10 Years – a Quiet Reflection

My son’s age is a constant reminder of how long I’ve been without my sister, Cristi. This year, he turned ten. This year is the tenth year of her not being here. This day is the tenth year of her not being there, though we found out ten years ago tomorrow.

Every time I think about this, I think about an image of a 29-year-old woman on the brink of blowing up her career (for good), touching all the lives of the students she worked with, and the laughter she brought to my family. Forever frozen in time, and now we only have her memory to hang on to.

We are back, traveling again, celebrating family, sites, and death. Two of the deaths we are going to celebrate are the lives of my grandparents, my maternal grandmother, and grandfather. We will have a memorial around the family farm, celebrating their lives, their legacy. At the same time, our immediate family will hold tight to the memory of our sister, daughter, friend, who died ten years ago, much too soon.

In the midst of this intimate memorial will be nearly 4 generations of people. People who wouldn’t be here or have come together without my grandparents. And, then, of course, there will be the people who couldn’t make it. Maybe it was money or time, or in the case of Cristi, maybe it was because a life was taken too soon. We will celebrate. We may cry. We will share stories. We will laugh.

Then, we will depart and go back to our regularly scheduled lives. Some of our travels will take us to exciting new adventures. Some of our adventures will take us to the normal routines of daily life. Wake up, go to work, go to school, get dressed, eat a meal. We go on living while the dead do what dead people do according to your respective beliefs.

I was raised in the Catholic church. My husband and I are raising our son with Christian (Protestant) – Catholic views. Yet, I hope for an afterlife that is kinder and more loving than that which these religions preach. I dream of an afterlife where our loved ones are walking with us, guiding us, our guardian angels. I dream of an afterlife where we’ve made pacts with each other, and we are each others soul mates. Where we are learning some spiritual lesson, every day, and we have the support of those around us. There is no accident when it comes to where we are.

In this moment, I am writing this at a yummy café near where my mother’s new job is. Near where high school friends are employed and helped me with certain esthetician tasks. Near where I’m meeting another old friend for lunch. Near where I’ll meet up with my family at a beloved fabric store (that happens to be having a tent sale today). None of these things happened the way I envisioned. And, it’s all working out perfectly. I will take this sign on this tenth anniversary of my sister’s death that no matter the heartache we’ve had or is to come, everything is unfolding as it should.

I’m not sorry

This is home. My grandparents picked up this property around 1961. 80 acres on one side of the highway, 80 acres on the other. This is what my first idea of a “hobby farm” looked like.

I love, so much, the outpouring of support, love, prayers, and friendly thoughts to me and my family in this time of grieving. The kindness in the thought expressed, “I’m sorry,” means a lot. But, I need to acknowledge that I am not sorry.

I was sorry when Cristi died. Hers was a life cut too short, unfinished. She was my sister, and I felt robbed that we didn’t get a chance to adult together. I was very sorry when she died. And, I really appreciated the sentiment expressed, then. No one really knows what to say in times of such a tragic situation.

I found the words, “I’m sorry,” were the best choice for others also experiencing grief. “I am sorry that this thing is happening that is causing pain.” But, pain is life. Life is full of promise, joy, pain, happiness, tears of sadness and gladness. So, in a sense, I am far form sorry that you are experiencing that we are experiencing this human existence to its fullest. I am glad that we have the opportunity to feel sadness and grief over a life no longer with us, immediately right now.

How lucky am I that, in this immediate instance, I have a grandfather that lived to be 93 years old. Though he wasn’t always lucid the last ten years of his life, by all accounts he lived a full life. He married his high school sweet heart, he served his country, he raised a large, boisterous family. He provided for his needs, his children’s needs to the best of his abilities, and supported the next generation. I am so happy that I get to call him my grandfather, and I am so happy that he had this rich story cultivated around his values and his expression of life.

I am not sorry he died. I am not sorry he lived. I am not sorry for his story, as it was a glorious one.

In reflection, there are a few things I am sorry for. I am sorry that Alzheimer’s consumed his existence these last ten years. I am sorry that dementia made him into a man I didn’t recognize. I am sorry that old age brought bloating and other ill-health side affects that mostly made him unrecognizable. I am sorry that the last time I saw him, five short minutes, was largely spent with him sleeping.

But, I am not sorry I did get to see him in his end of life. I am not sorry for that last hug. I am not sorry that his life helped me reshape what I think about aging and the aging process. Like leaves that wither and die in the fall, all life has a season, and I truly believed my grandfather and grandmother lived their season to their fullest. I am not sorry I got to witness so much of their life.

Thank you, Grandma and Grandpa, for continuing to show me what love and life can look like, even past your end of days.

In memory of…

I took this picture September 2004. I came over, from Oregon, a long weekend to celebrate (surprise!) Grandpa’s 80th birthday. The cool, beautiful September, with the crisp temperature and changing colors. This is how I will remember my grandparents.

It’s Thursday. It started out as a normal Thursday. But, now, it will forever be known as the day my grandfather died. He was 92.

He lived a long life. He met his sweetheart in 7th or 8th grade, and they courted through high school. He served as a nurse, stationed in Germany, during World War II. We didn’t call it PTSD back then, but I was instructed never to ask about the war (to any of my grandparents), rather to listen kindly if they shared stories. Grandpa Woodaz didn’t share any stories.

Uncles talking, about what? Does it matter? This is a common occurrence. Groups of men gabbing, outside, on the farm.

Growing up, I thought of him as fierce. Like my grandmother, he was always there. We spent a lot of time on the farm when living in the UP, where I was born. One entire summer, we lived with my grandparents. I remember being told our car needed to be fixed.

We would wake up and go to bed with the rest of the farm, which included my grandparents and my uncle. He was the youngest and finishing high school. Together, they had ten children, never loosing any, within an almost 30 year span. That uncle, Danny, was an uncle when he was born. Their legacy includes over 40 grandchildren and many, many, great and even great-great grandchildren.

My grandfather offered me my first beer. It was likely Pabst Blue Ribbon. I was 8. I had a sip, because, why would you say no to Grandpa? I hated it. And, boy did he laugh. His Polish blue eyes twinkling, and the smile that lit up his whole face. Contrasting with his deeply tanned, brown skin, and white hair, always short in a buzz cut. We often saw him after he came home from work at the paper mill. And he always asked, “Do you want a whisker rub?” The worst kind of cheek-to-cheek kiss a child could ask for, with his five o’clock shadow, like sandpaper on your baby soft, childhood skin. And he would laugh, and laugh.

Munising Paper Mill

Sometimes, he wouldn’t laugh, and the fierceness would come through. When I was about 5, my cousin, Darryl, did not obey my grandfather, and he climbed on a flat bed trailer that was on the property. The wood was rotting, and Darryl fell and cut his lip. The next thing I knew, Darryl was in Grandma’s chair, in a timeout in the living room, a little blood coming from his lip. How could he be in trouble when he got hurt? He did not listen to Grandpa, and that’s why he got hurt.

They had 10 kids. TEN. Can you imagine? I can’t. We’ve stopped at one. I’m guessing that’s one reason why it was a never-ending parade of weddings when I was a little girl. All the weddings were held at the Hall. This was a community building, and every single reception was held in this hall. We had a formula for weddings. From my young eyes, it looked like: potluck made by all the gray haired aunts, kegs of beer, and a DJ who played polkas. The building was like a large pole barn with hard, concrete floors. They were perfect for dancing, and boy did our family dance. I have memories of begging to polka with Grandpa. Why? Because you didn’t actually need to know how to dance! He would spin you around, and you would fly. Uncle Tommy was the only other person who would dance with you, like that.

Eventually, Grandpa retired. And, then, he was home all the time. But he never stopped moving. He was always puttering to and fro. Coming in the house, periodically, for another cup of coffee. When I was younger, he’d open the fridge when the day was done and get a beer. That stopped after some time. Coffee, though. Never ending coffee. After my Uncle Danny returned from his tours in the Navy, the coffee got better. You see, Danny spent time in Seattle. So the Midwestern, watered down brew turned into good coffee. When it was the Midwestern brew, we had a church coffee pot in the kitchen. And it was never empty. The coffee was always on.

Sherry shared this photo. This is a GREAT way to remember Grandpa.

Eventually, age settled in. But, it was after they both turned 80. Though I’ve heard that the human body has the capacity to live to 120 years old, because our life expectancy is in our 70s, I was amazed they made it that long. That feels like a long, full life. The end of life cycle turned into a challenge as health related issues arose. That’s not how I will choose to remember either of them. This image in 2004 is how I will remember them. Vibrant and full of life. The laughs – everyone always laughing. The big, giant bear hugs (and yes, this is why I’m a hug person), the traditions old and new, the pride of our Polish heritage. I miss my grandparents, as they were, every single day. I cling to hope they are reunited, maybe ready to recreate their love story.

Thank you Grandma and Grandpa for showing me what love can look like.

Grieving Grandma

Grandma's Special Dishrag
This is one of three dishrags I got from my grandmother last summer.

I begged, pleaded, “Can I please have one more?” My grandmother acquiesced, and gave me three, instead of two, hand crocheted dish cloths. I wanted them for a few reasons. Namely, my grandmother had earlier admitted that she was ready to die. She was tired, and she had a full life. She didn’t need anything more.

That was last July, the last time my family was able to visit Michigan.

Having older grandparents, knowing the average life expectancy of humans, it’s a sort of ticking time bomb until their expiration date. Death happens. It happens too early, too late, and sometimes right on time in our human, familial standards. Once my grandmother was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, I wondered, for every call I received from my mother, I wondered if this was the one that would say, “Be on a plane, Grandma passed away.”

It didn’t happen like that, though. It happened while we were supposed to be in Michigan. My husband didn’t want to spend the money and I wasn’t feeling an obligatory family vacation this year. My boys, my husband and my son, and I haven’t been on a fun vacation in months. The last being a long weekend at the coast.

Every family visit is different. Some visits are full of bliss and remembering the good times. Some visits bring out the crabby in everyone, and this has been a crabby year – and I certainly didn’t want to spend over $1,500 (strictly on airfare, not including gas, food, lodging, etc.) to be crabby. The airfare prices never dropped below $440 each, and instead, skyrocketed to $700. So, we talked and decided to go to the redwoods instead. And, we had a fun family vacation. We had a quick adventure up the Northern California and Southern Oregon Coast – two places we’ve longed to visit since being in Portland nearly 10 years.

Really, it was the kind of trip my grandmother would have appreciated.

To adjust the three weeks vacation we were now NOT taking, I decided to work the following two weeks and take the last week of August off. Not only have family been crabby, but so have workmates, and I need a break. I need a break from bad attitudes that I’ve allowed to affect my attitude. I need a refresh, a recharge. And for me, that is best served relatively alone. So, we made our calls, we gave our apologies, and we set forth on our now revised vacation.

Post-redwoods, I see a few updates of family visiting Grandma and Grandpa. Grandpa looks better, but Grandma does not. And, then, on Board Meeting Thursday, I get a call – Grandma is in the ER and she can’t breathe. With this thought ever-present in my day, I keep doing the things that need doing – notes, mail, answer phones, appointments. Until, I finally come home, later in the evening than on a normal day. And, then, I injure my foot. Maybe my posterior tendon rubs the wrong way with my plantar fascia – I’m still not sure – but the prescription is rest. The next day, just before being x-rayed, I have a detailed chat with my cousin, who was preparing for her upcoming wedding. She tells me how Grandma doesn’t want tears, how she can’t breathe, and how she can’t talk. All I really want is a Grandma hug. But, Grandma couldn’t even give me a Grandma hug last year. Tearfully I get my x-rays, and the rest of the day is spent resting.

Late Saturday night, my grandmother passed away. There was nothing I could do then, so I wrote. The next day, I awaited calls on details, and when that finally came – with all the raw emotion of a stressed situation – I made the decision – we will not be going back to Michigan to celebrate, with family, the lovely life of my grandmother.

I mentioned this to a co-worker, and she reminded me that funerals serve many purposes, and if you can’t grieve in the way you need to grieve at the funeral, it’s okay that you’re not there. I am comforted by the restated words of my cousin where Grandma asked for no tears and the reminder that she will be watching us from up above.

My Grandmother

She was born on July 1, 1927. She died on August 17, 2013. She was 86 years old. She met her, still living, husband while she was in junior high. They married young. He went to World War II. She stayed home. I don’t know much about her life then. At some point, she gave birth to her first of 6 sons, with 4 girls sprinkled in between.

My first memory is now fuzzy. It’s of her wearing purple, tending to the first cakes of my twin siblings. I must have been about 2 years old. My second memory is of my grandmother helping us move. We had to because my father left us and my mother didn’t have a job. We lived in an upstairs apartment in Iron Mountain, Michigan. I was really mad. I said something about “goodbye”, and she said, “It’s never good-bye. It’s so long.” She was probably only 56 – she was just Grandma to me.

We stayed with them, my grandparents, that summer. When we moved again, it was to a different home, nearing the end of our constant moving. My grandmother’s home – The Farm – was my stability growing up. We always went back there no matter where we lived.

The Farm – the home that my grandmother made – was home to so many. The doors are always open. There was always something yummy to eat, until the last few years, when cooking became more difficult. In fact, the last time I saw my grandmother, I cooked because she couldn’t. She, my vibrant full of life grandmother, spent her last few years in and out of the hospital with congestive heart failure (CHF) and related complications – resulting in an oxygen tube most of the time. These last few weeks, she’s been in a nursing home with my grandfather.

I never thought they would end their lives this way. My step-grandparents – it made sense. They were the retirement birds who flew down to Florida and watched as their friends just died off. This logically made sense to me that they would not live much past 80 – and they didn’t. But, my grandparents, living their routines, were somehow immune to the aging process. They kept on kicking. They kept on doing the same things, over and over. Getting up, making the bed, canning, making bread, dinners, breakfasts, lunch, visitors.

Shortly after my wedding – things changed. Grandpa became affected by dementia, and he now suffers from Alzheimer’s. And, then Grandma got CHF. How?! How could my grandmother, my healthy vibrant grandmother be prone to a chronic illness so late in her life? It was then that I began bracing myself for their deaths. I now wonder how much longer my grandfather can really go on. My grandmother was ready to die last year. Regardless, watching the transition from health to illness is sad, and slow. And the question remains: why?

Shortly after my sister passed away – the answer was clear – it doesn’t make sense, it just is. Life just is. We have to live it to the best of our abilities, whilst keeping our sanity, and trying to enjoy the company of others as we go along.

You really never know when that hug will be the last.

My Own Mortality

At C'est Naturelle
Levi, like most kids, knows exactly what to do on a farm. He runs around and chases chickens!

It went like this.

Me: “I’m sorry you had a bad dream about the Dinotrux last night.”

Levi: “I don’t remember that one. I had a dream that you died.”

Me: “I’m sorry… ”

Levi: “And Daddy got married on a boat.”

Me: “Where was I?”

Levi: “You were dying a few years after I was born. And, I was getting a new mommy.”

Me: “Well, was your new mommy nice?”

Levi: “I don’t know, I hadn’t met her yet.”

Levi was so matter-of-fact about the whole thing. Like it was the most natural thing in the world for me to be dead, for Peter to remarry, and for him to get a new mommy.

I was surprised we were having this conversation. A few months ago the conversations were more in line with Levi pleading for me to not die, and that he was afraid I would. And, now suddenly for him to have this Zen like awareness of the changes of life was … interesting.

Mostly though, it’s made me reflect on my own mortality  I have sort of assumed, bad habits and all, that I’ll make it through to his high school graduation. That is, I plan to live to at least 49. I have some vague idea that I’ll be around to help coach him through the troublesome twenties. I am curious if he will have a partner and offspring of his own. I’m curious what they will be like, and if I’ll like them. I’m curious if we will be a close family into Levi’s adult years. I’m curious if we’ll be in the same city, or will Levi do as Peter and I have done and move across continents so that family excursions become the annual vacation.

Foam Core Art
Levi making his sign

I’ve never considered, seriously, that I won’t be around for those happenings. It’s not like my family is unaware of dying young. So, I don’t realistically count it out. Anything could happen… my poor habits could catch up with me, and I could become diabetic and die of disease related conditions. I could make a wrong turn or not pay attention when I’m driving and get hit in a horrible accident. I could be standing outside and a freak lightening bolt could zap me into nothingness. I don’t know when my number is up, but I’ve assumed it’s far away. I’m hoping my genes are more in line with my mother’s and that I live into my 80s.

I have plans for when I’m in my 70s. I’ll be retired. I’m going to move back to Portland (at some point we’re going to have to move out of Portland). I’ll get a nice condo-apartment downtown, either near where I now work or near the museum. My first volunteer priority will be as a docent at the museum. I’ll sign up to audit classes at PSU. I’ll take the streetcar or walk to the farmer’s market to get my weekly groceries.

But what if that is all just that… a dream. What if Levi’s dream is more a premonition. What if I’m dying more rapidly now than what I assume? What if I don’t make it until he’s in first grade? How does that change my view of things?

Operating under premise that I’ll make it into my 70s, I postpone crafts and reading with Levi. I pawn off walks to the park to Peter. I try to balance both Levi, Peter, and all my work and volunteer obligations. I choose to make bread and answer emails instead of chatting with my family.

But, what if I didn’t have this dream of time? What would I do?

I don’t want to focus on that what if. So, I think I’ll do as I’m doing… try, very hard to be present. I think this works 70% of the time, during the week. Focus on getting us ready in the morning, set Levi off to school, then, go to work. I can mostly focus on work while I’m at work, but household and parental things always crop up. After I work, I try to concentrate on driving, then getting Levi. Once I get Levi, we have two hours to ourselves. That two hours, though, is filled with a quick dinner between 6p and 7p. Then, it’s get ready for bed time. I try to have Levi in bed by 8pm, sometimes it’s just after – like tonight.

Is that quality enough? He can’t be up later than that or he’s miserable at school the next day. I do have obligations, no matter when my number is up, and I can’t work on an unknown.

So, really, what we’re left with is sadness over the concept. It makes me sad to consider that I might not be there to watch him grow. It makes me sad to consider I might not be able to be his advocate  It makes me sad to consider that some new mommy might be tucking him in and reading him books. It makes me sad to think there might be a different family getting his first pet and teaching him how to care for another. It just makes me sad. And, it makes me sadder how nonchalant he was about the whole thing, while at the same time I admired the zen like quality of this view of a new mommy.

What a Week

One friend found out she is cancer free.

One friend lost her longtime family pet.

We were without power for two nights.

Several friends lost other familial loved ones.

A group suffered a suicide within their ranks.

All within the span of one week.

People were off. People were grouchy. We were just not ourselves.

I haven’t seen a week or day like that in a long time. A day, a week, a set time when everyone with whom I associate is just … off. My family and I didn’t have an extraordinary week one way or another. Sure, we didn’t have power for two nights, but it wasn’t cold and our food didn’t spoil. But, around us, all these things were tipping in weird balances. We weren’t sleeping. People were driving weird … all these little … annoyances. All these annoyances that by themselves wouldn’t lend any excitement, but put together made for a very off week. All week-long, I couldn’t wait for the week to end. And, finally, end it did.

Now, I’m getting caught up. I didn’t post for many days. While I might have enough posts between asides and regular blogs, I certainly haven’t been writing every day. My tool to get through the day, and I’ve abandoned it in the wake of the strangeness of the universe.

Now, though, I must retire. The computer has frozen and shut down more times than is relevant. Blogging would be so much easier if I could have the technology I covet.

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A Decade Gone

Today, Sunday, September 11th marks the 10 year anniversary of when we, Americans, were attacked on our own soil. An event that hasn’t happened in a very long time. It was an event that shook our nation, divided our nation, and brought a city together. It is one of those moments in time where, if you experienced it, you know exactly what you were doing in that moment, no matter how much time passes. It was one of the moments in life when the world stopped turning.

I don’t remember the day of the week anymore, although I have a recollection it was a weekday. My boyfriend was over, and we had both worked the night before. I was swinging between midnight schedules and second shift schedules, and the night before was a second shift schedule. We had slept in late. My phone rang; it was my mother.

Why is that mothers, especially mine, are always the bearers of bad news?

She told me to turn on my TV to any news channel. I reminded her I didn’t have TV reception. She then instructed me, “Turn on your radio.” I did, while she told me that America had been attacked by terrorists. I was shocked. It wasn’t something anyone ever expected, any perhaps “average” citizen. We talked for a bit, and then my boyfriend and I listened to the radio where NPR commented and re-commented on the shocking, horrific events that happened and kept happening.

I was scheduled to work that afternoon, so life still had to go on. It was a beautiful, sunny, September day. The kind of crisp, lovely day that smells faintly of autumn. The temperature was perfect. The sky was very blue. All this beauty was overshadowed by this thing that happened so many miles away.

We had left for work early, and along the way, a motorist motioned that my tire was flat. We detoured, en route, to a tire store to get the tire repaired or replaced. Life went on.

Eventually, I made it to work, and naturally the only thing people could talk about was their shock and amazement at what had happened. I worked at a 4-diamond hotel, and even there we had a TV wheeled across the front desk so we could keep up on the news. On our cigarette breaks, the attack was the only thing we discussed. One chef commented how fake it all looked since we are all primed on Hollywood explosions. It was ironic that this real, very real thing, looked like an imposter.

Eventually, we tired of the news, in its repeating morbid fashion. My friends and I were horrified when our President suggested that if we didn’t abhor the terrorists and agree to fight them, then we were against America too. Couldn’t we grieve for the loss but show mercy towards those who did such a grievous act? My Catholic Christian upbringing certainly didn’t sit in accordance with modern politics.

What followed was a decade of war, in this vain effort to “protect freedom.” This decade of known war is just a louder version of what we’ve done, certainly, since World War II. Always fighting conflict. My brain argues that it is to pull the wool over our eyes for what we really want. Now, in our dear country, we have politics that are even more divided where people still don’t talk about things that matter. Things that matter include making sure we’re all taken care of so we can do what we want with our lives. Things that matter include finding ways to live peacefully together. The rest of it doesn’t matter. We want to be around people who love us, but when we focus on fear, hate, and fighting we cannot focus on love.

Here we are, 10 years later. 10 years later with the memory still emblazoned in our recollection. 10 years later with no visible lessons learned, only parroting of the Old Testament where instead of turning the other cheek we take an eye for an eye. When will we learn to forgive? When will we realize that, as Father Mark preached this morning, by drinking the rat poison ourselves, the rat never dies? We do. We die.

I hope our children will evolve smarter, more compassionate than we are. I hope that our children will have the mercy necessary to fix the problems we have created. I hope that we can end these endless wars and simply be… peaceful.

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Power & Control

I write about Domestic Violence from a family member’s point of view. I was shocked to learn my sister’s death fell under domestic violence. I think we are aware, as a society, of the horrors one can face when in a controlling relationship. However, since this is one segment of violence that crosses all boundaries, I really don’t think we can say enough about the subject. So, today, I will share the Wheel of Power & Control. I was directed to this image, shortly after Cristi’s death, four years ago. Read it. Ponder it. Learn to understand it. Then, if you can identify yourself in any of the roles — change your behavior. Change the way you think about the world. Remember, we all deserve respect. We each have as much right to be here as the next person. Our individual rights do not include controlling others.

Wheel of Power and Control
Modified Wheel of Power and Control