Tag Archives: loss of a parent

Why Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Death Matters to Me

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I recently received a note from someone important to me stating that Philip Seymour Hoffman was a self-interested bum.

Immediately, I could feel my heart pump harder and faster; I felt my throat thicken in defense and anger against the indictment. I don’t normally touch current events or popular culture news; it often gets me into trouble, but this one … I can’t step away from it. His death touched me profoundly, probably because I am still grieving the death of my own mother, and her epic battle with addiction, just five months ago yesterday.

My reaction is primitive; I can’t explain why it was so strong other than to plainly state that PSH was not a bum. He was a depressed, misunderstood and addicted man whose talent knew no bounds and whose demons were equally limitless.

He was an addict. After 22 years of sobriety, he relapsed in May 2013. He was working on getting cleaned up. He was a father of three kids; he did not marry his long-time lover and I suppose to this person who wrote me that note, this means he was a bum. Because he didn’t marry her. I can’t speak to his morality and the choices he made; maybe Ms. O’Donnell, his lover and the mother of his three young children didn’t want to marry him; maybe she saw his temperamental side; maybe she was afraid he would be unreliable and unsafe, so instead of imposing his whims and moods on his children, she chose to protect them and love them by putting them first while allowing her beloved to pursue his craft and live how he chose. She is devastated by this news.

We can’t sit here in judgment and throw horribly weighted and lopsided stones from our glass castles. Let me be clear about this, because this post is getting a lot of traffic: my feelings have nothing to do with his celebrity status. I will miss him because he made every film he was in better, but this has nothing to do with “star power.”

Addiction is a horrible scourge on all of humanity. My reaction to the indictment of his being a bum  — a holier-than-thou, caustic attitude — tapped a nerve that runs deeply within my being. To me PSH represents everyone dealing with addiction; everyone trying to figure out life; everyone who’d love to feel good about themselves in a true and real way, internally, that no external accolade, award, money, fame, power, or talent can provide.

I wish … God how I wish my mother had gotten her ducks in a row. She suffered tragically. She was a beautiful woman with amazing intellect, and a great big heart and vision which were devoted to something other than the world she lived in, but she was a human. She was addicted. PSH was a human. He was not a bum. Addicts are not bums. They are just like you and me. They are deeply troubled and they need our compassion, not an indictment. Compassion is not enabling. All I know is that compassion just isn’t hate.

Thank you.

ps – update: i continue my rant here: Let Me Clear Up Something

Grief: Body Memory, E-mail as Archivist

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The body knows. It knows the angle of the sun, the fullness of the trees, the scent of the air, the sharpness of the light, and the grace of the wind. Even if the events are different, if a person is missing and another is on the way, the body knows. And when the body senses these things, again, it knows what to do even if your mind and your heart fight savagely, like a feral dog, to stay in the present, to stay busy, to stay distracted, to do anything but go back into that cave of grief and face the reality of your absent loved one.

I wasn’t sure, but I suspected it; I knew it was either the first weekend or the second weekend in February last year. I knew it was coming in a sensuous way, but I had no clue, absolutely as though a fact, intellectually. I just had that sense of awareness, of knowing and the unrelenting waves of nostalgia, heaviness and “cling” (it’s the best word I can muster) that came and went at me like echoes in a canyon.

Last year, February 2 and 3, 2013, was the last time my entire family of origin and their families gathered in my house. I remember it as if it happened last night. I remember waking that morning, eager for the arrival of my brothers, their wives and their children. I remember making sure the sheets were on the beds, the towels in the rooms and that we had enough mac and cheese and strawberries for the kids.

Each year, our families do different things on actual Christmas, so we’ve made a tradition, over the last couple decades to celebrate “second Christmas” which I now recognize as my third favorite holiday ever. It’s usually in late January or February. We like to push it out a little later into the year because we all see each other for Thanksgiving.

I’d like to think it’s the big holidays that would do me in regarding my mother’s absence. Thanksgiving, Easter, Bastille Day. That was sort of a joke, Bastille Day. I threw it in there for comic relief, but then I realized after I typed it that it was actually the last time I saw her alive last year. We got together that day last year to celebrate my nephew’s and brother’s birthday at my house even though they were still in NY. It was the dinner that I planned the Wednesday before with an odd sense of urgency and deliberation. I never “had” to have my parents over for dinner like I had to that night. Then scant six weeks later, after my yoga retreat and a final summer vacation, she was gone.

We left our outdoor lights on the bushes out front because it was still Christmas to us. It snowed that night. I couldn’t believe it.

from my Facebook page last year.

from my Facebook page last year.

Second Christmas of 2013 was special to me, I didn’t know why, but I did my best at one moment to announce to the family — despite my brothers’ imminent mockery and my own self-consciousness at the sappiness of it all — that I couldn’t have imagined my heart fuller than at that moment: all my loved ones were, as John Mayer sings in “Stop this Train”, “safe and sound”:

Oh well now once in a while,

When it’s good and it feels like it should

And they’re all still around

And you’re still safe and sound

And you don’t miss a thing

And so you cry when you’re driving away in the dark,

Singing, ‘stop this train, I want to get off and go back home again…

Which is a song I hadn’t ever heard, despite my affection for John Mayer, until Second Christmas this year at my brother’s house and of course when I heard it, I pretty much fell to my knees emotionally. So naturally, to help me usher and attend to all these feelings I’m feeling these days, I listen to it, nod my head, sniffle and it soothes me.

It began last week, the nostalgia. I wrote to my son on his 13th birthday, again citing the Mayer song. I thought writing to him would soothe this beast, ease my pain, but it didn’t.

So then I wrote to an eFriend I met last fall after her mother died, telling her about how I was doing and closed that note, “Good thoughts are headed toward you from me.” That didn’t do it. Then I heard from a beloved cousin with whom I’ve grown amazingly and naturally close since summer, she’s like a combo sister auntie mom to me. I told her what I’d been up to: the new puppy, that I’m teaching yoga to the high school rowers now and working on my certification and all that and she asked me, in the most simple, clear and loving way, “how are you doing with your bereavement?” and I realized (even though I knew it all along) that she’s no dummy: I’m throwing all these things in my path to distract me from my pain.

But the thing is: this stuff comes at you, as your body knows, out of nowhere and if you’re not ready for it (and who is ready for an emotional sucker punch, you tell me) you fall to your soft places, curl up and cry unfettered sobs wishing that things weren’t the way they are. That they were somehow different — all along different in fact — but that your Now is unreconcilable; it’s as unreconcilable as the Then you wish were different, kinder, gentler.

Then you realize with a full heart, heavy lungs and wet eyes, that if your past were different then your now would be too. You can’t have it all: a functional mother and attendant father and a path of self-destruction which led you to the life you’ve attained now… that your children would not be here because your mate wouldn’t have stepped into your life when he did because you would’ve gone to a different college entirely if your life were somehow different, kinder, gentler, more orderly and rational.

Dovetailing. It’s all this fate stuff that happens to us when we allow ourselves to see it all with the glorious acumen and vision of a Monday morning quarterback.

Doesn’t matter. Would you trade it all? Would you trade it for just maybe one less crisis in your youth? Maybe one less heartache? One less battle with your parent that would’ve gotten you into the shower earlier? Are these the George Bailey (“It’s a Wonderful Life”) moments of our lives: that the one moment earlier in the shower before leaving for English 348 affected what parking spot we got at college, which determined the length of the walk to the car which had affected who’d we see in passing through the doorway at work who’d invited us to a party where we met our mate? I look back now and say, “No. I guess I wouldn’t trade it all.”

. . . . .

The amount of flotsam in my email inbox was absurd last week. I had close to 3,500 messages in it; something like 850 of them unread. Most of the missives are subscriptions and retailer content. Just before I went on the yoga retreat in July, I emptied it to somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 messages.

I culled the inbox on Friday, to a manageable level, 1100 messages. I know that’s still high, it was an all-day affair requiring numerous bathroom and stretch breaks. I have now the same emails in the box that I had a hard time reconciling in July: notes from my family about my mother’s health and the conversations we had with my father a year ago today about his goals and ideas for the next 18 months, 12 of which have slipped through our hands like flaming kerosene, and the conversations going forward about how to best attend to her and his goals. I don’t know what to do with those notes.

The Chinese use the same symbol for “crisis” as they do for “opportunity.”

That email traffic created a new crisis (on one hand) and opportunity (in the other hand) for me. It was at that point that my father stopped speaking with me because I had drawn a line: After I gave him all the same information he’d requested three years prior and did nothing with, I told him to perform just one task and then I would help. This pattern of his, looking like he was doing Task A while really doing Task K was a long-held tactic of his — who can blame him? It’s human nature to completely avoid what you don’t want to do. The short version is this: it took a while.

The opportunity was that my mother and I started speaking more, as we used to, conspiratorially about my father and how curmudgeonly and obstinate he would be. He would be almost petulant like a child at times. If he’s reading this, he can close his laptop. I have suppressed a lot of this for at least one year and it’s just going to spill out of me somewhere even though I’m tempering a lot of it, so …

Then I began EMDR therapy to deal with the jolts and aftershocks of heavy emotional baggage, torpedoing through the abyss as though finally freed from the cargo holds of the Titanic.

While feeling all the feelings last week, I said to my husband, “The last time I remember feeling any sense of peace and purpose and composure in this house was immediately after my return from the yoga retreat. I did some sadhana, and then I went into the hot tub all by myself and chanted for half an hour. That was the last time I felt stable. Since then, it’s as though my life has literally turned upside down.”

This upside-downedness is ok; it’s how life is away from the Tibetan mountain top.

This next year, all the way through until the anniversary of my mother’s death on Labor Day, is going to be extremely tender for me; I can feel it already. My body knows; it is preparing me, and I best listen, to undergo and re-experience the final six months of my mother’s life and how I managed it; to honor it as it affected me while also reinventing it for myself without her. It’s right there: a pool of real, a puddle of authenticity that I am afraid to drown in.

If one thing’s super clear to me now: it’s the necessity to write about it. I haven’t touched my grief, actively, in months.

Stop this train.

Thank you.

Grief: Reality, Health & Fairness

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My heart goes out to those affected by the Navy Yard shooting today. Living in Washington, D.C., is not without its risks. I am tired of all the violence. I am tired of people hating.

I just wanted to get that off my chest.

So it’s been two weeks since Mom died and I’m feeling OK. I owe a lot of how I’m feeling right now to Gatorade. I have written about an unquenchable thirst, about how I felt every fluid in my body evaporate the moment the police officer told me and my husband and my father in the modest front hall of his home that my mother had not survived.

I sit here again, a fortnight later, and I still have trouble accessing the algebra, the numbers, the algorithm and the formula that makes that statement make sense. “Your mother did not survive.” I see the words, I know what they mean separately; I even know what they mean in a stream like that and I still think it’s about someone else.

It’s not so much that I have a hard time accepting the news. That day, I absolutely had a hard time accepting the news, but I’m better with it now; it’s that there’s this part of me that’s sorta like, “Oh.” Like the kind of detached “Oh” you’d say in reply to witnessing a car drive into a garage door, or the kind of detached “Oh” you’d say after watching crystal chandelier crashing on a marble floor. It’s a numb “Oh.” It’s the worst kind of “Oh.” It’s the powerless “Oh.” It’s the detached “Oh” — different from the non-attached “Oh.”

Processing.

I really didn’t plan to write what I wrote above about “Oh.” So I added the word, “Reality” to the headline.

I planned to write about the Gatorade and how it helped me immensely and how even after all these years of athleticism and health awareness and nutrition and fitness that I’d forget the one thing to do that sustains us all: properly hydrate.

I don’t mean to confuse things: I have drunk a sea of water, juice, herbal teas, smoothies, the rest. None of it did anything. I still felt like I had powder in my mouth. My bodily functions were telling me all systems were go; clear pee, frequent flushing, all that (I’m done now). Someone asked me about coconut water. I drink it fairly often and I tried it and it didn’t work for me. It left my mouth unhappy. Everyone’s different, so if you dig coconut water, go for it.

After the first week, I was sleeping remarkably well, considering the situation. I was glad to be back in my own digs. I love my cousins like the sun loves the moon, but I was ready for my own couch. I miss them tremendously now; I think our ancestors had it right with the communal living and the tents and all that. It’s simply better and nicer being with your own kind in a situation like this.

So to any of you grieving a death or the loss (divorce, break-up) of a loved one, or a job layoff, foreclosure … get yourself some Gatorade (with real sugar in it) and try it out cut with half water first and then give it about an hour and see what happens. I was starting to feel human by the end of my third glass. I still think red and yellow make six, but my thirst is manageable now.

It’s also important to eat well and take your vitamins. I am a religious vitamin taker and my schedule was derailed a few days right after Mom, and I got a cold. The physical toll the grieving takes is the invisible part; we all know we will cry and be distracted, but the body needs rest and proper hydration.

. . . . .

Fairness.

People are dimensional, textured and unpredictable.

Relationships are dynamic and dimensional.

Jung said it best, “Often what irritates us about another person will lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” (I wrote about I think on June 18, 2013; if you want to see it check out the calendar to the right of this post.)

My relationship with Mom was dynamic, dimensional, unpredictable, passionate and complicated. I’ve written again and again about it. The nice thing about a blog is that people can just do a little backtracking; the utter pain in the ass about a blog is that it’s often not linear. I am a linear thinker; all the posts with “Grief” in the title will be about my mom, her death, our relationship and my coping with it all.

I am pleased to say that despite all our bickering and arguing we did manage to have a few really good conversations in her final weeks and I know she processed them as such because she told my dad about them. I know I said “I love you” to her a number of times. I know I kissed her on her cheek that night in July, the last time I ever saw her alive, when I helped her walk to her car, strapped her in and clicked her seatbelt and told her “be bad” which is code for “I love you” around my family. She looked at me that night, crinkled up her nose and said, “You too, birdie.” (I don’t know why she called me “birdie” … honestly.)

I planned that night several days before. I wanted to celebrate my parents’ 51st anniversary. My younger brother and his team came over and we all planned to call my older brother and his team to sing happy birthday to him. We made hamburgers and my youngest, Thing 3 (T3), set her up with a tray table and chips in our leather club chair, her favorite chair, in our home. She was right beside the TV and T3 asked her if she’d like to watch his favorite show, “How the Universe Works.” She saw the big red Netflix screen and her face brightened.

“Do you have ‘Columbo’?” she asked him, leaning in and smiling like a little girl.

“We can find it,” he said, with a little smirk and an eager flick of the remote control.

So there she was, in her throne, watching “Columbo.” I was happy with that because she was happy with it.

When dinner time came around, I nudged her, “Mom. It’s time for dinner. Let’s go eat on the deck; we have a seat and pillows all set up for you. It’s your wedding anniversary dinner…”

“No.” She said. “I want to watch ‘Columbo.'”

I tried to change her mind, guilt her into eating with us.

“No.”

There was no changing her mind… ever. Even without “Columbo” there would be no changing of my mother’s mind.

So I was a little sad about it and I asked my dad.

“Leave her be. If she wants to sit and watch ‘Columbo’ while we are all out here enjoying one another’s company, so be it…” he said, loudly so she could hear him (which she could, she had ears like a bat and my parents would often talk to each other like George Costanza’s parents on “Seinfeld”).

I imagined my mother doing this, “pfft.”

So I set her up and let her stay there and watch “Columbo” while we all sat on the deck.

And it was odd. It was fair and real and odd.

“The pretending was over,” I remember my therapist saying the following Tuesday after the dinner.

“What do you mean?” I asked, my head tilting like a Labrador retriever’s waiting on a treat. I wanted to bitch about it.

“It was probably one of the first real nights your mother had where she didn’t have to pretend that she didn’t want to be alone and that you all were some Hallmark Card family. It was a gift you gave her; no fighting, no begging, no drama. She wanted to watch ‘Columbo’ and you let her. You showed her you accepted her when you let that happen. You showed her love. Believe it or not: you heard her,” she said.

My jaw dropped. Then my face fell on the floor. If my eyes weren’t still in their sockets, I’d’ve been unable to piece myself back together.

Daaaaaaayyuuuumn.

She was right. The gift was right there: Mom was heard and that was cool. My parents’ relationship is their own; they had their own folds and layers to work through, but how was I to know that the last time I’d ever see my mom alive would be the night that I’d finally heard and accepted her? I mean, I didn’t feel bad that she was watching “Columbo.” I was rather glad for her (and a little jealous of her solitude, truth be told). Plus we all joined her later when the next episode cued up.

Mom got to “live” that night. She was heard and fed and celebrated in her own way, as “unmarried” as it seemed, it was totally married. It was real.

So I say this to both of you: be real. Be fair to yourself and to your memories. Allow the good and the “bad” memories. Another alternative: just stop with the labeling altogether. None of the labels matter; it’s just ego and coping. These moments are what they are; it’s up to us to be fair by accepting and allowing them. If we fight them or force them, we will break them.

“We are all imperfect beings,” I hear one of my brother’s best friends say to me.

I miss my mom, I miss the idea of growing with her this fall. I had so many plans for conversations with her. I learned so much about Senior Yoga while on the retreat; I was looking forward to sharing what I learned with her. I wanted to ask her about my life ideas and plans and what she thought I should do; I was planning to consult with her; treat her as a mom, y’know?

That moment with my therapist crystallized for me my acceptance of my mother. I was able to grow from that moment and so the last couple chats I had with Mom reflected that growth. If I didn’t have my therapist, I’d’ve not realized that the “pretending” was over. It would’ve taken some time, I know this. That acceptance softened it all for me. I could meet Mom on her terms.

The other night, my dad came over for a spell and I walked him to his car. It was the first time in a very long time that I didn’t help buckle in Mom. Seeing her seat empty beside his and not being able to strap her in and say goodnight after we all had a meal together sliced right through me. But this is life. We must experience it for all its richness.

Thank you.

Grief: Responsibilities

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The death of my mother has created a convection, a vortex of distracted activity. A flurry of events that need attending.

‘The death of my mother.’ This is a phrase I don’t think anyone is ever truly prepared to deal with saying, thinking, or typing. It’s like the phrase, “my husband” or “my wife” when first married; or “my child” when newly parented. Maybe in time I will be accustomed to saying such a phrase. My loved ones and casual acquaintances (and that lovely woman on the plane yesterday who clearly didn’t know what was coming when she asked me, “What brings you to Buffalo?”) assure me however, that it is a situation, a fact of life that never truly settles. The irony being of course, is that the matter is quite settled. Any mortal discrepancy boils down to ego: acceptance and management.

Being almost 400 miles from my own tribe has put a lot on my heart; being separated from them on the heels of losing Mom has doubled it. Yesterday, I helped write and finesse her death notice. Today, I select her gravesite and secure the location of my father’s and their wee son, my brother John.

Nothing is ever perfect. The obituary cited her birthday incorrectly, but that’s my dad’s fault. It’s been fixed, so it’s ok online now. I felt the use of the term “evangelist” was loaded, especially these days, but I understand it’s not how it was intended. My mother was complicated, but most geniuses are. I am grateful I posses average intelligence to assure I will not ever be so depicted.

Being in Buffalo, at 45 yet feeling keenly like 16, has created a swath of ownership for her; this is her turf. Being with my cousins keeps me at 16. As I posted most recently, my fight in her life for her relevance and health amidst my yearning for normalcy, predictability was arduous, chronic. It was, and often it went unanswered. But when it was answered, when Mom was in her element and her health, she was ON.

Like a halogen light bulb. Showing you yourself, the truth in art, the grace in literature and music. She would be in her Zone and if the timing was right, I was lucky to join her.

Being here, attending to her corporeal dignity, addressing her final — truly final — needs has been liberating. I have become at times, a microMimi — I have lost it, emotionally within a single breath. I have mused about things on the fly, I have composed myself only later to be discovered in a corner perpetrating ugly crying. That is grief. That is mourning. I have no regrets for this behavior. My mother lived on her hinge that way a lot. She has shown me that it’s life — no one can predict anything, really. It’s just a compilation of lucky guesses.

Her favorite phrase of admonishment of my insistent regularity and rushing (and it really wasn’t rushing, it was just trying to be on time) from Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite” was, “Cool it, Mimsy!” (The joke being on me, for she knew more about Neil Simon than perhaps Neil Simon, that Mimsy is being chided by her bridegroom about her bemoaning fears of turning into her parents.)

The weather here in Buffalo is chilly today. The sun is cresting the rooftop beside my cousin’s home. The sky is clear. My eyes are tired, but I will rally today.

This is where I spent a great deal of time yesterday afternoon:

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The irony in the name of this place is not lost on me, nor on anyone for that matter. I remember joking with Mom about it years ago. In deference to her and her love of the arts and theater, I have begun pronouncing it “Am-ih-gon-e” like the play in which she starred, “Antigone.” She would like that.

Yesterday, between phone calls to my brother who had no business being at work, and after finalizing her death notice and as her niece and I were selecting things like Mass cards and floral arrangements, and asking the funeral director to please print one more picture for her casket and we added a clean but crumpled kleenex to her suit pocket and a tube of lipstick, “pink shimmer,” and to remember her rosary, and when I went looking for a pony tail holder for her hair (which she always had around her wrist, but it was usually a rubber band, so I wanted something softer for her), I was tasked with selecting a poem to print on the reverse of the card.

This section of the death packages binder was full of Irish poems, Christian poems. Schmaltzy drippy poems. I knew Mom would groan and openly “tiff!” or say “piffle!” at some of them. She had brilliant taste in literature. I didn’t like any of them. None of them were worthy. None of them. Not one single offered collection of verbs and nouns and modifiers would suit her. She was above all of it.

“Is this all you have?” I asked, wincing.

“Can we do our own?” My cousin asked.

I looked at her, in the way I do when I’ve eaten a canary. She knows this look quite well.

“Shakespeare. Do you have any Shakespeare?” I asked.

“No. I don’t,” said the man from behind his desk, the man whose daughter is in college. The man with questionably perfect hair. Hair that was later asserted by the funeral home owner, a friend of my father’s (as fate would have it they share the same birthday) to be real because the boys downstairs have tugged at it, they know… (Eww.)

“But you may select your own,” he added.

Then a bolt of lightning halogen.

My father shared with me two nights prior that my mother requested of him on I believe the night before she died that he read to her just one part of “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.” Just one. I told my cousin which one, and she knew, instinctively the one. She used to read with my mother. I would not ever read with my mother if I didn’t have to as a child or in high school or in college or as a mother. It was uncool. I am too self-conscious. It sucks.

My cousin and I scrambled on our smartphones and I found it. Mom played this brilliantly. I was tired when Dad came over that night, I wanted rest, but he told me that story. Somehow I banked it. Then my cousin. The one who read with Mom, she knew the poem when I mentioned it immediately. We just had to find it.

It is Puck’s final monologue and it is perfect:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

I cry when I read it. She’s talking to me, to us. To her huge family. All she wanted was to have a “normal” relationship with me. Go to the mall, go to movies, shit like that. That’s not us though. I hate the mall and we talk during movies. We aren’t and would never would be people like that. I think we would both feel its disingenuousness. But this… this is good. This is right. This is family.

In sharing it with both of you, I feel like I’m stealing the show. Like I’m releasing embargoed copy, but I’m not. But what I’m doing, for me, is steeling my show. The experiences I have endured the last few days and what lies before me in a couple hours and then tomorrow are inSANEly challenging, so if you disagree with my decision to share what I just did, I permit you to be woefully ignorant. In the meantime, please pray for my strength. I will take it from all faiths.

My mother was brilliant, layered, deep, flawed, conflicted, talented, shrewd, tender, loud, quiet, soft, harsh, wise, goofy. She wanted things that made no sense much of the time. But when it came to art, literature… Shakespeare… I shut my mouth and defer. Mom was never, ever wrong when it came to Shakespeare. She knows this is about healing.

Robin is restoring amends.

Thank you.