Connecting Points

When mom died the family dynamics shifted. No one visited, except for the memorial. I was left alone to sort her stuff, pay the taxes and bills, and figure out what to do with her ashes. It was a lonely year. My brother and I were grieving. We talked, but it was hard. Then we had trouble getting organized to bury the ashes. I also felt as if my son had distanced himself. He was busy with work, music, and is in a committed relationship.

The crazy glue, the mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, had left us, and over the past year we each had to discover a new paradigm of behavior in the family. Slowly things began to shift.

In late March, a month before our trip to California, son’s girlfriend texted me a photo and said, “Here’s your new grand baby.” A puppy…yippee. Not exactly the species I was hoping for. But I recognized it for what it was…a connecting point. They invited us to bring Taz and meet the grand-dog and go to the dog park. First we had the California trip, but last Saturday we went to Seattle to meet Dio, a five-month-old border collie/golden retriever mix.

Son has trained Dio to sit at the end of hallway and wait until he calls him. He rolls over on command, sits, lies down, and waits patiently for a treat set down an inch from his nose. He’s crate-trained, the only way you could have what will be a 70-pound dog in a small apartment. Dio rings a bell to go out to pee. They take him for daily walks and to the dog park twice a week. They are also looking for a house with a yard.

The dog park is a nine-acre off-leash complex on Lake Washington where dogs run free, chase frisbees and each other, and hobnob with new pals. A 25-foot wide fenced lane (dog freeway) leads to the dog beach. Owners amble, while dogs sniff, visit and chase each other. It’s a blast. At the beach, water dogs chase frisbees and balls in the water. The other dogs cavort on the beach. Owners sit on benches or stand, as if watching their preschooler at a playground. It’s not a whole lot different.

Taz is crazy and fun, but more mature now. She’s friendly and well-socialized. If a dog annoys her, she moves on. She doesn’t annoy other dogs. And puppies, well, they aren’t that interesting. And Dio was, guess what,…acting like a puppy. Son said Dio was being a jerk. I said he has high expectations, since his dog is already better trained than Taz. I can’t imagine her waiting anywhere for anything unless she was chained to a post.

“He just has to grow up a bit,” I said. “You’ve done a great job training him.”

But J said we should leave the beach because Dio was misbehaving. A lot like a cranky preschooler. And son was setting good boundaries. I didn’t remind him how he used to act when I took him to the playground when he was a preschooler. We began the trek back to the car.

As we walked Taz engaged Dio, who had been preoccupied chasing and annoying other dogs. Tas is fast and agile and ran in great arcs, never allowing Dio to catch her. When he got close, she jumped over and around him. He would land flat-faced in the dirt and skid to stops narrowly missing Taz. It was clear she was teasing and teaching. Finally, he surrendered and rolled on his back in submission.

This is back at the apartment but an example of his submission. She’s not really barring her teeth, just playing.

We cheered and son said, “Good job, Taz.” He was happy to see her teaching him.

We went to lunch, the dogs played more at the apartment and we took photos. It was a great afternoon. A connecting point.

****

While in California my big brother gave me an art lesson. That might sound like a small thing, but brother has been an artist for 50 years and he teaches art. I’ve never asked for a lesson and he didn’t know I was interested. But recently I had a lesson with a friend. I wanted more.

The last morning we were there, my brother brought out his paints and some paper and taught me to mix water colors–Alizarin Crimson, French Ultramarine, New Gamboge, and Burnt Sienna (the primary colors, red, blue, yellow, and a brown). He said those colors are all I need to get started. He showed me what brand to buy and where. He showed me how to make color swatches and how to practice mixing the colors.

And, he gave me one of his paintbrushes. I felt like a little girl again–the same feeling as when he first introduced me to jazz music–Louie Prima, Dave Brubeck, Ella and others. It was just me and my big brother sharing his love of art or music with me. A connecting point.

A few nights ago I practiced mixing color. I ended up with six different shades of dirty brown and orange. It’s harder than it looks. But I have beginner’s mind … and my brother, a feeling I had missed for a long time. We were both sad when we parted at their house in California. But something had shifted. Now I can call and ask him how to mix watercolors. Or talk to him about politics, or a myriad of other things, rather than recount the latest drama with mom.

The connecting points have always been there, with my son and my brother, but when everything changed, everything changed. I wasn’t sure how or where to connect. It’s possible that the connection never left, but it has been transformed.  Our clan never fit the pictures of an intact clan, but it’s not fractured, as mom used to say and I believed. It’s not like the clans where the three children and eight grandchildren gather to visit grammy and grandpa and then the next day 142 photos go up on Facebook. But it’s my clan. And I am connected.

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Trade-offs

My son’s stepmother has been a friend ever since she was mediator between me and my ex while our son was growing up. He and I were like oil and water after our divorce and couldn’t have a conversation for a long time. When it came time to plan my son’s visitation with them, his wife and I hashed out the details.

My son was five when they married. When he was ten he asked me if it was okay to love her. “Of course,” I said. “There’s always enough love to go around. But please don’t call her mom.” I wondered if that was the right thing to say because they never became that close. But he does love her.

Two years ago when husband and I traveled home from California we stopped at their home in Southern Oregon. We ate dinner with them and they graciously offered us a bed for the night. The next morning around the breakfast island, ex-husband told me he was sorry he had been arrogant and selfish during our short marriage. I put my face in my hands and wept, not realizing that after 20 some years I still needed an apology from him. His wife said, “Go hug her.” And he did. I give him credit, but she is the reason.

When my ex left her for a season, she remained faithful to the vision of their marriage. They reconciled a year later and they are happily married. She and I became closer friends during that transition time for her. She has always loved my son unconditionally, and has been a steady and healing influence in our lives.

Last year, a few months before mom died, her sister died after a painful seven-year battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. My friend grieved her sister and when mom died, she was one of the first to call me and offer condolences. A few months later, she sent me three booklets, Journeying through Grief, by Kenneth Haugkwhich she had read. When husband and I went sailing in September, I tucked the booklets on a shelf in our sleeping berth and read from them each evening. They taught me more about grief than anything I had read until that point. I was reassured that I was right on track.

We hadn’t talked for months and I’m not sure she knew we were going to California to bury mom’s ashes. The first week we were back, which was the week before last, I wasn’t communicating with anyone. I didn’t want to come home and when we did I was slammed in the face with a fresh wave of grief. What is this, I asked myself. And why am I having heart palpitations? I thought working in the garden would calm my spirits, but it made me tired and breathless. I felt anxious looking at all the weeds. Our acre in the desert [we are in a green belt on the east side of the Cascade mountains, made green by water stored in reservoirs in the mountains 40 minutes from us) was overwhelming and unappealing.

I told husband I wanted to leave, to go somewhere else, move to a new city, start over, reinvent ourselves somewhere else–closer to my son. I felt as if all the purpose had been drained away now that mom was no longer here to care for. How can I feel this way?, I asked myself. It’s been a year and three months. What is wrong with me. Am I really “grieving too long,” as a friend told me at Christmas. I hunkered down, alone, not wanting to talk with anyone.

Then, five days after we arrived home I received another Haugk booklet from my friend, the fourth in the series. It’s title, besides the subtitle of Journeying through Grief, was Remembering and Rebuilding. 

We know about the year of the firsts, Haugk says. The first time we celebrate major holidays without our loved one. Then their birthday. Mother’s Day. And then the first anniversary of the loved one’s death. And then…guess effing what? [Haugk is a nice Christian man, so I’m sure he doesn’t say effing.) –it’s the year of the seconds. To which I respond, holy crap. The book is about the second year of grief. And I needed to read it.

The second year is not the same as the first year. There’s the buffer of time, of course. However, when I found mom’s glasses ten days ago, I was stunned, reminding me that the year of the seconds is also about being aware that the pain is still there. Memories slipping through that door askew knock us off balance. It’s okay.

A few days ago I thought about how, even at 101, mom was still able to engage in meaningful conversation. She was still able to pat me on the knee when she saw that I was upset and say, “It will all work out.” She was still able to argue and to discuss baseball, although she had lost patience with the constant Mariner team rebuilding project.She was still able to guess the Jeopardy questions, still able to get herself to meals, still able in so many ways. I miss her.

But the year of seconds offers more perspective. Reading back through my blog a few days ago, I was aware of all that I don’t miss. Taking care of mom was a hard slog on all levels – just like grief, come to think of it. I traded one hard slog for another, which is what life really is – trade-offs. I remember saying, “I am desperate for this to be over.” And I was. I also said, “I am ready to trade anticipated grief for the real thing.” Little did I know what I was saying.

I don’t usually offer advice, but if anyone is in a tough spot care taking – or simply living on an acre of arid land in the desert, which is similar – try not to begrudge the time spent there. It’s important work, whatever it is you’re doing.

Mom used to say, “Wherever you are is where God wants you.” I used to brush it off, but it’s true. Where you are is what is offered in the moment. (I’m not talking about those things we can consciously and do change in our lives.) Set boundaries, take care of yourself, don’t be a martyr, but as hard as it gets there will be a moment when it all ends and you’ll wonder why you ever wished it was over. I’ll try to take my own advice.

Door slightly askew…

Regardless of what I wrote in the last two posts, the burying and casting of the ash didn’t really provide closure.

There are people who say, “Well, now you have closure.” “You closed the circle.” “Now you are done taking care of mom.”

Halleluja.

In reality, there is no such thing as closure. The door doesn’t ever really close, as we think it might, or think it should.

It always rests slightly askew, memories dancing on the light filtering through the opening.

When I was on the Oregon Coast this past weekend, I was curious why I was so drawn to be there, to scatter her remaining ashes there. In fact, I had spent little time there with her, but it was a place she loved. That I love.

It’s the place I first recorded her oral history. It’s the place my son celebrated his second birthday and after we sang Happy Birthday, he said, “Mo. Mo.” (More, more.) I walked on the beach there with my mother and created a succulent garden on the north side of the house and walked in the woods.

But our visit there made me more curious about mom. How did she live alone in the house for a year after her third husband died? What was that like for her? I don’t think I ever asked? What made her move there to begin with? The house sits empty now which is a sad testament to the joy it brought to her.

When I came home I felt disoriented and tired. I’m having heart palpitations like I did on the trip. I thought that getting into the garden, pulling weeds, planting, would help me orient. Not yet.

Today I went through a set of plastic drawers that were mom’s that had been sitting on my patio tucked behind her dining room table under a tarp. In the drawers were bandaids and screwdrivers and thumbtacks and toothpaste and Oil of Olay and prophy brushes that have been sitting there the past year.

And her glasses. Well, it’s not as if I don’t have her dark glasses, still unable to do anything with them.

But now her reading glasses. The ones I used to clean for her because she couldn’t tell they were dirty.

What the hell do I do with her glasses? Burn them to ash and cast them into the sea? Bury them? Or simply stick them in with all the other things I don’t know what to do with?

There are always going to be the reminders, unless, as my friend suggested, I pack one suitcase and hightail it to Mexico.

I must learn to live with the door slightly askew.

Of course, I knew this. There’s no way I thought I would come home and not think about my mother ever again, or grieve her passing, or miss her.

But dammit. I didn’t need to find her glasses.

Take a chance…

After burying mom’s ashes in Glendale, which was, as I said, the right thing to do, I kept aside a small portion of the ashes to scatter on the Oregon Coast. It was going to be purely symbolic, a private thing for me. I wasn’t even going to write about it on the blog for everyone to read.

But here I am, unable to control myself. You’ll see why.

But first, the rest of the trip. It was great to see old friends. We visited one friend in Encinitas on the North San Diego Coast near where I used to live and stayed two nights.

We visited another friend in La Jolla…a well-known upscale beach town. I walked in the sand where I used to hang out as a teenager for the first time in what seemed like years. Actually, it has been. It was heaven.

The next day we drove to my brother and sister-in-law’s home in the Cuyamaca Mountains east of San Diego, near Julian…this is a view from their house.

We spent two nights and on mom’s birthday we toasted with bowls of chocolate ice cream and chocolate sauce.

From there we went to Anza Borrego desert where my nephew lives and played with my great-niece at the pool for two days.

Next was my 96-year-old aunt’s home. We spent two nights with her and read and relaxed and went to see The Hunger Games. She’s read all three of the Hunger Games novels and goes to contemporary movies every week (even thought she sleeps a lot during the movies).

From there we went to see my cousin who lives in the Bay area. She has lung cancer, but the day after our visit she learned that her tumor was reduced by 50 percent. Good news.

That night we stayed with husband’s brother’s in Walnut Creek. The next day we visited a botanical garden.

Rhododendron in bloom all over Northern Calif and Oregon.

Can you see the hummingbird?

Isn’t he cute. Yes, the hummingbird, but see below.

Agave

The next day we drove to Bodega, California to see our niece in the backwoods. It was a beautiful spot, and for us, a sweet respite from our travels, and the last family we would see before heading to the Oregon Coast for the final ceremony concerning mom’s ashes.

First the Redwoods. Awe is the only appropriate word. Even though I’ve been through there a number of times, they are worth it.

Then Oregon.

A bit of a backtrack here. When I was at my brother’s I was having heart palpitations. I’m not sure why, but I felt sad to be leaving them so soon, or I was tired, or…. I sometimes regret my move to Washington because I miss my family, knowing when I say that it doesn’t negate all the reasons I moved to begin with. But still…I was out of breath, my heart was racing, and so my brother recommended I see his small-town doctor. I did and he said, “Well, it’s most likely anxiety, but check with a cardiologist when you get home.” I continued to have palpitations for a few more days, but by the time we relaxed in the desert for a few days, I was feeling fine again. It only came up again once more in the botanical gardens with BIL, but I have no explanation for why that happened.

We arrived in Gold Beach on Friday. Gold Beach is where mom lived with her third husband (the man she dated for seven years from high school until the time she married my dad. When mom was widowed the second time, he divorced his wife of 40 years to marry mom. They bought a cedar home on six acres of woods overlooking the ocean and lived there for seven years until his death in 1987.) It was a happy place for her and a fitting place to leave the last of her ashes.

We stayed the night at a motel with a view and beach access. The next morning we went to a realtor’s office to see who owned mom’s property. As it turns out, it’s been in trust for the last 25 years since she sold it and no one lives on the property. I wish it was still in the family.

As I was talking to the realtor I began having chest pains–on the left side. Not palpitations and breathlessness. I sometimes get gas under my ribcage and I thought that was what had happened, but heart attack also crossed my mind.

I thought, truly, was my entire purpose here to take care of mom, and now that I’m scattering the last of her ashes, it’s my turn to go, too. Crazy thinking, I know. But this has been one hell of a journey.

We left the office and drove north along the coast to the property. A gate crossed the road, meaning that I was thwarted in my desire to see the house and go down on the beach and scatter her ashes. We headed back to town for gas, all the while thinking I might have husband stop at the hospital to say hi. The pains were continuing and I was belching a storm.

On the way back north from town (no, we didn’t stop at the hospital) there was a sign that said, “Old Coast Road.” I said, “Let’s go there, I bet there’s beach access.” We found Otter Point. We parked and walked out onto an enormous bluff that jutted into the ocean, with jagged rocks and steep cliffs and wind enough to scatter the ashes.

Mom’s property would have been just around the point and a little beyond.

And this is where I scattered the remaining ashes.

After I scattered them I put my arms around husband’s back and laid my cheek on his shoulder and wept. I was so relieved that I was still alive…and that the final ashes, which had been like a weight on the entire trip, were now free. And that I was free.

We walked back to the car and I took a few more photos. Once in the car and back to the main highway, I said, “No, wait, stop,” much like I did at the cemetery in Glendale when we started down the road and I realized there was something else to do and I went back for the photo of the bouquets on the graves. I said I needed a photo of the Otter Point sign to mark the spot.

While I was taking a picture, husband said, “Take a look at what is written on the road.”