Family Grief


At this point in the pandemic, daytime brings hope. Pictures of friends getting vaccines, talk of summer travel, and, at work, I am not responding to crisis. But the nights are for grief, and grief has its own habits. I leash up our dog, check for deer and raccoons lest said dog go berserk, and together we walk into the dark. Orion, the Hunter greets us over the house across the street. He’s accompanied by the Gemini aka, Castor and Pollux. As we turn the corner, The Big Dipper comes into view with Cassiopeia rising over the bike path. The stars in our neighborhood seem so much brighter these days. Maybe less pollution or ambient light or perhaps they shine brighter as a reminder of what remains when the world goes sideways. 

Tomorrow will be the anniversary of the last day I spent with my dad. I’ve tried to remember all of it. But I can’t. Just the terrible moment when I returned after running a few errands and the door to his assisted living facility was locked. The tears, the hyperventilation, banging on the door, the relief when his hospice nurse walked up and said she’d work something out, splashing water on my face so I wouldn’t alarm him before I returned to his room. I pretended there was no problem and we picked up reading our latest Sherlock Holmes tale. As evening came, the story ended, and it was time to leave. I kissed his head as if everything was normal, saying I was flying home, but would be back in a month, maybe a little longer this time… “Okay, Mimi V.” he said. “Tell the boys hello for me. Pat the good black dog. You be so careful. And come back as quick as you can.” Now, I can’t remember that morning’s activities or even what we did during the preceding five days of that visit. Did I take him walking in his wheelchair on the path he so enjoyed? Did we go out to lunch with friends? Was I there for bingo day?  Those memories are lost to the trauma of that awful afternoon. 

My dad found wonder in the stars, even if he had learned about them quite literally under fire during World War II. My favorite childhood memories put me in the back yard with him as evening turned to night. He would’ve been gardening and I would have been playing or just home from an after-dinner bike ride. We’d sit in big redwood chairs — me on his lap when I was little — then side-by-side as I grew up.  He would enjoy a cigar, blowing smoke on me in summer to keep the mosquitoes at bay.  As sunset gave way to starlight, he’d start with Venus on the horizon, the great dipper, as he called it, which points to Polaris. Then he’d go on to whatever was on view that time of year. Pegasus, the winged horse. Taurus, the bull. The Winter Triangle. Jupiter. He could name them and tell the ancient stories behind them. He could show me how one star pointed to the next, which led to a group of others creating maps that helped lost sailors find their way home.  I suppose it is natural then, that on my nighttime rambles, I look for him among those twinkling friends he introduced me to in childhood. And as I walk I tell him over and over how sorry I am for how our time together ended.  

He doesn’t talk back. I’ve yet to hear from him in a dream or feel a chill that signals he might be about. Not a surprise, really. He was not a ghostly person. He appreciated the good earth, the here and now, the ordinary miracles: the growing garden, the deep green forest, the night sky. He had the gift, or perhaps the discipline, of finding contentment with what came his way, not longing for a past he couldn’t change or a future over which he had little control. When my mother died and I was second guessing my decisions, he told me “That’s a cat you can’t put back in the bag. Let that one go.” There is a lot to be said for such a perspective. Even as I walk with my sorrow each night, his example helps me live my pandemic days with considerably more grace than I’d be able to without it.  

I read something yesterday – I’m sorry I don’t remember where – that talked about the relationship between light and darkness, how light was needed to fix things in the material world, but the spirit needs the dark to heal and find its voice. Maybe that’s what is happening to me as I walk each night with my good, if sometimes overprotective dog. (A possum in the drain can be a threat, after all.) Everything in the day-time world is improving. Cautious optimism lets me think about dinner parties, visits with family, maybe a weekend with friends at the beach. Anxiety is giving way to reflection about what should be kept and discarded from this pandemic year. But there is still mourning to be done and finding a place, both physically and psychologically, to do it is complicated when life starts to move on. My dad is not yet buried, anathema for a boy raised on a farm. I will feel more settled when he is finally laid to rest. But I don’t know whether I will ever stop looking for him on my nighttime walks. Perhaps, just as I walk with my dog, my dad walks with Canis Major, the great dog in Latin, who trails Orion according to legend. If so, he must be right there over our neighbor’s house. I’ll look again tonight. 

Drawing: The Navigator by Skylar Chapman Searing in memory of James F. Chapman, Captain USN-R, Judge, Husband, Father, Grandpa

Faith Family Grief

Sympathetic Ink

On October 23rd, my father would have been 100 years old. Last year for his 99th, I flew to San Antonio with a suitcase full of pictures and mementos to give him a special birthday lunch. I spread photographs across the floor of the apartment I’d rented, choosing which ones to take to make into posters to display. One poster focused on his time in the war, one on his life with my mother, and one captured my relationship with him. The last was an intergenerational collage that showed him with his brothers on barren prairie and then with my children. At the party, I set up a table with telegrams he sent to my mother when he passed the bar exam, graduation programs, and other keepsakes of a lifetime. Toward the end of the event, he toasted the group saying, “Let’s do it again next year!”  Little did we know…

In late February or March, as I read and listened to news stories like this, I broke down in my kitchen, consumed by dread. I had envisioned his 100th with a great slideshow, a menu with everything he loved to eat, and even his favorite pianist playing “Stardust” and “As Time Goes By” as people raised a glass to toast his long and interesting life. Looking back, I knew we would not get through to the other side of the pandemic, that somehow my father and I would have a front row seat to the tragedy of this virus and would likely be called to take the stage. In a novel, this experience would be foreshadowing, my response a kind of premonition. 

My father’s family was populated with deeply devout churchgoers. His mother played the piano and the organ every Sunday in their small Baptist church. His father never “took a drink” in his 102 years. My father’s grandfather knitted his deeply divided community back together through public service and the church after the civil war. His great-grandfather was inclined to visions, one of which warned him of imminent capture by the Kansas Jayhawks. (He woke up and made an exit to Texas; the Jayhawks were, as it turns out, in hot pursuit.) Among the men on that side of the family, at least in hindsight, there was a clarity about how to handle uncertainty and hardship. Use both your faith and your education as a guide, take decisive action, do your duty however hard, and don’t give up on your community. 

My mother’s family held a few more secrets. Many years ago, I found my maternal great grandmother’s book of spells, with a red, faded cover, entitled “The Secrets of Life Unveiled.” In it are instructions for reading tea leaves and coffee grounds, along with the intricacies of palmistry. The book provides incantations to perform in the light of the three-quarter moon to attract a new love. There are herbal potions to ward off a cough or improve the skin. One chapter is called “Sympathetic Inks” and provides options for writing letters that cannot be read unless some sort of chemical treatment is used to make the writing appear. You can even choose your color!  

Once my father went into lockdown, I felt like I was reading tea leaves myself, scouring the Texas press, various state government websites, and the communications that came out from his assisted living facility to see if there were policies, procedures, or updates that would facilitate a visit. Perhaps in another month something would change? Maybe, because of his age, I could sneak in under the guise of an end-of-life visit, even if he wasn’t imminently at life’s end? Perhaps there was some way of writing to the Texas Governor that might indeed induce his sympathy and convince him that a World War II veteran should be able to see his only daughter? Full moon, half moon, crescent moon–for months I tried them all to no avail. I created my own ritual with the nightly phone call, modern day amulets of flowers, candy, new shirts or slippers, whatever tokens or talisman I could send to keep his spirits up. His friends and caregivers did too. Tomatoes from a garden, cans of popcorn, and fresh peaches, looking for the alchemy that would keep him going.  

Although no believer in the occult, my dad, in his own way, was full of a whimsical magic. He was the one who first introduced me to his version of sympathetic ink during Saturday treasure hunts. He could always find a nickel behind my sons’ ears and utter a few magic words to make a stoplight change. He could find common ground with anyone and was a spellbinding storyteller. But as the months wore on, I think he knew there was no magic that could save us. He let that 100th birthday go; he knew, or at least believed, there could be no celebration with his family and friends, no holidays together, just ongoing isolation. And, although he could not give it voice, surely he knew the awful toll not being able to see him was taking on me. I believe he decided that his duty was to let go, to give up the ghost, and head to new land.  

I’m still working on knowing what my duty was and whether I executed it as I should. The peace I seek is complicated by guilt, anger, wishes, and love. Joan Didion wrote about the first year after a death as “The Year of Magical Thinking.” And, indeed, for the last four months I’ve kept a sort of altar in our house that has kept my dad alive, including the three hats he wore regularly, one for winter, one for summer, and one that was part of his Navy uniform. When I came home from attending to his death, I hung two of them in my closet and kept one sitting with his picture on a chest in our living room. After his 100th birthday had passed, my husband added a nail and we hung up his last hat. 

This weekend, the President-Elect quoted from a hymn we sang at my father’s funeral. As I listened, I thought perhaps the terrible spell will soon be broken and that once again through faith and science, decisive action, devotion to duty, and hard work, we will get to the other side of this pandemic. It is too late for my father and me, but I write this in “sympathetic ink” for other families that still wait to reunite. 

Family Grief

HI Mom

After I raced to my father’s deathbed and but didn’t make it in time, my closest friend, whom I met when I was 15, brought me to her home. We poured some drinks and began to walk the neighborhood. The San Antonio summer heat had abated, and the soothing night breezes washed over us as we walked and talked for hours. The conversation ranged from my dad to the neighbor’s renovation to high school memories. The specifics completely escape me even though the walk happened less than two months ago. I only recall the feeling of being outside of regular time and the impulse to be outdoors in the dark, as I so often was with my father as a child, looking at the stars and breathing in the night air. 

Now it is my friend’s turn. Her mother has died overseas, and because of the situation, my friend also did not arrive in time. Even as I sort out my father’s death, my mind is returning to what we lose and what we gain when we say goodbye to our mothers. Both my mother and my friend’s mother were loving and devoted as well as critical and demanding. Although different in their styles and temperaments, there is a reason their daughters became and stayed friends. We both know what it means to harbor the twin desire to meet our mothers’ high standards and to break free of their influence and make our own choices.

When my mother died, I was able to be with her and have a few important last conversations. I was able to tell her I was sorry for times that I was cruel in the way only a daughter can be toward her mother. I was able to seek her counsel about a painful, long-ago incident that had been brought to mind at recent school reunion. I was able to care for her. Even in death she was completely herself and so was I. I found myself apologizing when she was impatient with the nursing staff, fighting back frustration when she told me how to arrange something in her room. I am haunted by a last encounter in which she became agitated and a nurse came in to administer Ativan to help with the anxiety that often accompanies the dying process. When she asked what she was being given and I explained, the look she gave me was a mixture of resignation and anger. I couldn’t help feeling that I’d done something wrong. She did not open her eyes after that.

But there were ways in which I knew I had pleased her. I felt secretly proud of “doing everything right” at her funeral and the lunch that followed. I remembered to put a pretty plant by the door. I set a proper table. I used the right tablecloth and found the right dishes, even though she had already sent many of her favorites to me. With the help of friends, the spread was nourishing and delicious. For a final time, her social circle enjoyed themselves in her home. 

Later, I sorted through her belongings and found poems she had written about some left-behind love interest. I found papers from her graduate school days and contemplated her secrets and unfulfilled ambitions. The housekeeper that helped my parents told me a story of finding my mother, sitting just as I was, reading old love letters one by one and then systematically ripping them up and throwing them away. When my mother realized she’d been seen, she put a finger to her lips – shhh, don’t tell

I found pictures that were taken long before I was born in which she looked ready for anything, excited to be seeing the world beyond the small town where she grew up. She looked like someone I wanted to know. In her death she became whole, a person to be understood and forgiven her foibles and even her faults. It is sad and curious that I find such forgiveness easy to extend to friends but found it so difficult to extend to her during her life. 

What I’ve learned since my mother’s death is that death as an ending is not real. My relationship with my mother has changed, become purer, than it was. That summer when she died, three years ago now, I had planted morning glories as I had done many times, though never very successfully. But that year, they climbed our house and bloomed in an amazing profusion of pink and blue and purple. The vines were as strong as rope when they finally died. Now they flower every year. Once in a while, a blossom will turn, as if to peek in our front door to check on us. Who else would that be but my beautiful, demanding mother wanting to know about every detail of my life and making sure we are all okay? Hi Mom, I say as little shiver envelops me.

What I think my mom knew, but we never discussed directly, is that it’s not what is in place when our parents leave us, but who. Friends, partners, siblings, colleagues – people we care about who will walk with us in the darkness, who can stand beside us, sometimes literally, sometimes through the imperfect means of texts or phone calls when a virus keeps us from being physically together. Tomorrow morning perhaps I’ll take a minute with my coffee to sit with the morning glories and ask my mom to walk with my friend as she travels across the sea to say goodbye to her own mother. I’ll ask my mom to be where I cannot, so that my friend will know that a mother’s love goes on forever.  

Faith Family Grief

Virus Diary Number 5: Reunion, Robbery, Requiem?

Today my house is full of flowers and cards, remembrances of my dad, and messages of comfort to me. His possessions are gradually accumulating. The black lacquer box with his initials that sat on his dresser for as long as I can remember holding cuff links, belt buckles, stray keys, and war medals. Others are en route: his favorite red blanket, his summer and winter hats, the paintings he wanted to surround him, a few pieces of furniture, some books and other small treasures.

Two weeks ago, my father died alone moments before I was able to get to him. I have gone over and over the time frame, looking at phone logs and text messages, wondering how I could’ve gotten to him sooner, whether my decisions were the right ones, believing both what others tell me– that I did the best I could with the information I was given– and admonishing myself for not acting on the choices I thought of making, but didn’t, choices that might have allowed us at least a brief good-bye.

There are questions that will never be answered. He was presumed to have COVID-19. His symptoms: first diarrhea, fever, aches, and chills, and later a cough and trouble breathing were all consistent with the virus. He had been tested the day before his symptoms started as part of a routine screening. The test result, returned seven days later, a full three days after his death, came back negative. I have no idea whether to trust it or not.

Of course, it is good that the test was negative. Good for his lovely friends and caregivers and good for the reputation of the place where he lived.  The negative test provides validation that the procedures in place to prevent spread to frail elders worked. But what about the choices that were made in service of the presumptive positive status?  He was kept in isolation from the onset of symptoms. I had planned a trip because, at last, there was going to be some minimal form of visiting, a chance for a reunion however limited.  When I called him upon arrival, I knew he was still in isolation.  Even though he was coughing and seemed to be struggling to breathe, I didn’t tell him I was in town because I didn’t want to upset him without knowing whether I’d be allowed to see him. If had told him, would he have told me to come right away, that he knew he was dying?  Would the nurse with whom I spoke immediately after I got off the phone have gone to check on him and told me to come sooner if the concern of infection had not been so great? An hour or so later, when my messages were finally answered by the director, I believe he was checked and, at that point, the staff realized how dire the situation was and called me.  I arrived moments too late and instead of sitting with him until the funeral home staff arrived, I was advised to leave, to not spend too much time in his room because I would be exposing myself to infection. I remained with him for perhaps 30 minutes after gingerly moving his special, red, potentially infectious blanket, in which I much would’ve much preferred to wrap myself, so that I had a place to sit. He looked like he might wake up any minute except that he was too still for this world.

Even so, I was able to give him a proper, if unorthodox, memorial service more intimate and beautiful because of the painful time in which we live. Fifteen people gathered outside at a lovely spot in San Antonio. My husband and sons at home in North Carolina, along with friends and family in other places joined in by livestream. The experience of listening to a pastor who has come to mean so much in my family, contextualize my father’s long life, and indeed his death, as one that teaches us how to adapt and accept difficult circumstances has been deeply comforting. Likewise, listening to my husband and friends describe my dad so fondly let me know surely that he knew how much he was loved even in the isolation of his last days and months. At the memorial, the minister told those gathered and specifically me, that “we would not ask for another day for him.”  At 99, he had led a long and fruitful life. And I know that those words are right.  But, it is also true, that we were robbed – by circumstance, by uncertainty, by choice, and by chance –  and I would give anything to live that last day over, to try it different ways, and see if there was a path that might have led me to his bedside a day, an hour, or even ten minutes sooner.

Some would say that what God asks now is for me to focus on all the good of his life, and to the gifts he gave to me, to be thankful for all that he was and will remain. But in the Christian tradition there is a place for righteous anger and Jesus most expressed his fury at the money changers in the temple, saying that his house of prayer had been turned into a den of robbers. That is where I am right now. The pure grief I might feel is blunted by a deep outrage that drowns out any requiem I might wish to sing. My anger is not for individual missteps, mine and others; those can be seen only in hindsight. Rather, it is reserved for the policies enacted, espoused, and exploited by politicians that sacrificed frail elders to create a perception that we are a caring society, isolating elders while feeding our economic engine. To wit, the day after my father’s death, I asked what I should do about his belongings. I was told to get a rapid COVID test, which took about 30 minutes total, and then I was allowed into his facility to organize his things. While there, I spent a good hour talking with two of his close friends who are also unable to see their children. What sense does that make? A lot, if the concern is the economic health of the elder care “industry” versus the emotional health of those elders and their families. Keeping elders from their families was never really about safety. It was about liability and about perpetuating a false belief that society could move on economically by “protecting the vulnerable.” Just a talking point. It was no more safe for me to enter his facility the day I did than it would have been two days before following a rapid test with 80% accuracy. But, if my dad’s belongings are sorted, the room can be prepared for someone else; there is more money to be made. State law and policy supports this practice, a cynical reality laid bare.

The memory of all he was and is to me are already well documented in his obituary, in the remarks I made at his memorial, and in the many previous posts I have written about him. So, there will be no requiem for him here. His life began just as a deadly pandemic had subsided and it ends with another that, to date, has no end in sight. My father’s virus diary concludes, but for me it is not over, and I find myself wondering what entries will come next.

Family Grief

Virus Diaries 4: The Lies We Tell

Psychologists tell us that we all tell lies even as we aspire to honesty. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the lies we are living by each day in this pandemic. Here are a few, surely not an exhaustive list…

Number 1: A Lie Others Tell Me

We can keep frail elders in congregate care safe even as staff members fall ill. As of this week, four staff members have tested positive in the facility where my dad lives in Texas. I fully expect that next week the number will jump to six, maybe with a resident or two thrown in by then, and to 12 the week after that. We know how this virus works. He and others in his situation are sitting ducks waiting for the virus itself or its side effects of loneliness and isolation to come for them.  The facility is honest with its numbers, even as its leaders participate in an implicit lie of safety, a lie that I and every other family member in this situation want desperately to believe.  The current truth is really too terrible. Our elders are not safe; they cannot be kept safe; and our vigilant attempts to keep them physically safe put them in psychological and emotional peril deprived of the physical presence of family and friends.

Number 2: A Lie I tell my Father

I will be able to see him soon. I’ve reserved a place to stay later in the month in hopes that maybe I’ll be allowed to visit. And when he asks when I’m coming, I tell him late July. Earlier in the crisis I told him late April, then late May, maybe June… I promised him, and I promised myself, when I moved him from his home that I’d visit at least every month, a promise I kept until the virus changed everything. He needs those visits as much as he needs air. What I’m learning is that I need them too. I know I will lose him to death sometime in the near future. He is almost 100 after all. But it shouldn’t be like this. Strange as it may sound, to be with the dying is sacred and I do not want to miss those last precious moments with him. And while there is still time, we should be able to share another meal or two, read a bit more Sherlock Holmes or Huckleberry Finn. Surely, he could have one more walk in his wheelchair down the Salado Creek trail where he says hello to everyone he sees, comments on the creek’s water level, looks for the deer that hide there, and listens intently to the gentle birdsong. I love the natural world because of him. It is a great pleasure to take him back to it as he declines. As it is, four months have passed since I last saw him. Daily I stare down my broken promises, gulp, and lie telling him I’m coming soon. Three weeks, two weeks, one week and then my cover will be blown. At that point, I’ll start over. Maybe I can come in late August, maybe Labor Day.

Number 3: A Lie We Tell Ourselves

We can protect the vulnerable while living just as we wish. This is probably the most interesting untruth. It sounds so good on the surface. Just keep all those folks with underlying conditions and frail elders protected somewhere and the rest of us can head to Mount Rushmore sans masks with abandon or ‘get back to work” to keep the wheels of commerce turning. But this lie is sits atop the most American of myths, the Lone Ranger, dependent on no one, self-reliant, ruggedly healthy, a man who lives and dies by his own rules. Even the myth is a myth; what would’ve happened to him without Tonto or even trusty Silver? The truth is that every aspect of our lives is part of a web of interdependence – a beautiful web, but so complicated in the time of COVID-19.

Well over half of American adults have at least one chronic condition such as obesity, diabetes, cardiac issues, asthma, or auto-immune disorders like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. Most all of these conditions make adults vulnerable to worse outcomes if they contract the COVID-19 virus. Many of these folks are working, meaning that the economic wheel that everyone is worried about can’t turn if those of us with chronic conditions aren’t there to turn it. Rather than confront this complexity, we tell ourselves that it’s just people like my dad, very old and very frail, that need “protection.”  But “the vulnerable” include so many more who are “essential” to keeping economic progress humming along.

Next, unlike the lone ranger, we are not at home on the range. Rather, we interact with all sorts of people, in so many ways every day. Let’s start with someone who believes it is his or her fundamental right not to wear a mask in public. I’ll name him/her “Anti-Masker.”  On Wednesday, Anti-Masker goes to community choir practice where (s)he belts out hits of the seventies or their favorite hymn. The alto sitting in the next chair is an asymptomatic carrier who unwittingly sings the virus to our friend,  Anti-Mask. Anti-Mask won’t have symptoms for several days to two weeks, if at all, during which time (s)he’ll head to a family reunion, grab beer at the tavern down the street, and somewhere along the way transmit virus to someone else who rides the bus to work, and sits next to the person who helps my dad with his bath, or getting dressed, or brushing his teeth. And, statistically, at least one person in that series of connections will have chronic illness. Add a few masks into that chain and you begin to cut transmission. No masks, further transmission and illness at best, curtains at worst. We are interconnected, across class and circumstance, a truth this virus lays bare.

Now that hospitals are overflowing in Houston and San Antonio, freezer trucks are en route to Corpus Christi to hold the dead, and a field hospital is being erected in the Rio Grande Valley, Governor Abbot finally decided to require folks to wear masks or face a fine. There are competing rumors that he will shut down the bars or even, God forbid, the water parks. I don’t even know what to say. I guess we have to be thankful for any showing of leadership that deals in science and reality at this point.

The Truth: What I Must Accept

If, in the end, my father survives until 100th birthday, just a few months away, it will be a function of good PPE, luck, and divine intervention. There is no testing strategy or staff rotation scheme that can protect elders in congregate facilities when the rest of society is chooses to live the lie that the virus is no longer relevant, wearing a mask and refraining from mass gatherings are infringements on our fundamental rights. But where does that leave me as I daily stare at my plate of broken promises, swallowing the heartbreak I feel with each phone call?

Two weeks ago, I finished a book called The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. Nominated for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, the story focuses on two characters, a man and a woman, linked over time by their friendship during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s. The male protagonist dies alone even though the young woman tries so hard to stay with him. The abandonment is not her fault even though she lives a portion of her life believing that it is. Yet, inside the dying character’s consciousness, the reader can see that the dying person, travelling to what comes next, enters a realm where those still of this earth can’t follow – whether we are physically present or not. Likewise, the novel ends with a recognition that some periods of life – whether  the AIDS or the Corona virus crisis – are so beyond our imagination that we  are left only to navigate them as best we can.  The decisions I made last summer on my father’s behalf were made not knowing that our society would collectively lie to itself to such a degree that it would impact my ability to care for my father. The only way out of this terrible situation is for all of us to quit lying; it is the truth, after all, that sets us free. When we take this virus seriously by everyone doing their part to stop it, we won’t have to lock up frail elders in an act of collective delusion. Then, perhaps, I could, together with my father’s caregivers, find ways to provide him the visits and connections he needs. Until then, my only choice is to trust that my father is strong in spirit if not in body, that he knows that I am with him, even as I am not, and that somehow and somewhere we will meet again.



Family Grief

Virus Diaries: Water Park Lament

Every night in my kitchen my throat catches and my eyes water.  Every night this happens when I talk to my dad and he asks me when I am coming to visit him. Every night I explain that I don’t know, that I’m waiting for news of when I’ll be allowed to see him, that the virus is still a threat. Every night he says, “maybe we’ll know something tomorrow and you’ll call me every day.”  And every night I answer, “Yes. I hope so Daddy, I will.”

Monday was Memorial Day. There were fly overs, people playing Taps, laying wreaths, and extolling the virtues of veterans who died in battle and those who are still with us.  Tuesday, in Texas where my father lives,  Governor Abbot opened water parks. It’s hot in Texas and no doubt it will be a great relief to families and children to head down the twisting slides into the cool water this weekend. Sounds like fun. But, for my dad and his fellows, who live in assisted living and skilled nursing facilities, ostensibly so honored on Memorial Day, where is their fun? They are locked in with no end in sight. No bingo games, no outings, no visits from family, no walks on the trail, no reading Sherlock Holmes, no eating with their friends. They are sitting alone at a table in the dining room or in their rooms napping and watching TV on an endless loop. If it’s safe enough for everyone to go to the water park, shouldn’t it be safe enough for me to visit my 99-year-old father or for him to play bingo with his friends? Don’t answer that. It’s not a real question. Neither activity is safe.

My father and others like him are symbols, not people. They are referenced on Memorial Day or Veterans Day complete with black and white photographs of Normandy or the Pacific, Korea or Saigon. On those days, they are “thanked for their service” as we all belly up to the bars that just cannot possibly stay closed another day. The juxtaposition between “opening up” and “returning to normal” while I am told it will be at least July before there is any possibility of a visit with my father exposes the hypocrisy of the decision-making. If anyone cared about his service to this country, there is no way he’d be locked away from those who love him while everyone else is frolicking at the water park. I am disgusted and so very sad.

It was the most difficult decision I ever made to encourage my father to leave my childhood home last summer. And I never imagined that I would have to physically abandon him just because he needed so much more care than I could provide in my home or his. Now he and so many others are all but forgotten because their suffering and isolation have no impact on the economy. From Governor Abbot’s perspective, assisted living facilities will make money whether families can visit or not. Elders’ needs are not part of the economic calculus. The water park, on the other hand, only makes money if we pretend the pandemic is over. And so, as a society, we delude ourselves thereby punishing those we say we honor.

Every week a letter, transparent and completely honest, comes out from the director where my dad lives. I so appreciate it. The staff is conscientious, and I am sure they will not be enjoying the water parks this weekend as they try so hard to keep those they care for safe. They are also forgotten. They call me and help my father FaceTime, they tell me everything that’s happening, and I send them cupcakes every few weeks to show appreciation. What more can I do?

And truly, I don’t really begrudge the opening of the water parks. I have kids. I know parents are losing their minds after months of home schooling. But if the Governor really believes it’s time to open Texas and that it’s safe to do so, then do it. Open the whole thing and let me see my father. That won’t happen because the virus is still active and a grave threat to elders and those who care for them. No public official wants to take responsibility for killing them, but they’re fine to leave our elders, indeed our heroes, isolated and alone.

The clock is ticking.  Time for me to make my nightly phone call and for my father and I to repeat our quietly desperate daily mantra. I don’t know, Daddy.  Yes, maybe tomorrow. I miss you. I love you. I’ll call you every day. I will.






Family Grief

Tears in the Cranberry Sauce

George Winston’s December has been one of my seasonal favorites for years. The album, which starts slow and contemplative is a perfect opening to the holiday season. I usually start my holiday prep on a day much like yesterday, rainy, chilly, but hardly freezing. The fall color has just peaked and the trees are dropping their leaves at a steady pace. There is so much to do before the end of the semester. But I take the holiday as permission to take a pause.  I turn on George Winston and get started.

I usually begin my holiday cooking with my mother’s cranberry sauce, a dish my younger son would consume by the gallon if he were allowed.  There’s no magic ingredient, just water, sugar, a little orange juice and zest, and of course the cranberries. Combine and simmer until it’s a consistency you like. The result is tart and sweet on the tongue and a deep, satisfying red flecked with orange for the eyes. My mother used to bring it on the airplane in a Ball jar wheedling her way through TSA screening.  Believe me, it was hard to tell her no… Eventually, I explained that I could probably make it too, particularly with proper supervision.  And six or seven years ago, that baton was passed and I became the one charged with making sure this condiment was ever present at the holiday table. 

This year I had hard time finding the recipe nearly disassembling my recipe box in the effort. Along the way, I chanced upon so many other recipes infused with holiday memories. One grandmother’s ice-box rolls the other’s fudge, and the cookie dough that my older son, just home from college, will soon begin to beg for. Note: Like me, he prefers to keep the whole loaf of dough in the ‘fridge and cut off a delicious cold slice here and there.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention be dammed; some things are worth the salmonella risk. Sorry, I digress…

 As I chopped and boiled, salted and whisked, and listened to melancholy George Winston, I began to get texts from friends sending good wishes for the holiday. One, an only child like me, who is also away from her failing 90 plus year old father this holiday.  Another from a friend who will move her mother into assisted living the day after having the last family holiday in her childhood home. The list goes on. This middle age season is both brutal and beautiful; we have to make so many hard choices for those we love. Choices that often leave me feeling inadequate to the task. But at the same time we finally learn exactly who loves us as the web of friendships that we’ve woven over a life-time comes into view and lifts us up. 

I think my favorite song on December is Winston’s version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D. I know as a piece of music it as become ubiquitous to the point of being almost mundane. It’s not and I love it anyway. And his version layers the joy, the longing, the peace, and the complexity of the season. As the music began to soar through the kitchen, I began to suspect that my mother’s cranberry sauce does have a secret ingredient, one she never told me about, but that I’ve learned for myself: the tears, not a lot, but just a few to acknowledge the love and loss we feel in equal measure as the leaves fall and the smell of the bubbling cranberry sauce fills the air. 

Grief Miscellaneous

Constant Companions

In spite of a friend’s deep suffering, the death of an elder neighbor, a loved one’s diagnosis of an advanced cancer, life rolls on straight through my son’s 13th birthday, and keeps going through my worries for my father, my sadness for an acquaintance grieving a too early death, and despite my own need for rest. The last several nights I have slept deeply, my body and mind tired from intensity in my work and pain in so many parts of my social circle.  Although the season is changing to autumn –just this week there’s been crispness in the morning air—there is no beauty yet. In fact, right now, the earth is dry and everything looks a little down at the heels and sad.

I feel parched too. Tapped out, stunned by the suffering that seems to be around every corner. (And this is in the personal realm – don’t get me started on the suffering being perpetrated in our collective, national life.) A few days ago I was walking with a friend. We get together every couple of weeks and almost every time, we have to give each other what we are now referring to as “the horror report.”  The list of awful things that have befallen people we know: friends losing parents, colleagues diagnosed with grave illnesses, aquaintances experiencing the sudden loss of a spouse. Not to mention, because really who can bear to, the soul crushing losses of a child to drugs or a friend to suicide. As we talked two days ago, we were both a little overcome by how many of these events we had to process. How to make sense of it…

At almost 55, my father’s long-lived genes not withstanding, I am well into my own autumn. A season that has always been my favorite and yet, as I am now realizing, a season in which loss and grief will be constant companions.  I remember this happening to my mother probably 25 plus years ago.  I would call home for a chat and she would tell me about someone that was sick, a funeral she had to attend, a comfort meal she was planning to deliver. I think I said the appropriate things, but asked very little about her experience of it all, and thought about it even less. Her words echo now: “It’s so hard to lose your friends. No one ever tells you how hard it is.” Over time, I realized none of the people she was regularly spending time with were the family friends I had known growing up.  She wanted me to get to know her new friends and at first I was hesitant. Why did I need to know these new people she and my dad were so good at incorporating into their lives?   Eventually, I gave in and of course my life is richer because of it.  And, what’s more, in so doing, she taught me the importance of continuing to incorporate new people into my life, so that the circle can continue and not collapse. 

But what she didn’t teach me is how to deal with these other characters that seem to want to worm their way in? How do I welcome Grief and Loss into my house?  How do I acknowledge the pain they escort in, honor those experiences when they come fast and furious, without numbing out via one of the 30-wonderful flavors: alcohol, shopping, religious platitudes, busyness? Hmmm… Perhaps the first step is to stare down that complicated cousin they bring along, the one called Regret.

Regret is what makes any sorrow unbearable. And even as regret may begin with specifics of any particular situation, once it takes hold, it goes systemic: Did I say what I should’ve said?  Was I kind enough, patient enough, giving enough? Should I have kept the china cabinet that was my grandmother’s? Did I clear out my father’s things too soon? Why didn’t I pay more attention to my mother’s suffering as she lost her friends one by one or two by two? Why did I say yes to that relationship, but not to that other one? What if I’d kept travelling that summer instead of coming home to summer school? What if I’d called the one I left behind? What if I’d married the one my parents’ hoped I would and stayed in my hometown?  What if I’d gone overseas and not come home? What if I’d mastered the second or third language? Called the visiting professor/New York newspaper editor that gave me his card? Regret over some of it, becomes regret over all of it. There are only so many roads we can travel. We have to choose. And no matter which one we choose, Autumn comes and as we watch other’s lives being over too soon, we revisit our own, spending at least a moment at each cross-road wondering what if and wishing we could rewind the tape to see where a different set of choices would lead. 

Thank God for Kierkegaard.

“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.”

SOREN KIERKEGAARD, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life

When I internalize these words, then I can accept my new house-guests and the tears and disbelief they bring with them. I can recognize that these guests come with all the others: pleasure, achievement, joy, hopefulness, and gratitude.  I can recognize that there is truly no way around these seasons and that really, I would not want to miss them. Perhaps I can allow myself to settle deep into enjoyment of all that is in this moment: the morning glories that are finally blooming, the time spent eating dinner with new friends on the porch, the excitement of a young person’s latest success, the delight in a friend’s soon-to-be born grandchild, the pleasure of a long walk and friends’ good company.  I can cry the tears when I have to, allow myself to spend a few moments on what if, and then get back to the business of this, sometimes parched, sometimes painful, always complicated, capacious, and wonderful life. 

Faith Family Grief

For Two Friends Who Grieve

Among those college friends with whom I stayed up all night, took spontaneous road trips, and wondered about all that the future would bring are twin brothers who are friends to so many. Through football games and parents’ weekends, their parents became our friends too and welcomed large groups of college students to their home for summer shenanigans.  In recent weeks this family has been on my mind as the patriarch’s health declines and a decision has been made to focus exclusively on palliative treatment.

They are a family of great faith and, until this morning, their prayer requests via social media have asked for total bodily healing of their beloved father.  But that has not happened and they are making sense of the fact that he will leave them sooner rather than later. There is so much I want to say to them having faced my own versions of this parental loss journey in recent years.

First, there is no dishonor, no ungodliness in accepting that something sad and difficult is happening. Even though your father’s suffering will end, and in accordance with our faith, he will truly and joyfully meet his maker, the poignancy of saying farewell, if not goodbye, is real. It hurts and it does not need to be covered over by platitudes no matter how well intentioned.  There is no shame or guilt in wishing that the current circumstance could be different. God knows what you wish for and it is the mark of your dad’s great love for his sons that you want to keep him on this earth forever. I believe our tears for our parents please God, because it means that, at least in part, the parents and the children have seen something of Him in each other, something they know they will miss.

The next reminder is to dwell on the commandment to “Honor Your Father and Mother.”  Because during these next weeks or months, you will learn what that actually means. As a child, I thought honoring them meant using honorifics – Yes ma’am. No sir – and following their rules.  As I got older and had to find my own path, I often felt sad and sometimes guilty that I was not exactly the daughter they thought they would have. I felt badly about celebrations for them that I couldn’t quite pull off, frustrated by conversations in which I chose to be argumentative/adolescent rather than accepting. But what I’ve learned in recent years is that, if we’re lucky, there is time to honor them anew, and that honor shows up them in the smallest of acts. Not reacting with anger or frustration when someone can’t quite make it to the bathroom. Putting fancy moisturizer on my 93-year-old mother’s face in the hospital. Manicuring my father’s nails when they become ragged and torn. Helping him with socks and shoes.  Just as with the very young, it is the physical care of the body that is the most primitive indicator of our love. These are strange Rubicons to cross and yet there is sacredness to them that I hope you will not ignore.

Third is a lesson that many who grieve come to understand, but don’t necessarily speak. And, that is, that when you love someone fully, they do not leave you. Your relationship does not end; it simply changes.  You see them in different places. I see my mother in the morning glory that turns away from the sun to peak in my doorway.  I talk to her in my head most every day whether to ask advice, complain, or show off a new outfit. Very rarely, she shows up in a dream.  At first I wanted that more, but now once in awhile is enough. I am not a sci-fi person, but I am beginning to wonder about the nature of time. There are some loves that simply are bigger than the linear time frame in which we live our lives.  These loves don’t begin and end, they simply are, sometimes dormant as we pay attention to other things, but always present and waiting to speak to us again. Your relationship with your father is like that. He truly will be with you, even as he is not.

Finally, I remember our times together, your enveloping hugs that made me feel safe and cared about, our late night drives to Austin during exams, conversations by the suspension bridge plotting our respective futures, writing secrets on the walls of a house your folks were refurbishing before the paint went on, being one of many friends your parents welcomed home.  We have no daily contact now. I have no means to be of any instrumental help.  But know that far from East Texas someone loves you both, loves your dad, and wishes him and you Godspeed.


Photo Credit: Skylar C. Searing