Death is a Schoolyard Bully

Me and Death in the School Parking Lot, 3pm.

Oh, how we would fight. A gruesome battle, I’d tell him to drop his weapon and fight me like a human! But you know I would fight dirty. There would be hair pulled, should he have hair.  I would punch him so hard in the nose that I wouldn’t even notice my broken hand bones, only his shattered skull-face staring back at me with hollow eyes.  Then I’d kick him in his metaphorical balls.

I haven’t had therapy in a month, guys.

To say that I am not constantly thinking about death would be an obvious lie, given that my mother has been practically catatonic for several months now. But over the weekend, something happened that made me even more angry with the entire concept of death.  First, some backstory.

Early in our years together, Mark brought me home to meet his mother for the first time. While we were in town, we visited his sister Dawn and her family. I met her son Connor, who was maybe 8 or so at the time, and her daughter Bella, who was still a baby. Connor and I bonded when he taught me how to play zombies on Call of Duty. He was an incredibly sweet little boy with the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen. That was the first time I met him, and also the last. Shortly after our visit, his parents split, and Connor chose to stay with his father. Mark was always a little sad about this, because Connor was extra special to him. He just so happened to have been born the same day as M. Mark told me that the moms-to-be were in a race; he’s pretty sure Dawn won. But because of this, he always thought of Connor on M’s birthday.

So, Sunday morning I went to work, and as I was opening the shop, Mark called me. He was crying, and I immediately thought my mother was dead. Rational brain took over, telling me that it was unlikely I would get this call from my husband and not my father. I begged him to tell me what happened, and he told me that Connor had been killed in an accident. I called my boss, and he came in to relieve me. When I got home, I found a devastated husband. I cried with him, mostly because this boy was just a boy. Mostly, because he’s the same age as one of my boys. Mostly, because of his mother Dawn, who does not deserve this pain.

Later, Mark was sleeping, and I cried again. But this time, I was crying because it’s not fair. It is not fair that a teenage boy departed this world, while my mother is lying in a hospital bed clinging to life. I love my mother, I miss my mother, and I want my mother to get better. But I also know, and have to face every day, that she is currently living my worst nightmare. I wouldn’t wish what she is going through on anyone, absolute least of all her. There are many times that I wish she just never woke up that morning I found her. It seems that would be more fair. And I don’t think I could confront that fact until this weekend.

A lot of my friends and family read my blog, and they all know my mother very well, and I’m sure they’re all sobbing right now. And I’m sorry, truly, for bringing a spot of sadness into your day. But, it needn’t be sad. This morning I told my father were going to have Christmas, if for no other reason then Maureen would simply kill us if we did not. He can’t imagine a Christmas without Mom, none of us can, but we’re going to do what I told him we’re going to do: we’re going to be sad. But, we’re also going to find little bits to make us happy. And it’s going to work! Do you know how I know? Because when my aunt Ka died, that is exactly what my mother told me to do…find the silver linings, and all the little joys.

So, I’m going to get a team together to decorate my dad’s house for Christmas. I’m going to take my girls over there to make cut-out cookies the same way I would every other year. We’re going to go to my grandma’s on Christmas Eve and spend it with the family, and even though somebody is going to cry, we’re still going to eat and drink and be merry. We are going to open presents on Christmas Day, and there’s a real good chance I’m going to cook a ham.

I do not care if I am sad 99% of the time- I will remind myself of what my mother reminds me constantly, the best compliment she has ever given: I am the strongest woman she knows. That’s how come I can beat up that schoolyard bully called Death.

No Magic Words

You know that feeling when someone passes away, but you don’t really know them, and you feel for the people that have lost them?  That’s me this week.

As the usual reader knows, my brother-from-another-mother is a man named Kevin.  A brief backstory on Kevin’s family tells us that he was adopted.  In his early teen years, he discovered he had two sisters, Jessica and Melissa.  This delighted the boy who wanted family, as all kids do, and he was happy.  Over the years, he has grown closer to both of them.  I know Jess pretty well, as we are almost the same age and she lives in state, while Melissa, the youngest, has been elsewhere for some time.  We’d met a few times, but I don’t know her the way I know Jess.

The other night, I woke up around 2am, for no reason. There was a text from Kev on my phone, stating that his little sister had died.  I knew he meant Melissa, in the way that I sometimes know things.  He wasn’t awake at 2am, but I wanted to hop in my car and drive to his house and hug him, because ohmygod, I would be crushed. 

I was a little crushed.  She was too young, it was a tragic accident, and it hurts when someone you know passes, no matter what your relationship.  And then, I ached for Jessica, who grew up alongside her sister, and Kevin, who I think always wanted that chance, to grow with siblings.  I mean, we always had each other, and I consider him to be the brother I never had, but it isn’t the same, especially when you’re an adopted kid looking for some sort of tether to your heritage. 

He went to Tennessee the next day, where Melissa lived.  Were it a decade ago, I would have dropped what I was doing and gone with him, but alas, it is not.  Instead, I went to work, but I worried all day.  I worried for my friend, and hoped he would be alright out there, and when he came home, he described the whole experience as “intense,” and I suppose that is probably the best word to use.  I felt intensely when I heard she was gone, not for myself, but for her siblings that loved her so much.  I felt sad because I always meant to hang out with her, for real, as adults…and I will never get that chance.  But furthermore, her family will never get the chance to see her grow and change and become more herself, and that is what makes me sad. 

I am sad for my friend Jessica.  I am heartbroken for my brother, Kevin.  But I have no direct contact to Melissa, so I feel almost fraudulent in my emotions, as though I have no right to have them.  Alas, I know, through years of therapy, that all emotions are valid, and embracing them isn’t the end of the world.  So, I will accept that I feel terrible, but I know it is only because people I love are hurting. 

Perhaps the gods will grant me some magic words to say to make it all better.  Probably not, though.

Edit: Melissa’s gofundme can be found here.

Life and Death and Fishing

As previously mentioned, I have been super sick this month.  I don’t know why.  I have been doing all the things I am supposed to have been doing, and my mental health has been great.  So what the what, gastroparesis?  On Friday, Hubs and I are going camping for our anniversary.  I am determined to stay well and be well for this event.  Problem is, the worry of getting sick stresses me out, and stress makes me sick. It’s become a pray and hope scenario.

Every day that I wake up feeling well, I consider to be a tiny miracle.  If gastroparesis has taught me nothing else, it is to savor each day and try to make the best of it, because a lot of the time my days get ruined.  I have a new outlook on life itself, which is causing me to be grateful for the little things.  I am always looking for silver linings in the chaos, and this is the biggest one:  my appreciation for living.

One of the things that I have done to help my physical and mental self is take up fishing.  I got my license in May and Hubs bought me a pole for my birthday, and I have been taking quite an interest in it.  My favorite part right now is learning the different types of fish.  I literally knew nothing about fishing at all; Hubs has a basic knowledge, but nothing fancy.  So, we have been teaching ourselves as we go.

One of our learning helpers is a fisherman/YouTuber by the name of Leif Steffny.  He has a show called North West Fishing Secrets, and we watch it every week.  His M.O. is to catch some fish, and then cook them up shore-side.  It combines Hubs love of fishing and cooking, so it’s our #1 YouTube video experience.  We have learned a lot form him, because he talks about fishing as though he is talking to someone who is new to the sport, like us.  He is always sure to explain everything he is using and doing, and we learn something new each week. 

Now, one of the things we learned, as this gentleman both catches and cooks his fish, is how to kill one.

It looked really easy: you just bonk it on the head, but the reality is a little harsher, to me.

I caught a trout this weekend.  Not a big one, but big enough that he managed to swallow the entire hook right down into his stomach.  There was no way to get it out; he was bleeding.  We could cut the line and let him die in the water.  We could leave it and let him asphyxiate on land.  Or we could bonk him on the head. 

I held him in my left hand while Mark did what had to be done.  It looked so easy in the videos.   But then, I felt it…shaking and shivering my hand, spasming because it was dying.  It was maybe three seconds, but even that felt too long.  I ached for that fishie.

When it stopped moving, I dropped it to the ground.  Mark told me his death wouldn’t be in vain…we couldn’t eat it, but he would take it home and show me how to gut and filet a fish, and at least it would teach me something, I figured.

But I can’t forget what it felt like in my hand.

K told me she wants to go hunting someday and I grimaced (this was the same day as the fish.) I never wanted to go hunting, because I can’t imagine killing Bambi.  (Plus, the hating guns thing.)  But apparently I’m fine with killing Nemo?  Or am I?

I’m not going to give up fishing because the joy and health it has brought me far outweighs that sad moment with the fish in my hand.  And that’s kind of how I feel about most of my life right now.  I’m not going to let my good days get ruined by the weight of the bad ones.  I try very hard to make each moment count, now, in a way that I did not do before, and that is very important to me.  The moment with the fish was devastating, but the fact that I was out in the sun with my husband and daughters was the exact opposite.  It was rejuvenating and wonderful and healing.  That little fishie didn’t make it, but I was okay, I was still breathing, and I didn’t feel the pain of a hook in my belly, for the first time in a while.

Just One Week

March 15th

I am sitting on the sofa watching the news when my cousin G comes in, the first of the girls to wake up after their sleepover.  She crawls under my blanket with me and puts her head on my shoulder.  I love my kiddos, but I have known G since she first arrived here on planet Earth and we have an inexplicable bond.  She watches the television as I sip my coffee.  A breaking news alert comes on, and it is Erie Executive Mark Poloncarz telling us there are three confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our county.  G turns to me, tells me she is scared.  I reassure her that kids are mostly unaffected and she shouldn’t worry, but she clutches my arm and tells me no, she’s scared for me.  I tell her I am strong.  I will be fine.  In my head I am screaming, because I have diabetes, and that alone makes me high-risk.  Still, I am not that worried.

March 16th

I awake to a text from my sister.  “Are you up?”  It is barely 7am, and I already know in that moment what’s happened.  “Did mom call you?”  No, she did not.  I call her, and her phone is off.  I call dad, no answer.  At this point I am certain.  I text my father “What is going on???” and he calls me, finally.  “I didn’t want to tell you over the phone.”  Oh dad…I already knew.

When we got to my grandmother’s house, I did not think of Coronavirus for a single second. I ran right to my Gram and hugged her, and we sobbed together.  I hugged each of my grieving aunts and uncles.  I sat with my cousins and tried not to cry.

March 17th

Usually my favorite day of the year, when Mark said “Happy St. Paddy’s” to me, I shrugged.  I’d forgotten.

March 18th

I sat on the sofa watching the press conference about the virus and thought to myself, how on earth are we supposed to have a funeral?  Any idea of a lunch afterwards was ruined with the closing of all restaurants.  The funeral parlor said they would monitor the number of people at the wake.  However, there’s something like 38 people in my immediate family.  The church told us they could only service immediate family, though theoretically anyone could come in while it was open to “pray.”  I couldn’t help thinking that this was not what my grandfather deserved.

March 19th

My family was there. Several older people who knew Poppa showed up for quick visits.  There was hand sanitizer and wipes everywhere.  There were warning signs posted on the doors.  I, who hates wakes on principle, actually thought that it wasn’t as bad as I expected.  It was just a long, sad, worrisome day.

March 20th

At the funeral home, no one really spoke.  Everyone was sad.  It was very difficult for me, who does not deal well with such emotions and has a tendency to crack a lot of jokes to try to cheer people up.  Obviously, this was not the place.  We paraded across Seneca St. to St. Teresa’s church, and after we took our seats we were immediately told to move, to spread out amongst the church keeping 6 feet between us.  I took this opportunity to move towards the back where I was more comfortable.  I thought I would be sitting alone, but suddenly there was my sister, throwing herself into my arms and sobbing.  Listen, if one of us is going to get it, both of us are going to get it.  I will not begrudge my sister a hug after she was just a pallbearer for our grandfather.

I made a couple jokes to her in church to cheer her up, like pointing out the members of the fam who have clearly not been to Mass in a while.  She seemed to do a lot better carrying him out.

Instead of a luncheon, we threw a party at Gram’s house, despite the fact that we weren’t really supposed to.  The way my cousin Mick put it, we’ve all been around each other for the past two weeks while Poppa was sick, so if we’ve got it, we’ve got it.  It was relatively small given the big family, and was just my Gram, her kids, and their kids.  It was actually a lot of fun, as people had pretty much packed up their tears for the day and were reveling in the company of family.  I was stressed for a few hours when Gov. Cuomo announced that all non-essentials had to stay home, but then Mark texted me with “I’m essential” and I had a celebratory drink.

That night I went over to my dad’s to hang out with him and his brother Tim, and we drank and laughed and ate pizza.  I fell asleep thinking that maybe, in the end, it was the perfect sendoff for Poppa.

March 21st

Mark and I took a drive, to clear our heads and think of something other than illness and death.  Still, it lurked. It lurked in little moments when Poppa crossed my mind.  It lurked in 30 second news updates on the radio.  It lurked in my husband’s mind, who handles materials from China on a daily basis and has to take three buses to and from work.

March 22nd

Press conference tells me there are now 57 cases in my county.  That’s 54 in a week.  I think back to the previous Sunday, snuggling on the sofa with G, and I feel my heart grow heavy.  Last Sunday, we had our Poppa, still.  Last Sunday, we had our bravery, still. 

Just one week.

My grandmother, taking a swig of her husband of 70 year’s favorite drink.

It takes time.

Thirteen years ago, on the day after Christmas, my aunt Ka died.  It was sudden and unexpected.  She suffered a brief illness and then swiftly was gone, and it broke my heart.

On Saturday night, as Mark was showering and getting ready to go to my family Christmas party, I received word that his favorite aunt had passed, suddenly and tragically.  I had a few minutes with the news myself before he came out of the bathroom, and I struggled with what to say to him.  I remembered the morning after Christmas, 6am, when Sharon (my other mother) came in the door to find me sleeping on the sofa.  Mom was bereft.  Sharon was the one who told me Ka was gone.  She barely needed to say anything, really.  I already knew.  In the same way that my husband already knew when he came into the bedroom and I said “you need to call your mom.”

Mark went to the party anyways, and I don’t know how he did it.  He did pull me aside at one point and tell me that K seemed particularly sensitive to his feelings…she knew.  She was sitting beside me when he mother texted.  She made sure he got a hug every twenty minutes.  In the morning, we went to Tim Horton’s and she ordered two cookies.  I was about to give a heavy mom-speech about sugar when she turned to me and said “peanut butter are dad’s favorites.  That will cheer him up.”

I expected Mark to check out from life for a day or so as that is his usual MO when someone dies, but instead he went hard on the Dad thing.  He woke up and played video games with the girls, then put up their new beds and helped them set up their room.  He picked out a menu for a dinner they could make together, and we went to the store to get ingredients.  We returned to him watching the Bills game, and inviting Kevin over for dinner.  He then proceeded to make some amazing spaghetti and meatballs, and then whipped out the Monopoly board.  He tried to go to sleep early but couldn’t, so we ended up staying up late watching Knives Out (great flick) and then I went to bed.  I awoke this morning to find the whole house asleep…STILL asleep actually, it’s now almost noon.  So, I can only assume they stayed up watching movies after I went to sleep.

Mark said to me at one point that he just wanted to have a good weekend for his girls, and wanted to deal with the grief afterwards.  So of course, I expect some sort of meltdown at some point, but I don’t think it will be that bad, honestly.  I think that having his daughters around for this shocking and sad thing has really helped him.  We hardly ever have just the two of them, but I think the universe knew that’s who Mark needed right now and made it happen.  He would call this nonsense, but I have enough belief in the spiritual for the both of us. 

I was really sad on Saturday night.  I cried at the party maybe three times, and not because of his aunt, whom I have never met, but my own, whom I miss terribly.  Usually I function with the idea that she is away on a long missionary trip to the Philippines or something.  Sometimes the delusion wears thin, and that’s when the tears come.  Still, I think of everything she did for me, and everything she wanted for me, and how much she loved me, and I feel at peace.  But that took time.  I hope Mark gets there-I know he will.  But, it will take time.

Everything does.

Heaven is History

What is your idea of heaven?

When I was a kid I had a strictly child-friendly Catholic idea of it, with white clouds and angels playing harps and the ability to have a one-on-one with the Big Guy whenever you wanted.  Eventually I realized that this would be a fairly boring heaven, and changed my idea to something a little more rewarding: a place where I can have ice cream for dinner and the faucets flow with Guinness.  Then in my 20s I read a book called Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives.  This opened my eyes to the possibility of options.  I don’t think the afterlife is a place, necessarily.  I think we have choices.  Want to go back for a second shot? Reincarnation.  Want to retire from the game entirely? Christian-style heaven.  Want to watch the world without participating?  Ghost!

My husband grew up with a weird sense of heaven.  He went to a very strict church as a child, and he was told that in heaven you will live in the light of God and praise him for eternity.  Which to him sounded more like hell and led to him getting the heebie-jeebies about anything spiritual.  He is most definitely agnostic and has an intrinsic belief system but still says he’s an atheist because he has been so scarred by religion.  And so, he has spent a great deal of his life believing that when we die, we just die.

Now, perhaps I am the dreamer of the relationship, but I definitely think there’s more to it than that.  I don’t think I have the answer by any means, but I feel, as stated, that there are options.  Eventually, Mark developed his own idea of heaven, one that has no palace in the sky, and leaves ones body in the ground, but is still so heartbreakingly beautiful.  He believes that we live on in the stories that we tell and create a heaven for other people.

Here’s an example.

We are having a hard week.  Mark’s step-father is on life support, and they will be taking him off oxygen tomorrow. This is hard for me as well, because he is dying from the same thing that killed my Aunt Ka over 10 years ago.  Mark is taking this harder than he had expected.  He always put Tommy in his mind as a sort of bad guy….he was the one who made him do the dishes and who took away his video games and the like.  This is the stuff Mark remembered before, but now he’s an adult who sees how the lights are kept on and the rent gets paid, and realizes: this guy did not have to stay.  There were four kids in that house and only one was his.  He did not need to devote his time and energy to them, but he did.  This realization has hit my husband hard.

We were talking about the kiddos, and how they don’t know Tommy, and I said to him that he doesn’t need to worry because his heaven already lives in them.  Ask any one of the kiddos what they know about Tommy and they will tell you this “Dad once punched a kid in the face for calling Tommy the N-word.”  Because he did.  It’s one of his best stories.  He was expelled from school but his mother took him for ice cream after.  It may be a small and silly bit of information, but it’s something that shows how fiercely Mark once felt about this man, enough to stand up to class bullies for him.  Mark seemed somewhat comforted by this, because for him, heaven is in your history.

For my own beliefs, I feel like Tommy will be watching his family as they celebrate his life and mourn their loss.  Then I think he will go and make his choice, because we all have options in the end.

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