Social Sympathy

The Greenville Journal wrote a couple of articles related to social media and the role it plays in helping families and communities grieve and support one another during difficult times. I am honored to have been interviewed about how our global village supported us through Mary Hazel and Russell’s illnesses and continues to support us now.

Sweet Goodbye

 

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How Strange

It was shower night. (We aim for every other night as my children protest when I suggest they clean themselves every single day. I pick my battles.)

I was putting away laundry in the twins’ room when I heard P call out to me, in the way that your kids do the second you walk out of the room, “Moooooooom?” Moooooooom?!”

“I’m right here,“ I answered loudly. Sometimes, lately, the kids have wanted me to be a little closer. “What is it?”

“Can you come in here?” she asked.

“Sure,” I surrendered, as I piled the remaining clean laundry back into the empty basket. I poked my head around the door, making sure not to let out all the hot steam from the cozy marble-tiled bathroom. I have been frequently reprimanded. “What do you need?”

“I need you to come in. Like all the way in. Please?” she added.

I scooted in, barefoot, and navigated around the broken tile that I’ve been meaning to replace for years. I perched on the nearby shower chair which remains in the bathroom though nobody needs it anymore. “What’s up?” I asked.

My modest daughter peeled back the fogged-up shower curtain and stood there with the hot water beating down on her back. She was holding a slim crescent-shaped bar of soap and looked like she had seen a ghost.

“Mom,” she whispered. “Dad used this bar of soap.”

I smelled peppermint, tea tree oil, and a little lavender. I took a deep breath. There were several long seconds of silence, but the understanding washed over me, too.

“He used this on his body, while he was still alive,” she said. “How strange that the bar of soap is still here. And Daddy is not.”

More silence. More deep breathing. Nodding.

“Mom, I don’t think we should use it anymore. I think we should save it. It was Dad’s soap. This is how he smelled.”

I told her that I had been having similar thoughts. When I emptied the trash from the bedroom for the first time after he died, I took inventory: a banana peel, an empty yogurt cup, a napkin, a tea bag. His last snack. And I thought, “How strange that the banana peel is still yellow.”

How strange that his phone is still charged, waiting for a text. How strange that his slippers are still poised under the bed ready to receive his tired feet. How strange that he still gets mail. How strange that the grocery list he started on a pink Post-it Note still waits in the drawer. How strange that the cat our daughter chose from the Humane Society on her eighth birthday outlived him. How strange that his laptop is still plugged into the same outlet, where he wrote his last journal entry, on the day before his heart stopped. How very strange.

On the afternoon I squeezed Russell’s right hand, and the palliative care doctor held his left, his voice cracked when he responded, “How strange…” He had just been told that the medicine was no longer working. “How strange that I never will finish writing my second novel. How strange that I won’t see the children graduate,” he hoarsely whispered. “How strange that I won’t be around to take care of my mother and father.”

And it is all just so strange. The negative space. The echoes. The ripples. The feeling that he has just been in the hospital a little longer than usual but will return any day now. The illusion that he is still whole in my mind, when I close my eyes.

We are only a month into this grieving process. I expect that eventually we will put away his razor. We will sort through his clothes. We will consume the last of the groceries we bought while he was still with us. And then, I’m sure, there will be a completely new and different kind of strange.

Eventually, I realized my daughter, soap sliver in hand, had been shivering at the shower threshold for some minutes. We had been staring right through each other, lost in our own strange thoughts. I got up from the plastic chair, held her wrinkled hands, and drew her small, wet body into a clean, warm towel where we stayed until the shaking stopped.

I wonder how long soap will keep in a Ziploc bag.

Dad's Soap.jpg

Traditions

If you ask my kids what today is, they will probably tell you it is New Year’s Day. They might also be just as likely to answer that it is the eighth day of Christmas, or even four nights before our much-anticipated Twelfth Night celebration. Of course, they know it’s already been several weeks since we observed Krampus Night, when we prepared, with some trepidation, the peanut butter marshmallow toast offering for the mysterious creature from Alpine folklore. (My husband reported later that evening that it was actually quite delicious.) Suffice it to say, we have some pretty interesting traditions in our house. Many of these can be attributed to Russell. For someone who calls himself the ultimate curmudgeon, he is often the most sentimental of us all.

Ever since I left the nest of my youth, I have endeavored to keep the traditions of my childhood holidays alive and well. For years after college, I continued to return home to spend the night in my own bed on Christmas Eve just so I could wake up early, quietly wait on the landing, and wait for my parents to verify Santa had come before being allowed to peek around the corner. After I married, we continued the pilgrimage because waking up anywhere else on Christmas morning seemed akin to treason to me. There must be grapefruit, lovingly sprinkled with sugar by my mother, served on Spode Christmas china for breakfast. There must also be a roaring fire lit by my father late in the evening where I would fall fast asleep in front of its warmth until being summoned to bed. The year the twins were born, I spent energy I didn’t even have packing up presents as well as two sets of, well, everything for this journey south. If memory serves, it was actually pouring down rain as I finally loaded our beloved greyhound into the van (because we had to take two cars in order to haul everything to and fro). It was tradition, after all. And it was totally worth it to wait on the landing with my new family. To wait to for my dad to stall, “I just have to take a shower and shave, and then I’ll check to see if Santa came.” (Daaaaad!) When I look at the picture of the four of us waiting on the landing that year, I remember the day was very special to me. I also remember how tired I was. That was the moment I realized that the old traditions might have to wiggle over just a little bit to make room for a few new ones.

I struggled for several years to figure out what those new traditions would be. How can you just decide one day to start new traditions? What in the world would they be? I worried that whatever I planned would not be special enough, not worthy of being considered a tradition. I wanted my children to remember the holidays with as much nostalgia and sentimentality as I did. The first couple of years, I remember feeling as though I flailed about, trying way too hard. Would we or wouldn’t we attend a Christmas Eve church service? Would we or wouldn’t we have friends over on Christmas Eve? Would we or wouldn’t we wait in line at the mall to sit on Santa’s lap, no matter who was crying? When our third child arrived, I was forced to give myself a little grace. I simply could not worry about details beyond making sure everyone was fed (usually), bathed (occasionally), and clothed (mostly). Once I loosened the reins on the runaway sleigh, I found that I actually had one of the most enjoyable holidays since I became the mommy. I felt like a tourist who remembered to enjoy the view in real time instead of worrying about Instagram filters for my virtual scrapbook. I realized that our traditions were quietly and joyfully being made in the wrinkles of time. When we repeatedly read the rather unusual stories from the Tall Book of Christmas by the fire. When we attended a neighborhood Christmas Eve party for the third year in a row. When my children requested cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning “like you usually make, Mommy.” Ah, what sweet little traditions they are becoming. Add to the mix a husband who is obsessed with interested in European history, lesser-known fairy tales, and etymology and I got some traditions I never saw coming! One of my favorite memories from this year was made during our morning walk to school. Poppy was asking Charlie if he was ready for Krampus night when a neighbor overheard us talking of our evening preparations. She was perplexed by this odd observance and asked, “What in the world is Krampus night?!” Charlie and Poppy just stared, blinked, and replied, “Doesn’t everyone know about Krampus?” Ah, we may be the only family on the block who prepares peanut butter marshmallow toast on December 5, but it is our tradition.

This year may have been my favorite Christmas yet. As I shared with my father earlier this week, I felt there was balance this holiday that had escaped me in recent years past. Balance between giving and receiving, between travelling and staying put, between being festive and being still, and between celebrating old traditions while embracing the new.

In Tents Camping

I took the kids camping. All three of them. I knew I was outnumbered, but I’ve been wanting to try it for a while.

I camped a lot when I was young. I think this was partly because my parents are adventurous souls and partly because we were poor. Well, I thought we were. Turns out it wasn’t so much that we were poor as much as my parents were saving all their pennies so they could retire twenty years earlier than most and go on more adventures. We don’t have camping stories in our family; we have camping legends. The kind that are brought up at the rowdier family get-togethers. The kind that are a little embarrassing to some or all of the parties involved. The kind that make my childhood seem pretty awesome. One of my personal favorites is when it was so cold, my dad stuffed newspapers into our sleeping bags, turned on a kerosene heater, and then closed us up tight as sardines in our tent. Luckily, before he drifted off to a very heavy and long slumber, he realized that this particular chemical reaction was not in his family’s best interest. Fresh air does wonders for cognitive function. There was the trip where my folks loaded up a toddler, a preschooler, and a brand-new puppy into the first of several of our Volkswagen campers and headed north. We camped and hiked across Canada. Not the whole country, just most of it. Or at least that’s how I remembered it. If time could be measured by the number of times I sang “Where, oh where, has my little dog gone?” while riding on my dad’s shoulders, it was an epic journey. I believe that was the same outing when my father may or may not have gotten into some trouble with the border patrol over a partially concealed weapon. It was the wilderness, people. There are bears out there. At least that’s how the story legend goes.

So, I took the kids camping. At a music festival.

Though I had help setting up my camp (two tents because, it turns out, the four of us no longer fit into one), it was a bit exhausting. There were two tarps, two tents, four sleeping bags, two blankets, three pillow pets, four flashlights, a backpack (with emergency diapers to spare), and non-perishable groceries to last us through the winter. I ended up hauling all this gear from my car, through what can best be described as a swamp, up a ridge to my campsite. Felt like twenty trips. I think it was really five.

My oldest daughter, who enjoys my attention like most people enjoy air, was by my side the whole way. I think she may have carried her own pillow pet, but she mostly wanted to chat about all the things she wanted us to do together. “Can we go the festival now? Can you come with me? I want to buy one of those wiggly snakes I bought last year. You know, the one I lost the next day? Are the rope swings still there? Are my friends here yet? Did you bring any food that I like? How long until our tent is ready? I want to put my pillow pet in there…are you listening to me?” As they say in the south, bless it. I love my sweet, smart, sensitive six-year-old girl, but she does wear a body out.

Her twin brother is quite the opposite. He is going through a phase right now where he does not want to want me. He has discovered and embraced all things boy. He bare-knuckle fights with his friends while laughing hysterically. He is a little, shall we say obsessed, with video games. All video games. He can somehow locate a video game where I previously did not know one existed. He avoids me right after school these days because he already knows he’s going to get my disappointed look when he realizes that he has lost his brand-new blue sweatshirt, his lunchbox, his library book, and even his shoes once. We are definitely trying to figure out how to communicate in new ways that don’t frustrate us both. When we arrived at the camp site, I saw the back of his head as he ran down the trail with his tow-headed friend toward the tree fort. He left his shoes behind. I didn’t see him again for six hours. This made me sad. But, he was having fun and, hey, that’s what this whole trip was supposed to be about.

Meanwhile, my agreeable two year old sat closeby on a stump reciting her ABC’s and twirling her pigtails.

Throughout the day, these trends continued. Poppy wanted (more) money to buy a glowing festival ball; Charlie managed to cover the contents of (my) tent in mud when he went foraging for a granola bar. Poppy frequently asked how many hours, exactly, we had left before we had to go home the next day; Charlie made weapons out of sticks.

At the end of an exhausting day, I was surprised that everyone was so agreeable about diving into their sleeping bags at regular bed time. Tired is tired. The twins shared one of the tents and the baby and I made our nest in the other one two feet away. After the usual festival noise died down after midnight, I finally drifted off to sleep. I awakened with the first crack of lightning that temporarily blinded me. Then the roll of thunder.  A storm. Oh…good. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Nope, not supposed to. But it was happening. And boy did it happen. After the third of fourth split of lightning, I heard the first cry. It was Charlie.

“Mommy? Mommy! Where are you!? I can’t find you. Are you there?” I quietly assured him that I was right next door and that everything was going to be OK.  He was not convinced.

“Can I…come over there? Can I sleep with you?” I could hear the desperation in his voice.

After several frantic minutes of trying to unzip the tent, the fly, the other fly, and the other tent, I fetched the boy, carried him through the downpour, and brought him into my nest. The baby awakened only briefly to comment, “It’s loud in my ears.” Once we were situated in our damp pile, Charlie burrowed his head in the crook of my arm. He whispered, “Thanks, Mom. I love you.” I treasured it. It was my sweet boy again, stripped from his bravado, needing his mama.

I worried about Poppy in the lonely tent. I called to her, but she was soundly sleeping. I could even hear her rhythmic breathing in between the thunder claps. (She has a bit of a cold.) I asked her in the morning how in the world she could have slept through that storm. She said, “I woke up but I wasn’t scared. I knew you were right on the other side of my tent.” She sounded confident and self assured. She didn’t, in fact, need me to weather the storm. Though I missed snuggling with her, I was happy that she was able to breathe without me.

When the rain finally stopped, we emerged from our tents to find a soggy mess. Charlie plopped into the mud up to his ankles and slogged down the trail until he found his friend. They raced to the tree fort. Poppy, who was already dressed and even had on her shoes, daintily and cheerfully padded over to my tent. “Good morning, Mommy. What are we having for breakfast? Can you walk with me to the bathroom? Do you want to put on your baseball cap now? I think you could really use it. Have you seen my wooden snake and glowing festival ball?” The baby yawned. Back to normal.

As I broke down and hauled the two tents, the two tarps, the two blankets, the four sleeping bags, the pillow pets, the backpack, and the mostly uneaten groceries through the frosting-like mud back to the car, I realized the trip was worth it. I think we all got exactly what we needed.

Hyperventilation

I took the kids for a bike ride around the block before dinner tonight. We love to poke around with no particular agenda while we wait for Dad to come home from work. Poppy asks for these outings by suggesting, “Let’s go see what we can see today.” Now that the twins are a little more confident on their bicycles (with training wheels), they venture a little further away from me as I haul the baby in the wagon up the numerous hills in our neighborhood. I’m always a little nervous as there are always the cars that go too fast for a residential neighborhood. There are also lots of cars parked on the street which makes for tricky blind spots and obstructed visibility. The kids know the rules. Ride with traffic or, better yet, on the sidewalk. They always stop well before we approach the four-way intersection. They are good about stopping when I panic about (fill in the blank) and yell for them to wait for me to catch up. I must admit, these meandering outings were much more relaxing for me when it was the twins who were riding in the wagon. We all made it home with no trauma, but I was glad to let down my guard for a spell. I started making dinner. Russell was in the bedroom doing his Mr. Rogers routine with his shoes. Poppy decided to take a shower. And Charlie was playing with Mary Hazel. All was normal. Until it wasn’t. As I grabbed drinks out of the refrigerator, I heard a crash so loud that I started running toward the noise before my brain even processed what was happening. In the three seconds it took me to reach the twins’ bedroom, I braced myself for the worst thing I could imagine but tried to remain calm in order to process what I might find. As I crossed the threshold to the bedroom, I saw my five-year-old son trying to hold up the overturned dresser as his baby sister ran in the opposite direction out of harm’s way. I swooped in and grabbed him as the dresser settled into place. Reflecting back on it now, I remember him saying in a very calm voice, “Something fell, Mama.” Perhaps he was already trying to downplay the disaster to minimize possible disciplinary action or perhaps he was actually in shock himself. (A few minutes later, he cried mournfully and wandered from room to room.) My next move was to pick up the baby and hold her tightly to me while I rocked back and forth repeating, “It’s OK…it’s OK…it’s OK.” I was mostly reassuring myself as the baby didn’t seem to understand the severity of what had just happened. (“Things fall off, Mama?”) I couldn’t close my eyes because I immediately pictured all the alternate versions of what I could have found upon walking into that bedroom only seconds before. My heart was beating like a kick drum. That’s when I noticed that I was also hyperventilating. The only other time I can remember doing that was when the doctor on the phone told me by baby had cancer. I was that scared. There was an unspeakably tragic story last week about a local two-year-old boy who tried to reach something on the top of a dresser and was crushed when it shifted. I read this story as I rocked the baby to sleep last week and thought that I would rather die a thousand deaths than imagine something like that happening to my own child. You don’t think it could ever happen to you. This dresser never seemed unstable to me. I open and close the drawers a dozen times a day and never suspected that the massive piece of furniture could topple. I still have no idea how it did. We cannot even recreate a scenario in which it could have tipped over. The handyman is installing anchor bolts on Monday. I strongly suggest that anyone who has small children and large furniture do the same. I’m afraid this is not a warm, fuzzy, or witty post. I hesitated whether or not to even write about it. By writing about it, I thought it would make the event seem even more real. I certainly don’t want to worry my family with the “what ifs”. I decided to post it because I really want to make other moms and dads aware of something I never thought would happen in my own house. Call your own handyman and install some anchor bolts of your own. I’m not a big fan of hyperventilating and I get sick to my stomach when I think about what the mother of that little boy must be going through right now. We all have near misses. I was reminded today to minimize the risk.

Breathing in. Breathing out.

Project Kindness (Day 15)

Now that everyone is mostly recovered, we gladly took advantage of the fresh air outside the House of Vomit and were eager to walk to school this morning. Yesterday was trash day. I noticed (while I was returning two of my neighbors’ trash cans to the tops of their driveways) that there is more trash in the street on the day after trash day. Why is that? I can only assume that the stubbornest scraps escape somewhere between the garbage can opening and the trash compactor chomping. In an effort to make our walks to school more scenic, I hatched the plan for today’s little project. It required me enlisting the help of my minions devoted children. On the way out the door this morning, I handed them each a plastic grocery bag. (Yes, I know I shouldn’t own any of these sacks without a social conscience, but they come in handy when it’s time to change the litter box.) Anyway, they each got a bag. Even the baby. (Yes, I know I shouldn’t let a baby play with plastic bags, but they come in handy when you need her to be entertained for more than a couple of minutes, while under full supervision of course.) Anyway, they each got a bag. I grabbed the hand sanitizer and off we went. They seemed pretty keen on our “treasure hunt”. I have no idea where they came up with the idea that we were hunting for real treasure. I repeat, no idea. Certainly not from their doting mother. (Do I protest too much?) When they found out we were actually going to be collecting garbage in those bags, they weren’t exactly thrilled. In fact, someone said, “Seriously? Are we being punished?” Oh, sweet babes. How can you learn to be good stewards of the Earth without lots of practice, without getting your hands dirty? So I laid it on a bit thick, but I did want them to take part in the good deed of the day. My son was not bothered by the getting dirty part one bit. He took off first. After he put a few dented bottle caps and broken straws in his bag, his sister would not be outdone. She took this as a very personal competition. At every corner, she wanted to know exactly how many articles of trash her brother had bagged so she could make sure she didn’t fall behind. I kept saying that it wasn’t a competition, but she assured me that I was mistaken. I suppose the ends justified the means. When we were about a block away from school, I noticed that the final bell was due to ring in precisely four minutes. I picked up the pace and told the work crew that we had to hustle. My daughter, who hates being late as much as her mother, took off down the hill with her plastic bag full of garbage flapping behind her like a sad little kite. “You didn’t tell us that this project was going to get me a tardy slip!” she yelled as she pulled further and further away. We chased after her and made it to their classroom doors as the bell began to sound. “What am I supposed to do with all this trash now?!” she asked frantically with one foot already in the door. I relieved them of their stinky burdens and quickly sanitized their hands. Mission accomplished. It may not have been what they had in mind. It may not have been the most relaxing walk to school. I just hope they notice the walk to school tomorrow is just a little bit prettier. That is, if they agree to go.