Humus

Sometimes I think that my father’s failure to produce a book is one of the reasons why I am so driven. My father had a dream of writing a book about Beethoven. He died at 60 having never even jotted down notes. I’d hoped to find them after he died and assemble the book in his memory.

I found nothing of the sort. It was all in his head.

Perhaps he was afraid, fearing what others would think. He never was able to rise above “staff” position as a college teacher. He never finished his PhD work. He wore fear, insecurity, and a sense of worthlessness like a cloak. He never pushed through it to learn that doing hard work is its own reward. That just trying and failing is better than not trying at all.

Perhaps he was waiting until after he retired to put it together. We are never guaranteed that we will live until retirement. We are never guaranteed we will even live out the rest of the day. My parent’s deaths taught me that. Their early deaths taught me that nothing is ever guaranteed and you’d better start paying attention right now and living life. Not just enduring it, not just living day by day but actually living out your dreams.

I don’t mean dreams of living on a beach in Cancun and having maid service. I mean actually doing the thing that you were put on this Earth to do.

I’m starting to think of my parent’s failure to live life as being like fertilizer or humus. When plants die they are allowed to rot a little bit and then that dead and decaying material is put around newer plants. Those plants gain nourishment from that decay and are able to get stronger.

It doesn’t happen right away. There has to be some time between when the plants died that they are useful to new plants. So I’m seeing that the time between their deaths and the time it is useful to me is relevant and meaningful.

I know my parents would be very proud of me for having become an author. Perhaps my father would even be jealous. Or perhaps he would be inspired. He’d be 81 now. It is possible someone can become an author at that age, but it is harder. People lose energy and drive when they get older. Best to start sooner.

Sure, there is more time when you are older, but less energy. It isn’t easy working a full time job and writing and making art right now, but nobody else is going to do it. I have learned that the more I do that is good, the less junk I fill my day with. I’ve become very mindful of what I read, watch, and do – every hour counts. I’ve started to see that spending time is like spending money – if I use it up, I don’t have any to spend on anything that matters.

Who you gonna call?

When my father died there wasn’t a list of all his friends. He was very proud of the fact that he was able to memorize everybody’s address and phone number. But that didn’t do me any good when it was time to call them after he died. I had to go by the Christmas card list that my mom had. From that, I was able to look up some people’s phone numbers by calling directory assistance. This was 20 years ago.

Now of course you can look people up online. But sometimes that comes with a charge. It’ll get you near where you want to go but it won’t get you all the information. Perhaps there are privacy issues. Perhaps it is greed. Either way, it is annoying.

Now that my mother-in-law has died we have a list of all of their friends and relations to contact. But it turns out their list is not up to date. We can’t ask my father-in-law what the numbers are because he has dementia.

We don’t have some of the correct numbers because people have dropped their home phone line and gone to using a cell phone. And those you can’t look up online. We’ve even thought of using the cell phones of my parents in law to see if they had the new numbers saved there. No luck.

I’m starting to think that if they didn’t have the right phone number then maybe that person wasn’t that close.

Perhaps it is a good idea for me to start writing down my list of all the people I would like to come to my funeral, or at least to know that I have died.

It may seem strange, but sometimes the only way I have found out that someone has died is through Facebook. It’s the modern way of telling people what’s going on. Nobody reads the obituaries anymore. Nobody subscribes to the newspaper.

We have constructed our lives with emails and texts, and our computers and phones are password protected. How is anyone going to know who to call? Bills are sent electronically to email inboxes, and paid online with passwords and log-ins. How are our survivors going to know how to take care of our estate?

A difficult situation has become even harder because of modern conveniences.

It is hard enough to grieve. It is almost impossible to grieve and handle an estate at the same time. Nothing is normal, and then there is something really hard to do on top of that. Unraveling someone’s life is weird, and strange. It is like you are erasing a life, account number by account number.

Playing rich

I talked with my Mom while I was baking today. And of course, I didn’t talk to her in the normal way. She’s been dead for 20 years. But we talked, just the same. You might understand.

I asked her about “real” cooking, instead of basically reheating frozen food. A lot of what we ate came from boxes, and tasted like it. A lot was brown.

I said, if you’d practiced more, then cooking wouldn’t have been such a burden to you. It wouldn’t have been so hard.

She pointed out that they didn’t have much money. My Dad was chronically underpaid as an English teacher. He never got his full professorship. He never got tenure. Every semester it was a challenge to see if he had three classes to teach or none. He had started to teach long-distance. This was in the days before the internet. He couldn’t teach at home with everyone Skyping in. He drove. He drove long distances and late in the day, so that he could teach adult students who were juggling college with a career. They met in high schools after hours. Sometimes he taught in prison. He taught wherever he could – in part because he loved to teach, but also in part because we needed the money.

So we didn’t have much.

But it also wasn’t spent well.

I remember that Mom lived rich. She didn’t get much love from Dad. It was a cold marriage, one of duty. They didn’t have to marry, but they had married fast, without much time to get to know each other. She certainly didn’t know that he was mentally ill and not properly medicated. Not like the medications back then were any good. Mostly they turned you into a zombie, a shell of your former self. No wonder the compliance rate was so low.

My Mom stayed with the marriage out of a sense of obligation, and perhaps out of fear. What was a woman with no training supposed to do on her own? How was she supposed to support herself and two children? So she stayed. It wasn’t bad enough to leave. They didn’t yell at each other. They just didn’t speak either.

So she got what she felt she was owed through material things.

There were expensive perfumes. There were jewels. There were nice clothes. There was even a mink stole.

She didn’t feel loved in a non-tangible way, so she demanded it in a tangible way. This is so sad. It was like she was a prostitute in her own marriage.

So we were shortchanged on actual nutrition because my Mom felt slighted. She didn’t feel nourished, so we didn’t get nourished. I know this wasn’t intentional. I know she didn’t think of it like this. She didn’t see the connection at all.

If she’d worked on the real problem, she wouldn’t have had to supplement with things. If they’d gone to marriage counseling, then there might have been something real there.

And then she reminds me that they did go to marriage counseling. It was through their church. It was with the priest, who had taken a vow of celibacy. This man knew nothing about how to live with another person. He’d never been married. They didn’t get the help they needed. So instead of finding a real counselor, they just left the church.

And just existed, together, in a sad way. For years.

Money doesn’t buy happiness, true. And happiness sometimes is hard work. It is hard to fight for yourself. It is hard to stand up for yourself when you feel beaten down. It is hard, and it is tiring.

The more I dig, the more I uncover. The more I uncover, the more compassion I feel for my parents. The more I understand why they made the choices they did. The more I am determined not to make the same mistakes.

I’m sure I will. Not all, but some. Nobody is perfect. That is impossible. But intentional living and mindfulness are showing me things I never saw before. Perhaps things I never wanted to look at before.

Death guilt – on the relief you feel after a parent dies after a long illness.

There is a lot of guilt that comes when a loved one dies that we have taken care of. If you have been the primary caregiver, you are suddenly relieved of the majority of your duties. You duties don’t end totally – there is most likely an estate to settle – but they change. You aren’t “on duty” constantly.

There is part of where the guilt comes in. If your loved one has been sick a long time and you have been the main (or only) caregiver, you are worn out from that constant work. Sick people take a lot of attention. They are often sick at very inconvenient times. The middle of the night is a common time for things to go south. Everything is harder to deal with when you have just a little sleep. It is even harder to deal with when that has been going on for weeks. Or months. Or years.

Very few people talk about this, but there comes a time when you look forward to your loved one dying, because that means you are free to start living. It sounds cold to say this, so people will say that they want their loved one to “pass on” or “transition” so that they can be free of pain. They want that too, of course. Part of the pain of dealing with a very sick loved one is seeing them suffer and knowing there is little you can do for them other than bring them food and fluff their pillows. Death is a release and a blessing at times.

In reality, death is a release and a blessing for the patient as well as the caregiver. When the patient dies, the caregiver is now free to live. The caregiver no longer has to stay by the bedside of the sick person. She no longer has to sleep on the sofa, hurting her back. She no longer has to call in to work, using up personal leave or vacation time (if she has it). She no longer has to do double duty of taking care of her parent’s home and her own.

There is something to be said for having families live together. The more the nuclear family explodes into satellite units, the more problems are created when a member needs help. Also, why have three households who have to buy three sets of lawn equipment, when you can have one big one that shares? I wonder if this is part of the “commune” idea. Instead of having friends living communally, start at the source and have families live that way. But I digress.

Sometimes the reason children leave the household as soon as they can is because they don’t really like their parents. Just because someone is your parent doesn’t mean that he is a good person. Becoming a parent isn’t the same as being an adult or a mature person. Sometimes “parent” just means someone who has reproduced. The parent is little more than a maladapted child himself.

Our society doesn’t speak about this very much. We laud parents. We think that parents are all knowing and all powerful. They aren’t. Nothing magical happens when they have a child. They don’t suddenly stop being neurotic or needy. In some cases their problems just get deeper and darker. So when such a parent-person gets sick enough to need help, the child is conflicted. They are expected by society to help. They are expected to drop everything and take care of their sick or dying parent. The only problem is that the abuse that the child received is often never revealed. Sometimes even the child is not aware of how mistreated she was. She just knows deep in her gut that she doesn’t want to take on this task. It isn’t because she is selfish.

It is a double bind. The child was taught her whole life to serve the parent. She was taught that she deserved to be treated badly. She was taught that her own needs didn’t matter. So when the parent is terminally ill, the child is expected to drop everything to take care of him. Then she feels conflicted.

It is hard enough to take care of a really sick person. Nurses have training for this. The average person does not. You don’t just wake up with the know-how to be a competent caregiver. When that sick person is your parent it is extra hard. When that parent was abusive it is nearly impossible.

When your parent is very sick, you have to become the parent. You are in charge. There aren’t classes for this. We don’t talk about this in Western society. I’m not sure any society talks about this, but I know this one sure doesn’t. But Western society rarely talks about anything real anyway.

For years, the child is subservient. Even if the child has become an adult and has a family and household of his own, he is expected to defer to his parents. That role never stops unless he establishes boundaries. The only problem is that there isn’t training on this, and there isn’t a lot of social support for it. If his parents die before he has established these boundaries and stood his own ground, he has a lot of ground to make up.

Even if none of this is going on, even if the relationship is healthy and sound, there are conflicting feelings when the parent dies. One of those feelings is relief, but that feeling alone causes guilt. You aren’t supposed to feel relief when your parent dies. You are supposed to be sad. Often you are sad. Sometimes you are angry too, at them having left you. Sometimes you are frustrated about all the mess they left you to have to clean up. But sometimes it is relief, because it is a lot of hard work taking care of a sick parent. Sometimes it is relief because now for once you can live your life your way without being second guessed by your parent.

It is healthy to feel whatever you feel when your parent dies, regardless of what you feel. Your feelings are yours, and they are valuable. If they have died after a long illness where you were the caretaker, your feelings will be even more complex. Don’t ignore those feelings, and don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed. They are natural. It is healthy to feel them and express them. You may not have heard other people talk about the relief they felt because they thought they shouldn’t talk about it – but it doesn’t mean you are alone. Sometimes just sharing this feeling with others who have been in a similar situation is very healing. This is why I’m sharing this with you.

Twenty years gone.

It has been twenty years since my parents have died and I almost forgot. The thing that reminded me was a notice from AAA telling me it is time to renew my membership. I’d gotten it after my parents died because I realized I didn’t have anybody to call if I was stuck somewhere with a broken down car.

They died six weeks apart. Mom died first of lung cancer and then Dad died of a heart attack. Mom’s was an expected death, Dad’s wasn’t. It wasn’t a total surprise – he’d never taken care of himself. But I hadn’t prepared for it like we’d had to do with Mom’s.

I remember the first few years after they had died. Every year when the date for Mom’s death would come up I would dread it. I didn’t have to write it on the calendar to remember it. It would rise up, unwelcome. The memories of my loss would come to visit and stay with me like a crazy relative who overstays her welcome. Then, because my Dad died six weeks later, I’d be in a holding pattern. I’d feel like my life had been put on pause for all that time. Six weeks of feeling my feelings, of holding them and examining them. Six weeks of waiting.

What was I waiting for? It was like I was holding my breath until the day that Dad died would roll around. Somehow that day was the day that the strange double-grieving period was over in my head. It was time to start life again then. I was released.

This pattern went on for years. Sometimes I would meet up with a friend of my Mom’s on her death date. We would console each other over a beer and a burger, or a trip to a craft show. Sometimes I would do something in honor of Mom and Dad. I’d listen to their favorite music, or try a hobby that they liked. They were ways of trying to bring them back to me, if just for a little while. It helped.

But this year I’ve forgotten. This year I’ve found myself in the middle of their death days. This year nearly two weeks have passed since my Mom’s death day and I missed it. I figured that this year would be extra different because it was twenty years.

Every year it has gotten easier. I’ve heard there is a sort of half-life to grief. However long you knew the person, take that time and divide it by two. That length of time is the length of time you will grieve for that person. I’d known them for twenty-five years – so twenty years grieving is way past that time. By that reckoning I should be over it.

You aren’t ever over the death of your parents, or of anyone who meant something to you, who impacted your life. Their loss will always mean something. There is a hole that can’t ever be filled.

The hole does get smaller. It can’t ever completely go away, but it can get less like a gaping wound and more like a scar. It will never be perfect. You’ll always know it is there, but it won’t cripple you like it did.

Maybe this is why I felt the need to make lemon delights this weekend. Maybe in the back of my mind I did remember. This was my favorite dessert that my Mom would make. I’d ask for them for my birthday instead of cake.

A few years ago my mother-in-law tried to make them for me when we were visiting around my birthday. She didn’t have baking powder and used baking soda instead. They weren’t the same, but she got bonus points for trying to console me anyway. Even if she had made them exactly according to the recipe, they wouldn’t have been the same because she isn’t my Mom. Nobody can ever fill that spot. But her trying to soothe me was kind.

But somehow, this week, I got the hankering to make them. I’ve never made them before. I haven’t really cooked before, so I haven’t had flour or eggs or baking powder in the house. I hadn’t thought about buying them because I thought it would be wasteful to have these things here just for this one recipe. But this year I’ve been cooking, and with that, baking.

I talked with my Mom while I made the lemon delights this weekend. People rarely tell you that the relationship continues after the person’s death. They don’t tell you how to do it, how to communicate with them and have a relationship. It turns out that they are still with you, in your heart. You can talk to them, and if you are quiet enough, you can hear them. It is beautiful and sad and special. You can work things out. And that is what we did.

I followed her recipe, that same recipe card that she used, in her funny squiggly handwriting. The card is smeared with stains from dozens of years of use. My husband had gone out on a bike ride so it was just me and the recipe. So I started to talk to my Mom. I told her how sad I was that she had not taught me to cook. I told her how hard it was to be without her, that I wish she could see how well I’m doing now. I wish she could meet Scott. I wish she could read my writing. I wish I wish I wish.

And I heard her. I heard her back, gently, lovingly, sadly. I heard her back in my heart as I mixed and blended and sifted. I heard her tell me that in everything I had ever done I had surprised her. I heard her tell me that she thought that because I was “gifted” that I didn’t need to learn these simple basic things like cooking and housework. I heard her tell me that she was sorry, that she didn’t know. She didn’t know that just because I can grasp things quickly doesn’t mean I don’t need them to be handed to me first. She didn’t know, because she couldn’t know.

And I forgave her. And I move on in my grief. I move on in my loss, the loss of my Mom at a young age. I move on in my loss of all the things I wasn’t taught and didn’t even know I needed to know. I move on, but at the same time I’m moving on I’m moving back, and in, and within. I’m moving around inside this hole that was left when my Mom died.

Maybe she was the one prompted me to make lemon delights this weekend. Maybe she knew that I’d come to in the middle of this time and be sad that I didn’t remember, didn’t memorialize it. Maybe she knew that I would need something to hold on to.

She has given me something in this. This isn’t a blanket or a talisman. This isn’t a token or a fetish. There isn’t something to point to or to work with like worry beads. What she has given me is the knowing, the sure knowing, that she is not gone. She has come back to me in my heart, and in that coming back she has restored a bit of myself to me. She is filling that empty hole that was left when she died. She is filling it with herself.

Tear necklace

tears

Shortly after my parents died, I took to expressing myself primarily with beads. I had learned to work with beads when I was in my early 20s when I worked at the Kennedy Center. I had no idea that a few years later beads would be therapeutic for me.
Talking about my grief only seemed to make it worse. Nobody was around to help me know how to process my pain and loss. I was raised in a family that wasn’t very good at expressing feelings anyway. A lot of “friends” left after both my parents died, saying they didn’t know how to help me. It made an awful situation terrible.
I took to beads. Beads have their own rhythm and harmony and logic. Putting beads in order is like putting the world in order, one piece at a time. It gave my hands something to do and my mind something to focus on. One bead, then another, then another. Somehow I made it through. It wasn’t perfect – there was a lot still stuck in my head that I didn’t know how to deal with, but it there was less of it after I made jewelry. And, I made a little extra money by selling what I made.
Beads have a lot of symbolism. Sometimes it is because of the materials, sometimes where they were bought, and sometimes because of how they were made. A lot can be expressed with beads that isn’t obvious to the casual observer. They just see something pretty. Me, I see layers of meaning. A good necklace can tell a story to rival any piece of fiction. A good necklace can exorcise the demons like no crucifix can.
I don’t do this as often now. I’ve found that walking, writing, and yoga help keep me on an even keel. I make jewelry, sure, because I still enjoy it. I just don’t use the beads in the same way as often.
This weekend was hard. I made a necklace. Well, to be honest, I made the pendants on Sunday, and I made the necklace last night. The pendants are “tears”. I didn’t use my full complement of bead-symbolism tricks on this design.
I’d gotten a bag of beads a few weeks ago from a local bead store. The whole bag was only $3, and it had enough beads to make maybe 5 necklaces if you added in others to space them out. The bag was full of blue beads in different shapes – all Czech glass. Sure, I could have used just the beads from the bag to make necklaces, but all of one color in a necklace is a little much and the design tends to get lost.
The bag had lots of these little teardrop shaped beads in it, and I’d wondered what to do with them. I could create a pattern with two of them, round end facing each other, with a larger rounder bead in the center. That didn’t really appeal at the time. The beads were sitting in a saucer near me when I was having a down day on Sunday (hooray for the holidays!) so I started working with them. One of my favorite things to do is work with copper wire. I pulled it and the beads out and started making pendants. By the time I was done I felt better. Probably the fact that I was discussing how I felt with my husband at the same time had something to do with it. I still think the beads helped too. They are like a security blanket.
Last night I put it all together. The other blue beads are from the same bag. The tiny “11s”, the white beads, are from a separate purchase. I like how it came out. Some people turn lemons into lemonade. I turn pain into jewelry.

Strange advantages of your parents dying early.

There are some strange advantages to no longer having parents when you are an adult. There are some disadvantages, sure, but it isn’t all sad.

They can’t boss you around and tell you who you have to marry, what your wedding is going to be like, and how to raise your kids. You don’t have to hear from them about how you aren’t living up to their expectations. It is your life, to do with what you will.

You have to look out for yourself. Since you can’t move back in when you get fired or divorced, you have to plan ahead and save up. This may sound like a disadvantage but it isn’t. Nothing makes you have to be an adult like actually being on your own. If you are constantly using your parents as an ATM, you aren’t really an adult yet.

They can’t gossip about you and tell all of your embarrassing secrets to your dates and co-workers. Those terrible stories die with them.

You don’t have to divide your time between them and your children. Older parents and young children require a lot of work. They both are very dependent and at times helpless. You only have so much time and energy and money and it is hard to be in two places at once.

You don’t have to watch a formerly vibrant person decline into helplessness. There is nothing more tragic than seeing your college professor father slowly lose his mind because of Alzheimer’s. There is a certain sadness in seeing your formerly active and independent Mom reduced to spending her days in a hospital bed.

And lastly, it teaches you perspective. It teaches you that there are no guarantees in life. It teaches you that you better get it done now, because there might not be “next year” for that project. It teaches you to choose wisely and not waste your time because you realize how little of it you really have. And, it teaches you to not freak out about a lot of little things, because if you can survive on your own at a young age, then you can make it through anything.

God was with me the whole time my parents were sick. People may say “How come God let them die?” That is the wrong way to think. They died because of their choices. God didn’t kill them – they killed themselves by smoking cigarettes and eating poorly and not exercising. God sent me help and gave me the energy to take care of them and myself during that time. For some people, that experience would separate them from God. For me, it drew me closer. I came to see God as my parent. So ultimately, that too is an advantage. I switched from identifying with weak, temporal, physical parents, to a strong, eternal, spiritual parent.

Sure, I still miss my physical parents. Sure, I wish that they were able to meet my husband. I’d love if they could see how well I’m doing right now. In a way, I know that they can, because I believe in the afterlife. I believe that they are spirit now and know what is going on. I believe that they are connected with all things now and are not limited to their physical bodies. But it still hurts, and I’m still sad. But within that sadness I can see how in some ways I’ve missed a whole lot of other hurt and pain by them dying early.