Fill in the Blanks

On the sixth week after her father passed away, my oldest daughter presented me with a family portrait.

I told her I liked it very much. I like how Dad is standing tall, in front of the children, in a protective stance. I like how all the kids are huddled together, bonding, perhaps, in their collective memories.

I asked her, though, “Why don’t we have faces?”

She answered, “Because we just don’t know how we feel yet. We are ready to be laughing or crying at any moment. We just don’t know.”

Blank Spaces

Poppy (9)

On the sixth week after her father passed away, my youngest daughter presented me with a drawing.

I told her l liked it very much. I like how even though Mom and Dad are separated by space, they continue to share the warmth of a radiant heart enveloped in sunshine. I like how there is heaven and earth, stars and sun, and a calming symmetry between them.

I asked her, though, “Why don’t we have faces?”

She answered, “Because all the really important things you feel are on the inside.”

MH Drawing

MH (5)

 

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

 

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

Epiphany

My oldest daughter, who is not fond of change, gets the post-Christmas blues even more profoundly than our Elf on the Shelf when he is boxed up and stuffed back in the closet for the next eleven months. (If she knew this was Blackberry’s perennial fate, rather than returning to his cozy home with Santa at the North Pole, she might never recover.)

She says a prayer for Blackberry every December 24th because not only does his departure signal the beginning of the end of the holiday, she genuinely misses him and the magic he brings. She cries every year when the Christmas tree is left bashfully naked on the curb to be manhandled by city workers on recycling day. There are fewer tears with each passing year, but still. We extend Christmas as long as possible by waiting until Epiphany to take down the decorations. We bake cookies, build a fire, and recount our favorite holiday memories. The children also look forward to opening the very last present under the tree on Twelfth Night. Mostly we do this in an effort to ease our daughter back into the mundane world of routine as gradually as possible, where there is typically a stark lack of magic and wonder.

Last week, I rubbed her back and sang her to sleep because she was sad about returning to school. When I asked her why that made her sad, she whispered, “Time is just whooshing by and I won’t be little for much longer.” She is eight.

My instinct is to tell her not to worry. I realize this only makes her more anxious because she cannot help it.

In an attempt to cheer her up, I reminded her that we were planning a wonderful summer vacation with the extended family. She perked up a little.

“So, we’re going back to Pawleys Island again?” she asked hopefully.

“Oh, well…not this year,” I answered carefully. “We need a bigger house since there are more of us going.”

“So we’re not staying at Seacliff again?” she asked.

Seacliff, the splintered, weathered, oceanfront house we have visited so many times with the kids, is not fancy. It is exactly the opposite of fancy with its multitude of faded sticky notes advising you to jiggle the toilet handle so the water doesn’t “jump out” upon flushing, instructing you to lubricate the curtain rod with soap before attempting to take a shower, and warning you to never, ever, ever move the special screwdriver from atop the unreliable thermostat. (I am not exactly sure why, but I am not going to be the first one to find out.) Seacliff, the place we love to tease in the way only you can mock one of your own siblings, was the single house we could afford – in the offseason.

“No, Baby, not this year. We are going to stay in a cute house at St. Simons Island instead,” I encouraged. “It’s called Avonlea.”

“Oh,” she said flatly.

“Do you want to see pictures?” I offered.

“No, not really. I am sure it is fine.”

“Why are you sad?” I asked.

“Because it will be different,” she replied.

“Different doesn’t have to be bad,” I said. “There is a pool and bunk beds and a golf cart…”

“I understand,” she said. “But that house doesn’t have all our memories in it.”

I couldn’t let her know how much I understood exactly what she meant. If she sensed my wistfulness for the time when my toddling twins first ran down the beach, holding hands and laughing as the wind tangled their hair, I would never have a chance to convince her otherwise. This was the first place we vacationed after the baby’s first clean cancer scans. Countless fortified sandcastles destroyed by high tides, sweet Jack and Ruby who vacationed next door, ghost stories of The Gray Man; I had to check myself.

“That’s true,” I countered. “But we have the opportunity to make new memories, different ones.”

“Can you show me the pictures of the old house instead?” she sniffed. I obliged.

“See that blue couch? That’s where DanDaddy always reads us bedtime stories. And that screened-in porch is where we always eat our Cheerios in the mornings. And there’s the outside shower where we wash our treasures before we spread them out on the porch to dry. And remember the year you had Mary Hazel in your tummy and you didn’t even know it yet? That was the year we danced to The Beatles in the living room. And every night, we walked across the road to the creek to see the sunset and ring the bell on the dock. Remember, Mom?”

“Yes, I remember all those things,” I nodded and smiled. “What wonderful memories we made!”

“I don’t want it to be different,” she said. “I don’t want things to change.”

“We can’t stop things from changing,” I said. “We can remember the special things and look forward to new adventures at the same time.”

“I feel like the old house will be sad if we don’t come back.”

I wanted to tell her that the house wouldn’t know, that it doesn’t have feelings, but I didn’t.

“I’m afraid that I will forget everything,” she said.

What can a mother say to a daughter whose soul is older than weathered Seacliff itself?

Sometimes, I find myself overwhelmed when trying to take the weight of the world off my daughter’s shoulders. But I think the world is probably better off being inhabited by tender souls who feel too much. These are the artists, the thinkers, the poets, the saints. Would I take away all her worry in order for her to be a happier little girl? As her mother, yes, I probably would. But sometimes, even mothers do not get to choose.

I hope my daughter will grow up to understand one day that it wasn’t the house that made those vacations special; it was the fact that she loved and felt and noticed all the things she held important. Knowing she is blessed with her father’s keen memory and her mother’s sentimentality, I am hoping to read her memoir before I leave this world, knowing the reward for her anxiety just might be a beautiful thing.

Until then, I will continue to sweep up the piles of dried pine needles and wait until my daughter is happily distracted on a play date before I drag this year’s Christmas tree to the curb and throw away the last of the wrapping paper.

 

The Sweet Spot

The hustle and bustle of the holidays are weeks behind us now. The stores magically disappeared the work of elves before I could finish singing the last verse of the Twelve Days of Christmas. A new holiday is already upon us, drowning us with reminders in the forms of super-sized, heart-shaped Whitman’s Samplers and cheaply constructed plush toys bearing promises of eternal devotion. And my dear seven-year-old daughter repeating at regular intervals, “But it seems like it was just Christmas. I just want time to slow down.”

I don’t think I wanted time to slow down until I was at least 30, but my sensitive, soulful daughter has already encountered something that has taken me years to realize. There is a very delicate balance between enjoying the anticipation of something and dreading its passing.

The day after Thanksgiving, we took Blackberry the Elf down from his hibernation spot in the coat closet. We placed him on a high shelf and waited for the kids to discover him the next morning, signaling the official beginning of the Christmas season. As expected, they awakened with excitement and set out to find him. Pitter patter down the hardwood hallway they echoed.

“There he is!” Poppy shouted. “I found him!” It was only a few minutes later when I heard her sigh at the breakfast table, “Well, only a month until Blackberry has to go back to the North Pole. I sure will miss that ol’ elf.”

“Sweetie,” I encouraged. “He’s only just gotten here. It’s only just begun!”

“I know,” she replied. “But I already feel how much I’ll miss him when he’s gone.”

“Why don’t we focus on the positive here?” I tried. “Aren’t you looking forward to baking cookies, and singing carols, and spending family time in front of the fire?”

“Of course,” she answered sincerely. “But when I’m in the middle of doing all those things, then that means that it will all be over soon and I will miss Christmas when it’s gone. I just want it to be Christmas forever.”

The poor girl is stuck between looking forward and backward at the same time. And this is her character, not just during the holidays.

She expresses with regularity the following:

  • “I don’t want to go to college because that means you and Dad will be old.”
  • “I don’t want to turn eight because I like being seven just fine.”

  • “I don’t like your new iPhone case because you got the last one when I was five, and I’ll never be five again.”
  • “Can you still find your favorite curl, Mom? If it’s not there, will you still love me the same?”

  • “You remember when Daddy didn’t have a boo-boo leg? I am starting to forget and that makes me sad.”

She strives to make everything special. She is devoted to the wellbeing of her stuffed animals. She apologizes to her towel when she steps on it. She tells us every single night that we are the best parents she could have ever gotten; sometimes while tearing up.

She envelops every moment in time with a sentimental blanket, hoping desperately to preserve its perfection, at that particular instant.

This is a lot of pressure for a little girl. This is a lot of pressure for her mama.

I often encourage my oldest daughter to live in the moment, not to worry so much. To find her happy place. We take deep breaths before bed and talk about what it means to be at peace.

Her brother and sister are the opposite. They seem rarely to do anything but live in the moment. They are like playful puppies, happily distracted by whatever comes their way. They appear fun loving and carefree. They rarely reflect on the context of the moment they are so effortlessly devouring. At times, I think Poppy wishes she was more like that. I am not sure which is the better fate.

Is it truly possible to appreciate the fullness of a moment if you are not also keenly aware of its temporary nature?

My husband has kept a journal for years. Decades, actually. Often he is worried when he has not yet documented the events of the day in the form of a permanent record. Sometimes I suggest, “Maybe you could catch up on the journal another day? Maybe spend more time doing and less time writing about the doing?” He always replies, “But I’m afraid I might forget something.”

Yes, I get that. That speaks to me. I don’t want to forget the good stuff either. But there must be a balance, a neutral place, where the anticipation and the reflection meet in the middle and shake hands. Where joy and perspective agree to play nicely with one another.

I wish I could help sweet Poppy come to peace with her predicament. Loving things (like family, holidays, cars, old socks, and worn out pajamas) so wholly and completely sure does make a little body vulnerable to the passing of time.

I do not have the answers for her. But I will certainly ride on the see saw with her and strive to find that balance between happy and sad, hopeful and wistful, fulfilled and lonely. Maybe, just maybe, we can find that sweet spot together.

Where I’m From

Where I’m From
by Poppy H. (age 7)

I am from a house that has a smooth front porch and scratchy carpet.
I am from a house that has lots of toys and cats.
And a dog.

I am from a noisy radio.
I always hear the news.
I am from Dad telling me stories every night.
We love all the stories.
I am from me playing the piano C to G over and over again.

I am from root beer and saucy pizza.
(It is so cheesy.)
I am from the smell of cat litter and poop.
And also fresh crusty quiche and berries so juicy.

I am from warm hugs and kisses.
I am from Christmas,
Being the first one up and the last one asleep.
I am from cancer check-ups.
I am from laughing all the time.
I am from Slackajack and Butter – my favorite toys.

I am from love.

Self Portrait

The Lesson

On the way to school this morning, MH asked to “play” a lesson.

“You got it,” I answered. “What’ll it be today? Rhymes? Counting in Spanish?”

“Hmmm,” she pondered. “Opposites!”

A favorite.

“Sure thing,” I agreed. “OK, I’ll start.”

“Up?”

“Down.”

“Big?”

“Little.”

“Day?”

“Night.”

“Pretty?”

(Long pause from the back seat.)

“Pretty?” I repeated. I glanced in the rear view mirror to see Bug casting her eyes up to the ceiling with her pointer finger resting on her chin.

“I don’t know,” she finally confessed.

I laughed and offered, “Ugly is the opposite of pretty.”

She thought on this for a minute and then asked, “Is Poppy pretty?”

“I think your sister is beautiful,” I answered.

(Long pause from the back seat.)

“Am I pretty?” she asked.

“Without a doubt,” I replied.

“But I don’t look like Poppy at all,” she said. “She has brown hair and I have yellow. She has curls, and I don’t.”

“Right…” I was really hoping to stay one step ahead of my three year old here.

“So we’re opposites, right?”

“Yes, well…”

“But we’re both pretty?”

“Of course…”

“So no ugly then? Just different pretties?”

Oh my gosh. I’ve been schooled.

(Long pause from the front seat.)

“That would be correct.”

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