” also meant some of my favorite things, like fireflies and fireworks.

I still have yet to see fireworks that match what I remember seeing when I was little. They were probably just average fireworks, but to me, they were amazing. The 4th of July ones were the best.  We drive over to the town, get a blanket and get as close to them as we could. A few times, we got so close they exploded right over our heads and we would get dusted with ash as they fell to the ground.

My parents usually didn’t join us when we went to see them. They stayed behind, snuggling on a bench at the end of the pier. Perfectly content to watch at a distance. They didn’t need fireworks, they lit up for each other.

They had “IT.”

If you are not sure what “IT” is, I imagine it is like being lit up like the 4th of July.

If you need advice about “IT”, my mom would probably say this.
If you have “IT”, it’s a gift, treat it as such.  
If you don’t have “IT” and want it, keep looking.
If you aren’t sure if you have “IT”, give it time.

My parents had “IT.”

But my mom’s favorite holiday was not the 4th of July.

Easter was her favorite holiday.

Now, I know that is almost sacrilegious to say. Christmas is supposed to be your favorite holiday. But for my mom, it was Easter.

She loved the colors. The pretty pastels. Pinks and greens especially. Light, airy, not flashy but still incredibly beautiful. Like her really.

She even had this Easter tree. (Now if you don’t know what an Easter tree is, look it up, they are delightful.) And I loved this tree. It was all white with easter egg ornaments and pastel lights. It wasn’t very big, but she would put it in our front hallway and it made the whole downstairs remind you that it was Easter.

When my sister and I were little we would get excited because Easter meant a new dress and sometimes a new hat too! I felt so fancy hunting Easter Eggs in my frilly threads accompanied by my hat and gloves. But don’t be fooled, it was serious business.

But once I collected my spoils I would look up at mom and think how pretty she was. I wondered if I would ever be as pretty as her and doubted that I would.   

She glowed in the Sunday sun, delighting in the things she loved best. Her family, her faith and her favorite holiday.

Unlike Christmas there was no pretense about the Easter bunny. We all knew who hid the eggs. And you could tell the difference between a mom year (fairly straight forward) and a dad year (need several hours, a couple of tears and a GPS to find them).

Afterwards there would be the traditional ham which we all tolerated, not because it wasn’t delicious, but because it was ham. Grandma and Grandpa usually made an appearance.

Some years my mom would bake this Lamb cake (also worth looking up) It was a beautiful white cake in the shape of a lamb. Which, thinking back, was actually kinda horrifying, cutting up an innocent lamb, but when you are young you don’t care. Cake is cake.

And Easter is Easter. Resurrection. New life.

I have an Easter tree myself. I don’t think I can quite get it out of the box this year. I still feel a bit tomb-like.

Today is April 4th. My mother’s birthday. Easter occasionally would come near or even on her birthday which she loved. But she loved it for other reasons too. Early April meant early spring.

My mother loved spring, it was a close second to summer for her. After a long winter the ground thaws, the snow melts, and things begin to bud.

For mom this meant the beginning of being able to do one of her favorite things.

My mom loved to garden.

She didn’t grow vegetables or fruit, except for the occasional crab apple tree. She loved flowers.

She LOVED flowers.

If it was warm enough or the weather was good (sometimes even if it wasn’t) You could find her there. In the garden. Weeding, clipping. More weeding, more clipping.

The tasks were never done. The deer would never leave it alone. The bugs would come. The roses wouldn’t quite bloom. It was as frustrating as it was joyful for her. A true labor of love.

She loved it so much she did it at my house. Now, I don’t have a green thumb, it is more like an off yellowish color, so whenever my mom would visit she would always seem to end up with gloves on, walking out to my little patch of patio dirt and pretend to ask me if she could get a few weeds out. Really she was just informing me of what she was going to do.

A few hours later it would end up looking spotless.

One year when she came out to visit me she broke her arm. One of the first things she did was lament about how she, newly retired, had been looking forward to getting into her garden and now would have to wait.  She eventually healed from her injury but it took several months.

She only got one more summer in her garden. Then she got sick.

A year and a half later she was called home.

I miss her. I miss her voice. I miss her touch. I miss her looking like HER.

I miss being able to call her on the phone. I miss her hallmark cards.

I miss that she would get so excited whenever she saw a hummingbird.

I miss her expressions like “For Pity’s sake, ” “Bless their heart,” and “Praise the Lord,” an expression she kept on saying through her whole ordeal, up until the end.

I miss her smell. I miss her singing. I miss her putting on her driving glasses.

I miss going shopping and getting a coffee (always with whipped cream) or a bagel (always Asiago).

I miss her singing in the church choir. I miss the way she ironed.

I miss going to visit and coming in late and seeing a note by the door telling me she loved me and to make sure the cat was in the garage.

I miss waking up in the morning and coming downstairs to see her reading her Bible.

I miss how she always knew what I needed and what I needed to remember.

I miss that whenever we said goodnight, I would kiss her cheek and she would say, “See you in the morning’s bright.”

I miss how she knew when I was upset and would tell me to go take a walk and that I would feel better. I did, and I would.

I miss her.

When I think of what heaven is like for my mom I picture a garden. I picture her being so happy that she gets to do what she loved doing on this earth.

I picture her hunched over with gloves on, pulling weeds. I picture her walking through the grass, looking at the flowers. I picture her stopping and smelling the roses.

They are more beautiful than anything we have ever seen here.

She is lovely and good all at once.

She is tall and proud, calm and determined.

She is not in pain.

She is joyful and free.

She smiles.

She blows me a kiss.

I blow one back.

I love you mama.

Happy Birthday.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Fresh Grief

And the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can't replace
When you love someone, but it goes to waste
Could it be worse?

There is a scene in the movie “You’ve Got Mail.” Kathleen Kelley, the protagonist, is sitting at her computer like I am now. She has just suffered personal loss and is writing to what she calls “the deep void.”

“People are always telling you that change is a good thing. But all they are really saying is that something you didn’t want to happen at all...has happened.”

It did happen.

Six weeks ago it happened to me.

My mother passed away.
She left a life well-lived.

She also left Christmas decorations, sweaters, jewelry, journals, a cat and a big hole in my heart.

Ahhh yes. My heart. That pesky thing that at times is so heavy that it doesn’t feel like it resides in my chest cavity but instead I have to drag it around on a large chain, Jacob Marley style.

Her leaving wasn’t a surprise, we knew it was coming. But like so many things in life you don’t really know something until you do.


This was a post I never wanted to write.

This was the post I dreaded during the year and a half after we heard the words cancer.

This is the nightmare that came true.

The thing that I didn’t want to happen, happened.

It’s been six weeks now. Which means that the cards have stopped. The flowers. The check ins. The looks. The How are yous.

Life continues to keep going and you can’t help but feel like you are expected to do the same. Most people are still kind and empathetic. They recognize that you are still grieving but there is also an expectation that you should be functioning at a mostly normal capacity by now.

Once you realize this is the expectation you start putting on the mask. The “This is hard but I am doing okay” mask.

Masks can be extraordinarily helpful. They protect you from bulls in china shops, people with the best of intentions and your own emotions when you know you don’t have proper control of them.

But the problem is this: you can get so used to wearing one that you start to believe that it is actually your face.

Your face, your true face is a revenant, a ghost. It isn’t pretty or put together. It is shell-shocked and tear stained.

It is both pleading for someone, anyone, to understand it and terrified that someone actually will.

It is comfortable in the dark, so much so that when exposed to light it can easily become overwhelmed.  

It, your true face, is a skeleton, just ripped apart from whatever it was that happened that you didn’t want to happen.

It will never look the same again.

Hence the mask. And the false sense of security it brings.

Your true face, safe behind the mask, starts to think, maybe the world is right, maybe I am okay.

Except that is not true.

The truth is, I am heartbroken.

And that is why I needed to write this.

Because someone else might need to hear this too.

That is it okay that you are still not okay.

That it is okay to be your disheveled, unpredictable, half- here, half who knows where,  real face in the midst of fresh grief.
And fresh can mean any length of time. Grieving is time sensitive to the griever.

I am going to take off my mask now.

I am taking it  off so I can share some of my experience about what freshy grief has looked and felt like so far, with the sole purpose of helping someone feel a little less alone in their own grief.  (Or you could just feel relief when you realize you are not as crazy as I am.)

Freshy grief is:

  • Any little thing occasionally can and will be a trigger.
  • The bookends of the day, right before and after bed, are the hardest parts.
  • Dreading milestones like a birthday.
  • Little things make you irrationally angry.  Like grocery store lines. Infuriating.
  • Going from really good to terrible in 5 seconds and then be fine a few seconds after that.
  • Being surprised when you laugh or feel normal.
  • Feeling guilty for feeling normal when you truly are doing fine.
  • Starting to pick up on physical cues from your body about when it is time to take a few moments and be sad. Mine starts with a pit in my stomach or an over active hyper mind.
  • Totally mundane things still pop in your head. When I reflect back about final moments with mom, I sometimes fixate on the pajamas I was wearing.
  • Your tolerance level for B.S of any kind is zero.
  • Your tolerance for small talk is about 5%
  • You find yourself repeating phrases like “I am taking it one day at a time” “Thank you very much for your kind words” so often that when you don’t understand or didn’t hear someone correctly you just continue the conversation with one of these phrases without knowing if they make sense. Example: “Did you get the trees trimmed in the backyard?” But to you, it sounded like “Mer per meh tees imm le back ar?” So you respond with “Thank you for the kind words,” and you get a sympathy look
  • That’s another thing. Sympathy looks. Sympathy looks everywhere.
  • Feeling irritated about sympathy looks.
  • Feeling irritated when people don’t give you sympathy looks.
  • Just feeling irritated in general.
  • Internal screaming. Lots of internal screaming. And swearing.
  • Wanting to crawl into a hole and not come out for a very very long time.
  • Feeling both awkward and grateful when people offer you help.
  • Being upset at people for leaving you alone.
  • Being upset at people for not leaving you alone.
  • Feeling alone quite often. Even when surrounded by people.
  • Being hypersensitive to any kind of exclusion, whether intentional or not.
  • Walking around in a haze-like state and wondering if it is permanent. Life feels like the aftershock of an earthquake, or a permanent high pitched ringing after the bomb explodes.
  • Having a multitude of surreal moments. Like talking about cremation and the Cubs in the same conversation.
  • Trying to not go dark, trying to mourn and grieve without losing sight of hope.
  • Finding yourself wanting to tell her things or show her things and then feeling the familiar pang when you realize not only that you can’t, but you won’t be able to ever again in this lifetime.
  • Distractions in the form of netflix marathons or good books.  
  • Being impatient with yourself and your loved ones.
  • Finding moments of deep, incredible beauty.
  • Holding on to whatever memories you can.
  • Crying. Lots and lots of crying.

Freshy grief feels like you are walking along the bottom of the ocean. Dark. Murky. You can’t speak clearly. You can’t hear. Life seems muffled. You can’t swim.

Freshy grief feels like you are in alternate universe. Where Donald Trump is going to president, the Cubs are world series champions and mom is not here.

Freshy grief feels like you are sitting on the bank of a river. And everyone else is floating by in their inner tubes. Some laughing. Some crying. Some worried. Some waiting.

You’re watching.

The world doesn’t stop for a broken heart.

And it is infuriating because you want the world to stop.

Hey you, how can you complain about the weather right now? Can’t you see my tears?

Who gives a crap if I want paper or plastic? I am never going to kiss my mom on the cheek again.

No, I don’t want a quote on auto insurance, I want to call my mom and have her tell me that everything is okay.

I want to see her again. I want to touch her again. I want to hear her voice and have her tell me about the time when I was little and held her hand and we paced up and down the hallway for hours because my 18 month old self insisted that I practice walking.

I want to see her “you’ve got to be kidding me” face.

I want to hear her giggle and laugh.

But I can’t.

Doesn’t anyone understand that?

A wise friend said to me.  “Grief is love with no place to go.”

That is true.

Others go places with their love. Others have things to do, trips to take, stories to tell, work to do, lives to lead.

Grievers find ourselves stuck with love and no place to go. Crying behind closed doors so not to feel exposed or mess up the world around them.

Practicing smiling.  

Trying to walk through and not run through or sit down in this valley of the shadow of death.  

Writing blog posts at 2am that you never wanted to write.


An epilogue:

To all of you who are not in the midst of grief.

We, the grievers, still need you.

And it isn’t fair to you because we are not going to tell you that. We may even insist we are fine.

You may need to barge through our walls and tick us off.

It isn’t fair to you because we are going to be irritable and overly sensitive.

It isn’t fair because nothing that you do or say will probably be right.

But the good news is, is that we don’t need you to say anything.

We just need you, your presence.

We just need you to be there, with your own unmasked face.

It gives us security and space and courage to take our masks off.

You don’t have to say anything. Just take in our hollow eyes. Our vacant expression. Our disheveled hair. The bags and wrinkles. The bones that used to contain life.

And when it is time, touch our ghostly skeleton cheeks.

And point out what we have missed.

New flesh.