Dear Jan

janDear Jan,

You’ve been on my mind lately, flitting about the edges of thought, leaving a trail of light, a little like Tinkerbell. You had that pixie quality about you – but in fact, you were more like Peter Pan than Tinkerbell. A tomboy through and through, until you became a girly girl, determined to acquire boyfriends like some of us collected coins.

My memories of you are suffused with this late September light – golden, warm, with the knowledge that the days are getting shorter. This is my favorite time of year, a time when I feel closest to you. You left us too soon, but we’ve been over all that before. I miss you, but that’s been covered, too. After 5 years, there really isn’t a lot more I can say on that topic that I haven’t already screamed about, cried over, or painfully accepted. You are a missing piece I have to go on without and most of the time, I do just that. But today, on September 27, I get to take that piece out and look at it, marvel at it and remember how well we fit into the picture we’d created together. Me without you is still an equation I can’t solve for – the one algebra problem that has no answer. I’ll have to skip this assignment and take the F. And you know I never like failing.

I talk to you in my head a lot. I have these long conversations with you that are full of deep meaning, then I forget what I was thinking before I can write them down. You are with me when I walk the dog or I need to process something or want to share a thought. You don’t talk back – just so you know, it’s still one-sided – I haven’t gone completely nutso. It’s hard to change a half century of habit just because you’re gone.

Did you know we moved? I sent change of address notes, but didn’t have a place to send yours. We completely disrupted our family by selling our home. It felt like the right thing to do and most of the time, I’m still sure. But I wanted to talk to you or mom or dad about it many times, to be reassured I was making a good decision, but I had to pull myself up by my own bootstraps and soldier on. There’s nothing like really feeling you are the grown up when your backup team is gone.. I still miss hearing you tell me you are sure I’m doing the right thing. You made me feel invincible and brave and capable, like I had superpowers. I need to go cape shopping, I guess, because I still feel like the little sister who wants approval.

Sometimes I worry that I’ve forgotten where your final resting place is. I know I have it somewhere, but I worry I’ve lost you beyond the metaphysical loss. It’s funny how these details come back and haunt me in a way you never do. You are everywhere and nowhere – you are a philosophy, a memory, a way of being. You are the dappled light I dance in on the water’s edge, the nutmeg aroma that means something delicious is baking, the smile from a stranger that makes my heart full.

I’ve lived longer than you now. I guess that makes me the older sister, doesn’t it? I passed you on April 1. I really intend to make every day count, but some days, I’m just a lump on a couch being lazy. I hope you understand – while I appreciate each day, I’m just not tearing things up all the time. Let’s pretend I’m thinking deep thoughts while I sit there. That might make me feel better.

I miss you, Jannie. Thanks for being my sister, my friend, my confidante, and my cheerleader.  You will be in my heart until my last breath.

Your sis,

Erin

jankeverin

Friday Flash Fiction

bultot

Photo Courtesy of Roger Bultot

Glowering clouds threaten rain – this scene looks like one I’d see here in the Pacific Northwest, but I have a feeling this was taken elsewhere.

Word count: 100

Lines of Music

The gloomy clouds made the village seem more cantankerous than usual. Mary trudged along the path toward market, Anna at her side, skipping along, humming.

‘What’s that song, Anna? It’s a lovely tune.’ Listening, Mary’s mood lightened.

‘It’s the birds, gramma. See?’ Anna pointed to the birds on the wires above.

‘They aren’t singing – you are!’

‘No, silly – they are the music!’ Anna laughed, tripping further ahead.

Mary marveled. They did look like notes on a musical staff. Shaking her head, she was smiling as they reached the center of town, feeling as if the sun had suddenly come out.

To see other stories, please visit the Rochelle Wisoff-Fields site here.

© Erin Leary

Tribute to my Mom

To my mother, on her 87th birthday, with love.

You are always in our hearts. Today, I reflect on the legacy you’ve left us and the joy your smile brought to so many.

Time Marches On

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” (Kahlil Gibran)

These words gave me a great deal of comfort when my dad died two years ago.  They summed up how it felt to lose someone who brought you great joy in your life.  That joy is made all that much more poignant by the fact that it is now gone.

I’ve been struggling with a multitude of feelings this past week.  The simplest things, like going to the Hallmark store to buy a card for a coworker, left me feeling morose instead of uplifted.  I was hit by the fact that I would have been, in the past, buying all sorts of cards – a birthday card for my dad’s birthday today, a mother’s day card for my mom, an anniversary card for them both – and I felt my loss profoundly.  This time of year is a tricky one to navigate – lots of significant days to notice what has changed.  I miss my dad, I miss my parents, I miss my sister.  It comes to me in waves and I am reminded how fresh the wounds still are.   No surprise there, really.  Just a part of what it takes to get through this maze of grief. 

The card I bought was for our office administrator.   Wednesday was the Office Professional’s day, and in recognition of that, I took her to lunch and had a card for people to sign in appreciation.  One of the things I have done for the past several years is to buy a gift for each of the administrators on our floor.  It is a small gesture of gratitude for the work they do – even though they don’t work directly for me, they are always helpful and pleasant. One of them asked me why I do it – why do I go out of my way to do that for them?  And I thought about it and I realized that it was my dad’s doing.  He taught me to take the time to reach out to people and make the human connection.  He told me that when you do, you never know what it might mean to that person and more importantly, what it can do for you.  I explained that to her and was reminded again of the legacy my dad left.  It is one way I can honor him through carrying on his tradition and it feels good to continue to plant those seeds of caring whenever I can. 

Today, I saw some glorious trees bursting into their spring time best, glowing from the sunlight that hit them.  The sky behind them was dark and stormy, and the contrast of light and dark made the trees look especially lovely and vivid.  It struck me then – it is the contrast that made them so.  Light and dark, joy and sorrow – it takes one to make the other stand out. I am lucky to feel the way I did about my father and I miss him dearly.  He lives on in the seeds of kindness he sowed and I will continue on in kind, in honor of his memory.

Dropping Like Flies

Three years ago, if someone asked me if there was any cancer in my family history, I would have said no.  Now we find out we are riddled with it.  Sure, there were a couple of cases in my extended family, but in my immediate family, we’d been lucky.  Only Jan’s brush with melanoma 25 years ago was noted.  We felt pretty fortunate about how healthy we’d been.

Today, three out of the seven of my immediate family members are gone, all to cancer – two to pancreatic cancer and one to neuroendocrine cancer, unknown in origin.  And that boggles my mind.  How did we get to this point?

It seems as though this all tracks back to Aunt Betty’s decline in 2007.  That feels like the beginning of it all.  We’d lost Uncle Keith the year before and that was sad, but I could see Betty was in trouble at her last Labor Day event.  She was frail and low energy, two things she normally was not, even at 90.  I spent the fall driving down on Saturdays to see her and watched her fade away.  She passed away in November and losing her was hard for me.  She was such a big part of my life and I felt lost at the idea of a world without her. Now, in hindsight, going to her funeral feels like a warm up for what was to come. 

Jan was diagnosed less than a year later with pancreatic cancer.  It was a death sentence and we all knew it.  The big question was “how long?”  I felt it deep in my bones and ached at the idea of losing Jan, too.  I resolved to do my best to be there for her and we spent some wonderful hours together.  Through it all, we became closer than ever. 

Dad was diagnosed almost a year to the day after Jan.  He had been praying to take her cancer away – he volunteered himself to go in her place, so to have this now be a shared disease was almost too much to take.  I felt as though he was going to be OK – that his tumor was operable and he would be able to get through it.  What I didn’t factor in to my thinking was his age.  At 82, he was not really able to tolerate the treatments as well as Jan did.  His first round of treatment was meant to shrink the tumor so they could remove it.  He handled that fairly well, at least right up to the end.  He landed in the hospital with kidney failure in December.  Processing the chemo toxins through his kidneys, which were scarred, was too much for them to handle.  Putting him on a second round of chemo seemed foolhardy, but it provided the needed hope that a cure could be achieved.  He struggled through this round and seemed to diminish before our eyes.  His death in May seemed sudden, considering the goals of his treatment.

Mom’s diagnosis came out of the blue.  She had slowed down a lot in the last few years, but we attributed it to age and the fact that dad had done so much for her.  When she had to become his caregiver, it was rough on her.  She found herself hurting a lot – her hip was troubling her and getting up and down from her chair was hard. She was convinced she had bursitis and it would have to wait – she was busy caring for dad.  At times, mom lost her patience with him and then felt guilty about it.  She told me that it was hard to not feel upset at having to do so much – especially when it hurt her to do it.  Dad felt bad about needing so much help and at times, I felt like a mediator between them.  After dad died, I talked often with mom on the phone and she had a lot of remorse over her impatience with him.  I let her talk and assured her that he understood.  I knew, though, that she felt she’d let him down.  Then, in December, her bursitis was suddenly diagnosed as a tumor on her spine and she quickly changed from a woman with the aches and pains of aging to a cancer victim herself.  She had been struggling with her own internal agonies throughout dad’s illness – no wonder things had been hard for her.  In one of our conversations, I pointed this out and it then hit her – she had been taking care of dad when she was suffering herself.  It helped ease her guilt and she forgave herself for not being able to do more for him.

She immediately rejected all treatments except palliative radiation for the pain.  She did not want what dad had gone through and since her cancer was terminal, she saw no reason to prolong things.  Pragmatic to the end, she felt this was exactly what she needed – she was ready to be with dad and saw this as her path out.  I respected her decision and hoped it was not going to be too hard on her – and the rest of us.  Suddenly, instead of mapping out the last years of her life, we were dealing with what to do once she was gone.  It was a whirlwind six weeks that seemed to go by in a flash and yet take forever.  Each visit, each phone call, I wondered if it would be the last.  I was torn between wanting her to be there for me and wanting her to be where I knew she wanted to be – with dad.  It was difficult, but since it was what she wanted, it had to be OK.

On New Year’s Eve, I missed a call from my cousin.  I assumed she was calling to check on mom.  She called again the next day and told me her father, Paul, my dad’s brother had died.  His death was completely out of the blue – he’d been outside in the yard doing something and collapsed. At that point, I felt like a sponge that was already so full of water that it couldn’t take in more.  I could barely process what had happened and how to deal with it.  Mom was devastated and asked me to write a note forher to Aunt Sally expressing her sympathy.  When I talked to mom in early January, she said to me “we’re dropping like flies, aren’t we?”  And I had to agree, we were. 

Jan, my dear, sweet Jan – she was the one we all hoped would beat the odds.  She lived through so much the past three years and kept her attitude up all the while.  I only once saw her break down – and that was early in her treatment when her white cell count was too low for her to have chemo.  She felt she’d failed a test and let people down.  She sobbed in my arms then, and I had to tell myself not to break down, too.  I wanted to be strong for her, but I was dying inside.  I got to my car and fell apart, able then to let out my own fears and frustration.  Even through her intense protocol in her second year, she was positive.  She was staying with me then, and after her interferon treatments, she would shake with fever and moan in her room.  I hovered near the door, feeling inadequate and impotent to help her.  I would bring her a heating pad and rub her back, making sure she was as comfortable as possible.  It was a glimpse in to what George and mom went through and made me better able to understand the strain. 

Mom and dad seemed to have made a pact with God to go before Jan.  Part of me hoped that the deal they’d struck was that they would go in her place – to be the sacrifice they hoped they could be and save Jan. It seemed that surely the universe must see that as a fair deal.  But it wasn’t to be – Jan went from doing pretty well this summer to being unable to keep food down in a few short weeks.  That signaled the beginning of the end.  I was able to spend the last four days of her life with her, which will forever be a gift.  I had the conversations with her that she wanted to have, I massaged her with lotion, lifted her slight weight in to bed and helped her feel as good as possible.  I got good at rubbing her back where it ached and tried to do what she needed most – whatever that was.  I was a witness to the true love she shared with George and saw how deeply entwined their souls were. It was beautiful to behold.  I kept my promise to mom that I would be there for Jan and take care of her.  I kept my promise to Jan that I would be with her at the end.  I felt grateful that she allowed me that.

Now the worst has happened.  Now what?  After three years of cancer, how does my life go on?  In the space of four years, I’ve lost five amazing people from my life – Betty, Dad, Paul, Mom and Jan.  I am bereft.  I am running on empty.  What takes the place in my life where the worry and care has been?  How do I get back to me – and figure out what the new normal is? I am tired of sympathy – the cards, calls, flowers, and pity – sick to death of death.  And yet, I feel like screaming at people “Do you have any idea what I’ve been through? How hard this has been to stay on track and keep things together? Do you have a clue??” Because the answer would be no, they don’t.  No one but I know what it’s like to live in my skin.  And only a handful of people really know how hard it’s been. 

I keep reminding myself that this didn’t just happen to me – it happened to our whole family and we are all affected.  But it feels so personal – and I feel so much pain at times it is overwhelming.  And then, I pick myself up, as a true stoic Norwegian would, kick myself in the butt and carry on.  It’s how I was raised and it’s what I know.  I have to figure out how to operate in a world where I’ve lost my center and my lifelines.  I have to figure out how to be my own center and be a lifeline to others when needed.  I want to fill the voids in my life with people who understand and can support me when I am hurting. 

It is going to take a lot of time before I can look back on all this and feel like I’ve survived.  After a series of body blows like this, getting up off the mat and standing upright feels risky.  There’s always another one coming along and it could be worse.  I feel shell-shocked and need to be protected somehow.  The idea of crawling into a cave and keeping my back to the wall sounds good – except that I’m claustrophobic, so I guess that won’t work.  For now, I count each day a success when I get up and do what I am supposed to do and don’t wallow.  I feel good when I acknowledge the pain but don’t let it overtake me.  I feel better when I reach out to connect for some compassion and comfort from people who care rather than keeping it to myself.  The twist is that I used to call mom, dad, and Jan for that – they were my top three go-to people and now I have to reach out to others. 

It is a process, they say. The Grief Process.  The challenge is, I never got through an entire process of one loss before starting the next one.  My processes are all mixed together and it makes it hard to know what I’m feeling for whom.  I guess I’ll have to treat it like a river, with different channels that move at different rates.  Sometimes I’ll be in one and then move to another.  I’ll let the current carry me for awhile before I decide to swim.  For now, I have to let things be, put down my load, and focus on getting through the day well.

Four years ago, I hadn’t experienced significant loss.  Today, I have my black belt in care giving, caretaking, and grief.  I have cleaned out more closets than I care to think about. I have held the hands of my dearest loved ones and said goodbye.  I have done what needed to be done and loved without fear.  I have seen death and felt at peace.  I took the body blows, I have kept my head, and I have felt the pain.  I will keep getting back up because I have no other choice.  That is who I am.

Sharing With Others

When you get hit like this with an overwhelming loss, others reach out to you to ask how to handle things for themselves.  I have found that helping others helps me.  I am better able to get perspective on what I’ve been through by looking for ways to share it with someone else.  In an email to a college classmate in June, I offered this:

First of all, I’m so very sorry for your loss. I understand how lost you feel. Having a parent go suddenly is so very disorienting, even when they are at an age when people assume they’ve lived a “long life”. Like you, I wanted more – and with my mom, expected it! Her mom and sister both lived in to their 90s, so I was thinking that mom had another 10 years ahead. It was such a shock to have her go so soon after dad.

It’s taken me a full year to get through a lot of this. Feeling normal is just now something I can do. I spent a lot of days “acting as if” – meaning I would try to be normal on the outside while hurting. I think in some respects it is easier with both parents gone, as I no longer am worrying about how my mom is doing. It’s strange, but there’s comfort in that thought. Not that I would have wished for that outcome, but you find solace in the strangest things.

I wear my mom and dad’s wedding rings on a chain when I need them most. As one of 5 kids, I don’t presume to own them, but each time I’ve offered them to one of my siblings, they’ve said they wanted me to still hang on to them. It helps me feel their presence in a tangible way. I talk to them, too – just to tell them I am missing them. Not in a whack-a-doodle way, but in a healthy, missing you way. 🙂

I’ve used writing to help me process things. I have a series of short essays I’ve written that give me a chance to reflect on how this has been. I’ve reached out to my brothers and sisters and leaned on them when I’ve needed to share. I’ve taken up traditions that were my parents and am trying to carry them on. Staying connected to what mattered to them most – family and relationships – makes me feel like I am honoring them in the best way possible.

I know the expression “one day at a time” is probably the last thing you want to hear, but it is one that works. Take each day for what it is – if you feel sad, be sad. If you need to connect, find a way. If you are missing her, go through pictures and remember the wonderful times – like you did today, here. That will help keep you afloat. Then slowly, you find it gets easier. Your kids will be there to distract you – and give you an outlet to pour your love in to. Be kind and patient with yourself as you go through this year and know you’re not alone.

If you ever want to read some of what I’ve written, I’d be happy to share. I am here to be a shoulder for you to lean on – and hope you know I care.

The more we reach out to another person, the more connections we maintain and those connections are critical to feeling better.

A letter to family and friends

I wanted to write to you to let you know where things stand in my yearlong effort to sort out my life and relationship.  It has been the year from hell.  I have been hurt, then hurt more, and hurt again.  I have hung on, looking for things to get better in the future.  While I have no guarantees to be free from hurt ever again, I have come to terms with what I have control over – myself. 

My relationship with Seth! and the pain that came a year ago today was the part of this year that was the most difficult to accept.  It was unnecessary and it got in the way of dealing with the real pain of losing my dad and then mom.   It was confusing and hurtful – and unexpected after all we’d been through.  My first reaction was to run.  Then I went numb.  I spent a lot of time and emotional energy figuring out what I wanted to do and what I needed.  My goal, through all of this, has been to stay true to my needs and to move things to a better place, not to go back to what had been.

All along, I said I would know what I needed to know when it was time.  I couldn’t define it any better than that, but I hung in there, listening to my heart and my gut.  It has taken this long because that is how it was meant to be – a full year of seeking and waiting for the direction I needed.  I’ve processed anger, sadness, shock, and more sadness.  In the end, I know this – I am staying true to my needs and I am moving forward.  In that future, I am choosing to stay with Seth!.  I have two basic choices – leave, and know that what is to come will be painful or stay and hope for things to improve.  I am choosing hope and in this choice, I am setting up healthy expectations for our future together.  That includes a solid framework to rebuild trust on and a plan that outlines what happens if there is a breach of trust again.  I have finally felt at a gut level that there was a fundamental change in him that gives me a reason to step out on faith.

Fifteen years ago, I said that marriage was for better or worse.  I did not want to walk away without trying.  We promised that we would not crash and burn again and I revisited the church where we made that promise recently, and all the hope of that moment came back to me.  I can hope again – and still be realistic about how to be safe and protected.  It is something that means a lot to me – to try for the real relationship that I always wanted and have yet to achieve.  Walking away means I won’t get there.  I have to try.

Know that I do this with intention and with my eyes open.  I know the risks involved.  But know also that I am strong – I know that after this year, I am made of stern stuff and will not fold.  I have faith that what grows out of the ruins can be wonderful – the love that I have hoped for and needed in my life.  I am asking you to support me in my choice.  I hope that you can.  I will always stay true to what I want, what I deserve, and what I expect from the person I love.  Thank you for your love and support through all of this.  I know I couldn’t have made it without that.