Dad seems to be doing quite well these days making his way through his first November-December-January holiday stretch since Mama's death last year, but the cruel turn of it all is that not only was Dad expected to handle his first Thanksgiving and his first Christmas without her, but December 31 would have been Mama's 80th birthday and today would have been their 60th anniversary and frankly it all seems a bit much for any one person to handle if you ask me which nobody did, I know. If all those dates and memories and events are not enough baggage for one person to carry, once the holidays are behind us, a week from Saturday, January 13, will mark the day of Mama's passing just one year ago.
The mind has a strange way of remembering anniversaries, especially those just a year later, but the memory doesn't confine itself to remembering only particular days or specific events because the mind will also recall other things when least expected. Mama was hospitalized and never came home a year ago December 26, which was a difficult day for us, and yet it was even harder when a couple days after that I was walking across a Home Depot parking lot with a large plastic storage box poised on my shoulder. I was listening to my iPod as I walked toward the car and the song "I Can Only Imagine" came up and Mama loved that song and it was played at her funeral and even though I was carrying a large plastic box across a cold parking lot last week it felt like I was back there all over again, in that Baptist church, trying to remain composed and not doing a very good job of it.
I'm pretty certain the people loading the car next to me in the Home Depot parking lot wondered why I was so traumatized at just carrying a plastic storage box and the more I thought about the whole little episode a couple days later -- from the being OK to the not being OK when the tears came as they so seldom do to me (and of all things while I was carrying a box) -- the more it dawned on me that yes it might have been difficult at the moment, yet in reality what had happened on that parking lot was just another example of how God keeps us close to -- and unseparated from -- those we love most.
I am left to wonder though: I will call Dad tonight on this his 60th anniversary and his first alone, and I will likely be at a loss for words.
Happy Anniversary do you say?
Or those weak, horrible words, How are you doing? Do you say that?
What exactly do you say? If anyone's been there, I'd like to need to know.
For now, I guess my plan is to ask him what he was doing 60 years ago today. Was he nervous? Sweating? Emotional? Happy? All of the above? My hope is that whatever words come, they will be words that will work for his betterment, and not serve to set back in any way.
Karen my very wise wife tells me that you cannot simply ignore an anniversary once a loved one has passed. It must be acknowledged somehow. For 59 years it was the most important day on my dad's calendar. That Mama is no longer here does not mean it just ceases to be important. No. No. Perhaps with this year, it is more important than ever.
It was two months ago today that Mama died. And I find that this whole death thing has me a bit confused on the one hand; a lot sad on the other hand, and, if I had a third hand, I suppose I’d be astonished, really, at what death teaches us amid the sadness. Mother Teresa said once that the only hands Jesus Christ has on earth are yours and mine. Perhaps it is at the hour of our death, or the deaths of our loved ones when the Hand of Christ is at work for us so tirelessly. Death is so very blessed an event for those who go ahead of us to their forever home. It’s for the survivors that death is so difficult. But it is during this time when we are showered with God’s grace. Certainly my father is having and will for a long time have difficulty dealing with being without his wife of 59 years. Yet as loneliness seeps in, so, too flows the work of God. The grace. A son and his wife who move in across the street from Dad -- on the very December day Mama goes into the hospital for her final 18 days; a daughter and her husband who give so much time taking care to make sure Dad spends as few lonely minutes as possible. That’s God’s grace. So, too, is what happened the week of Mama’s death. Certainly we were all saddened at her passing. Puzzled at why she had to suffer so much for so long. Yet, there our family was, together like few other times. Talking, laughing, crying, sharing. We don’t have many problems in our family. We’ve been fortunate. To be able to share in our sorrow, remember stories about Mama ... that’s God’s grace at work. During her funeral, I was privileged to be able to say a few words about her life. It was both difficult and necessary. People needed to remember the stories about her. Laugh, cry, love, cry, remember. As I stood there talking about her, I looked to my right into the congregation and saw an old friend I hadn’t seen in six or seven years. She had driven in about 30 miles to offer support. Then I looked to the middle section of the church and saw a friend from high school and her husband. They had driven 250 miles from near Houston. I smiled a little more. Then I looked over to the left and saw my two best friends from high school. We haven’t seen each other -- the three of us together --- in probably 10 years. One of them had driven in from Plano. The other flew to Dallas from Denver. In front of them sat my best friend from Midland. He got in his truck at 5 o’clock that morning and drove 325 miles. I was amazed. Seeing these people who had given so much of their time to make such a long journey. It spoke so highly not only of them, but of God’s grace. I am a lucky man. For many reasons. To have friends so giving gave me an appreciation for friendship I’m afraid I’ve never had in my life until now. I had so much joy that these people would make these sacrifices that it gave me one other reassurrance: my friends and all of our family members who could not make it to Mama’s funeral -- they were really there. They were there in spirit even if they couldn’t be there in body. And there were so many of them, we would’ve needed Joel Osteen’s great big Houston church to fit them all in. My Dad will be OK. He will make it. He will be lonely. He will spend hours in a quiet house. But he will be OK. Because he is showered with the care of those near him, and with God’s grace, which is all around him. God didn’t take without giving. When Mama left this earth to be with God, in return, God bestowed upon Dad and all of his family His unending grace. --- Jimmy Patterson is editor of the West Texas Angelus, the newspaper serving 88,000 West Texas Catholics. This column was reprinted from the March 2006 edition.
And it is weird how time passes. The pain may have lessened but the memories have only increased. The urge to pick up the phone and call her to ask her about some silly something. Still there.
The images that sorta pop into the mind when least expecting them. Check.
The conversations with Daddy about how life doesn't seem to be getting any easier. Been there, doing that.
And yet all the while there is the day in day out carrying on of What We Are Supposed to be Doing Every Day and while it no longer feels weird and inappropriate to be doing those things sometimes my thought processes whisk me from the moment if only for a moment to pay a silent tribute to Mama.
Daddy said Mama's headstone finally came in last week and has been installed at her gravesite near Irving and the other day when he visited her new home workers were in the process of doing some top soil work.
Being so far away, it is difficult not to have the ability to run down to the gravesite just for a few minutes like others in the family have.
But it's good that she is being taken care of.
I miss her still. I am told that will never change. And that is good because I dont ever not want to miss her.
It's weird this feeling. I guess it stands for progress or healing or something who knows.
Every day for a month you write about your Mama and how sick she is and then how she's gone and when she's gone you want to write even more and more and then one day, you just stop. No fanfare, no thank you very much. It's just over and life picks up. And it's like the first day back to work ... it feels like something huge is missing. And something huge IS missing.
Feels strange. And not right.
I know there will be days when there will be a need to sit here again and write about Mama. On my Dad's birthday. Mother's Day. My birthday. Those days are coming. It will be something I've never experienced to NOT call my mother on Mother's Day or to NOT receive a call from her on my birthday or some wonderful weird Wal-Mart shirt she buys and sends to me and makes me laugh. Those will be times I believe know I will miss her most.
Today was an unexpected Think of Mama occasion. I am a Catholic. I am not going to try and make you believe My Way so it is safe to read on.
There are certain things we do that we do darn well in our Church.
The Church has had its share of Grief over the years to be sure. Since the beginning people have been protesting it. Thus Protestantism. And I grew up a Protestant although I'm not entirely sure Baptists consider themselves full-fledge Protestants (someone help me out here ). But Catholics receive Grief for sex scandals (duly deserved I might add) as well as the way we practice and what we believe (unduly deserved and based mostly on misperception).
We do honor our mothers, though. Namely, The No. 1 mother, Mary.
And we also remember our dead. A deacon at our church made sure my Baptist mother would be remembered by having her name offered at Mass for the next 10 days. She is remembered by everyone at the beginning of every Mass for the next 10 days and it does not matter that she is not Catholic. She is still honored. And that is classy I think. She is above all a Christian Mother and that is why I will be able to hear her name every time I go to Mass for the next week and a half.
Mary is sort of The Mother to the World. Were it not for her, who's to say what would have happened. I heard it this morning in Mass more clearly than ever before and I now appreciate Mary more than I ever have. Probably because of my own mother's passing.
Our mothers are the most precious creatures in the world. They give us life. Raise us. Change us. Teach us. Love us. Mold us. Shape us. And then when it time they let us go. With of course the promise that we call them often and write them and remember them on their days.
Our family received many sympathy cards over the two weeks and we are grateful. The cards, phone calls, food has humbled me and my family and I thank you all so very much. Your expressions of condolence are genuine and mean so much.
We received a sympathy card from a group of Carmelite Nuns in Christoval, Texas. People I've never even met before.
Their card read: "You and your dear family have all our sympathy and prayers at your great loss in the death of your beloved mother. Now all is clear to her and she is praying for you. Her mission on your behalf is non-stop. In you every Holy Communion may you know the nearness of your Mom. Then you are both in Jesus."
It was signed "Sister Mary Grace and the Carmelite Sisters."
Now all is clear to her and she is praying for you. Her mission on your behalf is non-stop.
Mama. I will never forget you.
I love you.
And thank you, reader, for coming and learning about Mama. I hope you have been made better for having come to know her here. She was the very best.
I heard my Dad laugh last night on the phone and it wasn't a big laugh but it was a laugh nonetheless and it sounded good.
I don't remember what it was about but I think it had to do with his trying to keep his mind on a book I had recommended that he read -- When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by my favorite inspirational author Harold Kushner who can flat write when Grief is on the line.
He mentioned something about having to really concentrate on the meaning of the writing to put it all together and I remarked about how Kushner wasn't too convoluted I didn't think and he chuckled for a moment and Dad next said you just have to follow along with his every word or it might not make sense.
Don't feel forced to read it I told him
Oh, I'll read it, he said. I need to get something out of it.
(My suspicion here is frankly that Dad is just having trouble concenrating at this particular moment because he has read Toffler and the over 3 million some odd pages I think James Michener wrote and he has read aircraft maintenance manuals -- some of which he probably wrote. So a little Kushner ain't too much to handle for an 81-year-old thinker guy like Dad. Unless he's 10 days removed from losing his wife.)
But the story, the real story, is not that Dad can't concentrate while reading just now, but that he managed to muster a chuckle and that's Good Stuff.
My wife Karen believes firmly in her father-in-law and his propensity for making it if you will. And he will I think.
There are mounting tidbits of Good Stuff coming from my childhood home where Dad still lives.
Last week amid the unbearable weight of his loss, he looked up at me one night and said I think I might like to go to Cooperstown with you and Karen and the kids this summer. We have been talking about a New York vacation for several months, Karen and I, and it is getting closer to reality each day. Dad has been trying to get me to Cooperstown with him for probably 20 years and we have never been able to do it. Perhaps there is some sort of -- dare I say -- God Thing going on here ... Dad and I have never been able to go ... yet it appears we will be able to finally go now that he needs it most. God Thing. Gotta be.
He has been to my sister's and brother's three nights in a row for dinner and on Tuesday he even went to something the Baptists call Evergreen where Senior Citizens at the church meet and eat each week. He went. Alone. And he hadn't been in amonth. And the last he went he was not alone. Yet he went alone. Yesterday. And that is Good.
And he and my brother will visit my brother's vacation home in Cloudcroft, NM (where God vacations I believe) and stay for four days next week, and he has talked about visiting Big Bend National park very soon because it is one of his favorite places in the whole world. And that is Good too.
It really is a lot of Good. Sadness still hangs everywhere. Mama was buried just one week ago. The memories of the day are still quite vivid. The pain still hard. There is no getting over the loss of the matriarchal leader of our family. Mama. You cannot just "GET OVER IT." You can learn to be with the Grief. Take it to work with you and have it sit next to you for awhile as you type and plug numbers and whatever you do and you can manage Grief and accept it and still love that someone who is gone. It can be done. We are all doing it. All 70 or 80 of us who were loved most by Mama Nana Betty.
So the laughter from Dad was Good. The planning of life ahead is Good. Really Good.
It rains. It pours. And then one day the sun peeks from behind a cloud. And a form of brightness seems to begin to emerge again.
We are left now to think about the Good Stuff which does not mean we will anytime soon show Pain or its close friends Grief Anger and Sadness the door. The four of them will likely remain maybe secluded in the corner for most of each day and we are hopeful that they can peaceably coexist with the Good Stuff, our Preferred Visitor of Choice.
There is this story about our son James. And it is the Good Stuff.
James kicked himself hard and often for having passed up the chance to see his Nana as she lie dying in her hospital bed two weekends ago. Couldn't handle it. Wasn't ready.
And so she died and he did not have his chance to wish her farewell, to smile at her or to hold her hand a final time. She was ... just ... gone. And he is ... still ... here. And that hurts him that he did not get to see her once again.
When he heard the news of his Nana's death on January 13 he kept his tears at bay for several minutes actually before they came all at once and then for several minutes straight. He held his Mama tight for 15 minutes and he sobbed openly and when he let go of her finally he reached for me and he did the same all over again.
Death hurts the living ... the young, the old and the in-between.
James dried himself up after hearing and absorbing the initial shock and then he went about his business. Computer games, visiting a friend down the street, a funny tv program. He was still a kid. But there in the back of his mind, still there, James knew there sat the unresolved I didn't get to say goodbye feeling and it hurt him so much that even his Mama and I could feel it.
Soon after his Nana died news came that his Pawpaw wanted him to be a pallbearer and we explained to James the importance of the task and his chest rose from shudder to swell and he felt proud because he had a responsibility as huge and big and important as carrying his Nana from church to cemetery.
Even so there was still the nagging I didn't get to see her feeling, an emotion that was there but was somewhere underneath the task at hand.
Last Tuesday, a week ago today, Karen and I told our son and our two daughters as well that they didn't have to "see" their Nana at her "viewing" and they were all tormented by what to do but no one could tell them what to do just that whatever decision they made we said was the right choice for them and it was OK.
On the Monday after Mama died, our son was with his PawPaw eight days ago now, and the two of them were going about town taking care of PawPaw's puttering and generally trying to elude Grief and its Buddies who were at times insurmountable and always popped in at the worst times.
My Dad's cell phone rang.
Betty's body is ready for viewing now Mr. Patterson, the funeral home person said.
And so Daddy asked James if he would mind going by the funeral home with him and that he didn't have to go in if he didn't want to and a few minutes later the two of them pulled into the driveway together. And then Grief and Co. rushed over PawPaw as James sat next to all of them in Daddy's tiny compact car.
And we were told this next part of the story by my Dad a few hours later when he could summon the needed poise to convey it from beginning to end.
That's quite a son you have there, Daddy said and we asked him why he would say that knowing what all he was going through. We drove into the parking lot of the funeral home to go see your Mama for the first time and when I pulled up, I ... broke down. And James ... when I became emotional ... James reached up ... and he comforted me.
And for the first time all week our tears were out of pride.
Burying our dead, saying goodbye to the ones we love, has a way of bringing out an odd mix of grief and goodness. One minute up the next hour down.
Dad, my Dad, spends a few minutes with chuckles and good stories, and then he is consumed by grief.
Goodness took hold Saturday, another example of how God comes through for those who need it most.
Our oldest daughter Jennifer turned 20 Saturday. She called that night crying.
Why are you crying? we asked.
Pawpaw called me to wish me a Happy Birthday.
The tears were as much for the fact that our daughter's Nana was not on the extension also wishing her a happy birthday as the two of them had done 19 times before. She missed the tag team effect. The one remaining member of that team remembered to make that call though.
If I'm married 59 years and I bury the love of my life three days earlier, I'm not thinking about calling anyone on their birthday I don't care who it is.
I gotta tell you this goin' back to work stuff five days after burying your mom is for the birds.
Weird to one day have a funeral for Mama next day go home and then spend the weekend trying to not be so exhausted from grief's toll and then Monday comes VOILA! ... and it's back to work like nothing ever happened.
Weird. Maybe it's one of the hardest things about this whole process (I'm discovering as the minutes drag by). Just pick up where we left off a week ago? Is that it? The way it's supposed to be done? I'm so far not likin' it.
Oh but you can remember her fondly ... It's what she would have wanted ... Gotta move forward...Life goes on.
Blah blah. Don't wanna hear that stuff just quite yet thank you very much.
Maybe one of the reasons I'm uncomfortable with this business-as-usual mentality and how I don't wanna be playing that game this morning is that it feels so all-about-me and I'm not real comfortable with that either.