Posts Tagged ‘death’

The Birthday Present

Wednesday, February 25, 2015
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As a kid, I loved my birthday.

I loved getting special attention, eating cake, opening presents and even having the occasional birthday party. In the birthdaydark ages when  I was growing up, we didn’t expect birthday parties every year, and we certainly didn’t expect elaborate parties. Our moms blew up a few balloons and invited the neighbor kids over to play games and eat homemade birthday cake.

After I hit the magical age of 21, I cared less and less about birthdays. By the time I was 30, everyone expected me to be in a bad mood on the day I was expected to celebrate.

To me, birthdays were simply  reminders that I was getting older and hadn’t achieved as much as someone my age should have.

I had come to adopt my father’s philosophy about birthdays. He always wondered why we made such a big deal about the day we were born when we didn’t do any of the actual work.

The year that he and my mother were married, he actually sent flowers to my grandmother on my mom’s birthday thanking her what had happened 25 years earlier, Apparently, my grandmother thought he was a little strange, so he never sent her flowers again.  But he did continue to raise the same questions from time to time.

I embraced my dad’s philosophy before and after I had my own children.

I considered throwing birthday parties for my kids to be the ultimate test of parenthood. Like most tests, they kept me up at night with worry,and I never enjoyed them. I just didn’t get why birthdays were such a big deal.

That changed a few days ago with one phone call

My friend Stefani, who had been battling cancer for years, had been given 48 hours to live during the week when I was turning 48 years old.

My friend, who threw amazing birthday parties for her daughters and who celebrated her life to the fullest, died the week when I was prepared to once again complain that I was yet another year older.

My friend, who  had grown to  appreciate the importance of holding our children close, celebrating every moment and creating memories that can live beyond our last breath, gave me one last birthday present.

She reminded me that birthdays aren’t intended to be a reminder of our march toward old age but are actually intended to be a celebration of survival, perseverance and the people who have loved and  supported us during those difficult times.

This year, I’m celebrating my birthday because I know Stef would have excepted nothing less.

Here’s to you Stef.



Beneath the Surface

Wednesday, August 13, 2014
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I have a friend who grew up with an unhealthy fear of thunderstorms.

Her fear was unhealthy not because she hid at the first sign of a storm or trembled at the sound of thunder. It was unhealthy because it was based on a lie.

Her fear was built on a belief that her cousin had been killed when struck by lightning.

Only after years and a well-cultivated phobia of lightning did her parents reveal that her cousin had actually committed suicide.

I was thinking of this Monday night when both of my children wanted to talk about Robin William’s suicide. My daughter asked how he could asphyxiate himself. My son just wanted to express his shock. Since I was also in shock, I had very little to add to the conversation even though I knew I should. I don’t want my children to be afraid of thunderstorms any more than I want them to think suicide is about a person’s final act.

Instead, suicide is about everything other people don’t act upon.

I first realized this when the brother of one my daughter Kendall’s classmate’s killed himself. The boy was in middle school at the time, and my daughter relayed the same story that the media did: the boy had been bullied. That revelation was followed by the typical outcry to address bullying by calling out people whose words and behavior are hurtful.

What I didn’t hear was an outcry to simply to pay attention to each other despite labels or diagnoses or cliques or fame.

Some people might say that Robin Williams, one of the funniest men in the world, and an overweight middle school student had nothing in common, but they are wrong.

They had a great deal in common.

They were both people. They both had feelings. They both struggled to meet the expectations of others. They both wanted to belong to a world that often doesn’t make sense. They both fought internal battles that others couldn’t or didn’t see. Because of this, they both hurt inside. And they both committed suicide.

Like millions of others, I feel the loss of Robin Williams, but I can’t claim I knew him any more than I knew the brother of Kendall’s classmate.

I never had the opportunity to share a smile, listen to, interact with or show my compassion for either of them, and I never will.

But I do have the opportunity to do all those with a neglected child, a homeless adult, a rebellious teenager, a lonely senior, a rude customer or client and an overly-talkative neighbor. Not only do I have the opportunity, I have the obligation. All of them are my fellow human beings who have feelings, struggle to meet the expectations of others and have a simple desire to belong to a world.

And they, like me, generally show only a small piece of themselves to the rest of the world. We keep what lies just below the surface hidden in hopes that we don’t reveal our vulnerabilities to a society that is quick to exploit them.

I can’t imagine Robin Williams ever approved of such a world. Instead, I choose to believe that he wanted all of us to recognize that imperfect people make the world interesting and meaningful. I believe he knew we should all look beyond the superficial to where imperfection and insecurities lie. And he  would want us to dive into whatever depth we are capable of reaching with others so we can work together to save all those who are drowning.

I also believe he would encourage all of us not to fear the thunderstorm and instead to dance in the rain that comes with it.

Oh, Deer/Me.

Monday, June 23, 2014
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I have a soft spot for animals that gets the best of me.  This soft spot clouds my judgment, drains my bank account and sometimes threatens my health. I guess it’s a desire to help things that can’t express themselves — creatures that want to be loved and need to be cared for — as if I don’t have children at home requiring the same.

But I’m wrong about something: Animals can express themselves. Sure they bark, meow, hiss, chirp and whistle. Sure they’re depressed when we’re on vacation and they’re glad to see us when we come home. It’s more than that.  They worry.

This past Thursday, I let our Golden Retriever and Beagle out for a run and other morning rituals.  Within five minutes, both of them starting carrying on as if someone had invaded their territory.  I ran to the window to look over our backyard, and that’s when I saw a mother deer cleaning her new fawn.  She stopped what she was doing to study the dogs, which were making so much noise I was afraid they’d wake the entire neighborhood.  It was a chaotic scene as I chased, tackled and wrestled them to hook leashes on their collars to pull them inside.  I kept reassuring “Mama” that everything was OK, as if she could interpret the words I called out in panic.

When I made it upstairs, I looked out and noticed the fawn, heaped on the ground behind our fence, appeared stillborn.  Its eyes were open and its head rested out from its body instead of coiled up in a fetal position.  Mama kept working on her baby, unruffled by what had happened on my side of the fence.

I woke the girls and told them to peek out their bedroom window to see the baby deer. Our youngest daughter is as addicted to animals as I am, and she becomes easily attached to anything with paws or claws.  We watched Mama and Baby for an hour, but the fawn never responded.  Soon, the mother ran off and I tiptoed around the side of the house to snap a few pictures from a safe distance.  Baby lifted its head finally, but then put it back down.

Perhaps it’s shocked; disoriented.  After all, it’s less than two hours old.

I waited for Mama and noticed that she was standing over the hillside looking up at the mound of tan fur and white dots.  Only her ears twitched.  The baby’s did not.

Perhaps it’s just scared.  I hope Mama comes back…

After a dental appointment and a visit to Capitol Market for ingredients to make BLT sandwiches for lunch, we checked on Baby from the kitchen. This time, it was huddled in the ivy behind a tree that had fallen some time ago.  It never moved.  Mama remained over the hill, looking up at her little one but never getting as close again.

By noon it was clear that the fawn had died.

I had to tell Maryn that Baby didn’t survive. Instinctively, she sensed something was wrong. The fawn never moved in a rain shower and it didn’t move when the hot sun broke through the clouds.  It didn’t move when our dogs barked at the UPS truck, and it didn’t move when trash collectors tossed bins back into the driveway.

My little one cried off and on for the remainder of the afternoon.  Down below, Mama began to pace.  She hiked the hill slowly and carefully, looking around each bush and tree limb to check her surroundings.  When she spotted our dogs in the yard, she charged the side of the garden shed and kicked over pots and containers.  She rammed her head into the fence panel and stood up to try to jump over into the area that held the two beasts she held responsible.

I ran outside with a broom in case I needed protection while pulling my dogs back to the porch.  She looked at me and snorted. She huffed and puffed and had the ability to kick our house down.  I kept reassuring her that she was all right — but she was not.

And she wasn’t all right that evening when she circled the area behind our neighbor’s yard, and she wasn’t that night when she charged the fence again.

The fawn had to be moved because of 90-degree heat, rain and the threat of pests that roam the woods at night.  A neighbor disposed of Baby in a humane manner according to DNR recommendations.  Mama was waiting on all of us when we opened the shutters this morning.  There she stood, over the hill, still looking up at the patch of ivy that remained empty.

She was in agony and she was angry.  Heartbroken.

I watched her hunt and stoop and search and smell and stop and stare. There was something very human about her pain, and it made me realize that a mama-baby bond is an awesome thing.  And I don’t use that word very often because it’s been ruined in a modern vocabulary.  But this was one of the most fascinating things I had ever watched — or experienced since I was one of her targets.

A few minutes ago, I looked out during another cloudburst to see how the trees were holding up with saturated roots. Off to the side stood Mama in pounding white rain, staring at me without any reaction to the storm.  As I finished typing this last paragraph, I checked on her again.  She wouldn’t move an inch and neither would I…as if to prove to a fellow mama that I understood.






Monday, September 16, 2013
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ekm painting

Elizabeth K. Meece (1963)

Good friends of ours recently moved into a new home.  Mike, the girls and I took a housewarming gift to them last weekend, in exchange for a much anticipated tour of the place.  It’s situated on a quiet cul-de-sac lined with oak trees and manicured lawns.  There are sweeping views of acres of green grasses that glisten in morning light.  It’s perfect for them, and for a while, I had house envy.

Perhaps it’s because my kitchen is nowhere close to being finished. But my patience is.

I love my house.  I do.  Our daughters love it and use every square inch for dance and play. So do our two destructive, demonic dogs. It’s where we’re supposed to be, with or without countertops and food disposals. Yet the work never ends.  Fences have to be repaired or rebuilt, air conditioners need new relay switches. Furnace filters are no longer available for the temperamental unit that warms our house with the smell of burnt dust in the winter.  The list goes on and on.  Well, make that Mike’s List goes on and on…

Then, there’s my aunt’s house, which is now our house since she passed away.  Six months ago, Mike and I vowed that we would enjoy this little fixer-upper-summer-project.  We decided over artisan beer and pizza that we’d rip up carpets to expose hardwood floors, scrape wallpaper and paint the surfaces a nice beige-gray color from Pottery Barn.  We’d landscape the sidewalks with English boxwoods and cut back wild bushes to reveal pretty stonework on the foundation.

Yeah, right.  I haven’t lifted one finger, other than to wipe tears off my face because I can’t stand to be in my aunt’s house. It’s as if I’ve had some type of delayed reaction to her death that makes it nearly impossible to be around her things.  I walk into the living room, spot one of her many watercolors soaking up dirt on the walls, and I walk right back out. There’s something about parting with her belongings that makes me feel like I’m getting rid of her memory.  But I don’t need another china cabinet. I don’t need two more bedroom suites or another chest of drawers from the 1950s.  I don’t want to haggle over them in an estate sale, either.

I’m just unsettled.

Houses are a funny thing.  They’re a burden of bricks and mortar, but a solid presence that stands for something much more than an address.  Whenever I look over at my aunt’s house, I feel like she’s close by.  She’s still here, even though I know she’s gone there. 

So now this house has become a monument that makes me feel both safe and sad.  It also makes me feel sick when the home owners insurance and tax bills are stuffed in the mailbox on the same day.  It makes me feel greedy to hold on to a piece of property that would make a wonderful starter home for a young family, or a retirement home for an elderly couple (or single).  It feels wasteful to continue paying utility companies to keep the life on in the house.  It also feels like I’m spoiled for having a second home to rely on when my kitchen is in shambles or the cooling system freezes. It feels immature to have a garage full of toys and hobbies, a space Mike has come to call his frat house.

Yet this cottage isn’t full of fond memories. This is the place associated with her illness. It’s the place that served as a type of assisted living with two caregivers located directly next door. When I do peek into the TV room, I see a new, leather lift chair that carried her from a sitting to a standing position three or four times.  I see the indentations on the carpet where the wheels of a hospice bed were stationed. I hear the clicking, ticking sound of an anniversary clock, an eerie reminder that she bought the house two years ago this week.

And because of these things, I’ve decided to sell.

No, dear readers and neighbors, I’m not ready to show the house.  But I’m ready to part with it.  I’m ready to let go of the weight that’s holding me back.  I need to remember that my aunt was a real estate agent and she bought houses as investments and sold them for profits. These structures were places to hang her hat, not her heart. During the brief moments that I’m feeling more confident, I imagine her saying, “Sell it, honey. Get what you can and get out from under all this trouble!”  I can also hear her chanting, “Never fear! Auntie’s near!” She would sing this line into the telephone whenever I called to complain of losing my way.

But now, I need to find my way back across the sidewalk into my home, where my family lives and loves. I need to see her place for exactly what it is: a ranch-style house with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, situated on a large lot with access to leading schools and city conveniences.

It’s said that we can’t take any of this stuff with us when it’s our time to go, but I’m grateful that my artist auntie left more than a few paintings for me to hang on the walls of my TV room.  And when I glance at “The Old Homeplace,” I’ll have no fear.  Auntie’s near.





The Surrogate

Tuesday, March 5, 2013
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My aunt, my grandmother, and my mother (1956). I hope to have a picture taken like this with my two daughters one day.

Some people in this world are fortunate enough to have been given two mothers.  Perhaps it is a grandmother or a stepmother.  Perhaps it is an older sister.  Perhaps it is an aunt.

When my mother died in 2000, I felt like an abandoned child, even though I was in my twenties.  She was my pillar to lean on for nearly everything — most often approval — but always unconditional love.  When my mother passed, I thought I had to find my own way…and it did not always go so well.

But, that second mother stepped in to help me.  I have always referred to my mother’s sister by nicknames: She was known simply as “Auntie” in Facebook posts and these blogs, but also as “Ninny” and “Humpy” and “Meece.”  All of these names convey meanings to different people who held a special place in her life.  To my mother and father, she was “Liz.”  To me, she was “Sis.”  That shortened version of “sister” — my mother’s only sibling — became my pet name for her, yet it carried a tremendous significance for nearly four decades.

There is something unique about second mothers in that they provide a much-needed safety net.  Our natural parents bear the burden of responsibility to be figures of authority in our lives, to be the ones that teach us right from wrong, to show us where we came from and to shape our opportunities. As their children, we often feel a sense of duty to return what was given to us…or given up for us.  We may even feel pressure to make them proud.

However, second mothers never expect that of us.  They are our most loyal supporters and our most fervent protectors.  They love us from a safe distance, but they are never far away.  They show up when we call.

I spent more of my adult life with my aunt than my parents.  She held my first daughter, and the second.  Both girls share parts of her name.  Mary Elizabeth became Ava Elizabeth and then Maryn Lee.  When I was overwhelmed by working full-time and trying to find solutions to childcare and my own guilt, she was the one who told me it was okay to quit.  Later on, when I wanted to start my own business, she told me it was a risk I had to take and to go for it.  When I told her I wanted to write a book, she demanded that I finish it before she died.  And when it was necessary to move her into a nursing facility, she told me that it was her time and I had done all I could for her.  It was okay to let go.

This past Sunday, I lost my auntie — my Sis — to cancer and kidney failure.  And letting go has been more difficult than I imagined, even though I’ve had two months to wrap my mind around losing yet another mother.  But today, the grief is different.  I have lost my best friend.  She was always there for me, when I wanted her to be and when I did not.  She took my side no matter what it was — from episodes of teenage rebellion to getting married earlier than my parents preferred.  She defended me each and every time.  No one else will ever do that again.  I am on my own now.  Childhood has wrapped up.

On Friday, I will take my auntie back to her home place in Greenbrier County– in a snowstorm no less — conditions identical to the days my grandmother and mother were buried.  Some things never change.  But I am in for a big one now that she is gone.  I will miss her cackling laugh, I will miss the melody of her voice and I will miss her amusing stories (which I usually questioned).  I will feel an emptiness when I walk into her house, which is a stone’s throw away from mine.  I will always be grateful to her for picking up where her sister left off in my life.  And while my auntie was a second mother, I will never forget that she put me first.

To Everything, Turn.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013
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To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.  — Ecclesiastes 3

My family said goodbye this week to our patriarch.

My grandfather was nearly 100 years old, and his presence in this life was powerful. He was loving and strict, easy to laugh and just as easy to eagle-eye you into a corner if he was concerned about your direction. He fought the Nazis. He gathered wildflowers. He ran businesses and raised a family. He loved life, and life loved him right back just as hard.

So saying goodbye has been a challenge. I spent the first week after his death in a weepy haze. I know it’s perfectly natural that a person this old should pass away, and yet I just didn’t really know how to let him go. He has presided over all of the most significant moments of my life to date, and thinking about how to anchor anything without his involvement has been difficult. I just kept thinking, “He’s gone.”

Then, it happened. At a 30-plus family member dinner on Saturday night, the cousins started dancing.

These were the little ones, ranging from 3 years old up to 10.  Some of them knew my grandfather, but many were too little and lived too far away to have any memory of him. I had been agonizing over the fact that they would never really know him, that without his guidance and influence our family couldn’t go on as it had been, that this gathering would be the last of the great family gatherings because without Poppa we would not really know who we were going forward.

“Look,” my husband said nudging me, “It’s a cousin conga line!”

All of the little ones had lined up and were kicking, dancing, and laughing their way through the restaurant we had reserved for the night. I can still see Jennings’ face. My first cousin once removed, he is a live wire and known to be the child who took Poppa’s death the hardest to heart. This was his first real family loss to death, and yet here he was, leading the party.

In that moment, I found myself looking away from the past and toward the future of my family. As The Byrds’ song suggested, I turned. Instead of seeing what was lost through heartbreak, I saw all that is dancing before me into the future.

Such moments are a rare gift. When I was younger I can remember older generations losing loved ones and me wanting to scream, “They are gone! I am right here!” Now I see the pivot point.

And now I turn.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Gaucher is a writer, small business owner, and graduate student living in Charleston. 


The Mother, the Daughter and the Holy Ghost

Monday, May 7, 2012
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Since my book was published, friends have asked me if I’ve always been so happy. If I’ve always laughed. The short answer is no.  The long answer takes about 10 years.

From 1996 through the early part of 2006, I had nothing to smile about.  My dad suffered a stroke that ended his career and much of his independence, and my mother hid breast cancer from us while she focused on him. She died within weeks of diagnosis, and my dad’s Alzheimer’s disease progressed to the point that he was in and out of hospitals and assisted care facilities…even a mental institution for severe dementia.  Caring for them took its toll on me, and I took their deaths — particularly my mother’s passing — extremely hard.  For 10 years, I worried non-stop about what was going to happen to them, and to some extent, what would happen to me because I was so dependent upon my aging parents.

I recently decided to clean house beginning with my closets to throw out things that I no longer wanted (or could wear, quite honestly).  Then, I moved on to bookshelves, which were stuffed with bound pages containing messages and lessons that once meant something to me.  It was then and there that I realized how badly I hurt in those 10 years.  Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.  The Orphaned Adult. Finding Peace.  How to Handle Adversity.  The Daughter Trap. And one title that I couldn’t get rid of: Motherless Mothers.

Hope Edelman’s book, Motherless Mothers: How Mother Loss Shapes the Parents We Become became a supplement to my bible for a long time. When Edelman became a parent, she found herself revisiting her own loss in ways she had never anticipated. As the mother of two young girls (like me), Edelman set out to learn how the loss of a mother to death or abandonment affects the ways women raise their own children.  She reveals the anxieties and desires mothers like her (and like me) experience as they raise their children without the help of a living maternal guide.

In an early episode of “Mad Men”, Betty Draper tries to talk to her husband, Don, about her mother’s death and the fears associated with it.  Don, showing little interest in his wife’s grief told her very simply, “Please stop. Mourning is an extended form of self-pity.”  Whatever you say, Dick Whitman.

Even though my mom died in 2000, I still think of her every single day.  I wrote letters to her for a year, deciding on the first anniversary of her death that I, too, needed to stop. I filled a hat box with sealed envelopes labeled only by date, and they’re buried in a much larger bin in our basement. Writing served a purpose back then — a type of therapy that helped me feel like she was still around.

And then… last Sunday, I saw her.

Mike and I were outside trying to decide what to do with our grass-less backyard.  After trading a few ideas, we decided to go to Lowe’s to price landscaping materials.  It was a nice day for resting in the hammock …a nice day for playing in the tree house…a nice day for reading in the shade.  But I was going to put a stop to all of that.

“Ava, get your shoes.  We need to go pick up a few things.”

My daughter turned to me with one hand on her hip and a look of stern disapproval on her face.  Her left and right feet were positioned in a majorette “T”, and her jaw was set.  Her eyes narrowed at me under furrowed brows.

My God.  My mother.

I remember that look.  Whenever I would say or ask something out of reason, that was the exact look my mother would give me.  The only difference is that she usually had a cigarette secured in the opposite hand; a stream of smoke lifting up to the sky.  She would stare at me for a moment to think about how to respond.  Yet she never had to.  I always knew that look meant whatever I wanted wasn’t going to happen.

We went to Lowe’s anyway,  and the drive to Southridge was a quiet one.  I kept looking back at Ava to see if I could catch another glimpse of  “Little Betty Lou” with her pouty face and crossed arms of protest.  Then I emerged from that smoky haze realizing that Ava may be a version of my mother — a throwback — but she’s really an eight-year-old girl with blonde hair, blue eyes and legs longer than anyone on my side of the family.  She’s not my mother.  She’s her own girl.

Today, May 7th, is my 39th birthday.  My mother gave birth to me at this age.  I was her only child — a “gift” she said, which was an alternate word for “surprise” as my dad called it.  In our society, advanced maternal age is no big deal, but in 1973, it was a news headline because she was on the verge of entering her fourth decade.  However, my mother — always cool, always collected and always calculated — saw her age and my birth in an entirely different way.  “Life begins at 40,” she wrote in my baby book. “This is just the beginning.”

And that’s something to smile about.

A Different Breed of Kat

Monday, February 6, 2012
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1997 - 2012

My blogs are posted on Monday mornings, but I write them a few days in advance.  As I type this entry, it’s Wednesday night, February 1st, and it has been a very sad, difficult day.  You see, after 15 years, I’ve had to say goodbye to our first “baby” — my Persian cat, Bailey’s Irish Creampoint. That’s right — he was named after my favorite liquor.

Bailey was very sick with kidney and bladder problems, and he had begun to suffer.  After weighing all options — most of which would have been harder on the cat than on me — I made the excruciating decision to let him go.  I was promised that he would pass on peacefully, and I trusted my veterinarian — who is also a good friend — to take care of my Bailey. I sobbed like a child for hours, and then worried about telling my girls after school that their kitty was no longer at home.

I broke the news to Ava and Maryn in the car, and to my surprise, they handled it extremely well. No tears, no screaming fits, no anger. The girls were visibly saddened, but they were in control.  I wish I still possessed their youthful resilience.

It’s not that my kids didn’t care that our cat had died.  They simply weren’t as attached to him as I was.  Bailey remained rather annoyed most of the time, allowing us to rub his head for exactly ten seconds before he swiped the skin off the backs of our hands.  If we made eye contact with Bailey when he was in the wrong mood, he’d growl and spray our faces with hissy spit. No…he wasn’t a cuddly cat, but he kept me company long before our daughters were born.  Bailey and I understood each other pretty darn well: give me something to eat, make sure my litter box is clean, acknowledge me when I enter a room, and then leave me alone.  But leaving him behind this morning was pure agony.

In a few months, I will receive an advance copy of my first book,  Kat Tales — Stories of a House…Broken.  It’s a memoir of sorts, a collection of creative non-fiction essays (that means names and places have been changed to protect the innocent) that describe my life with animals — the ones that I have loved dearly, and the ones that have nearly cost me my life.  Kat Tales is also categorized as humorous, as I seem to find myself in messes worse than anything my husband has had to clean up in the backyard.

If you have ever published a book or written a lengthy article for that matter, you know how challenging the editing process can be.  It’s very hard to know when to stop “fooling” with your own material.  Editing is a lot like decorating a cake — you have to know when to let up, or else you foul up the entire thing.  Right before I submitted the manuscript, I decided to trash the last chapter about a doctor hooked on animal tranquilizers and replace it with a piece about Bailey. The “horse pill” story might have been more entertaining, but rest assured that your jaw will drop when you read about our cat-astrophes with a deranged 10-week old kitten.  After all of my animal encounters, I feel like I’m the one who’s closing in on nine lives.

Yes, it has been a bad day.  I’ll dearly miss my feline friend, but I’m happy that he can live on… in paw print.


Monday, May 30, 2011
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There's something about Mary.

I love my daughters beyond reason, but I also love them differently.  I admit there are times when one child is more popular than the other one, such as on birthdays, sick days and field days.  But what happens when those moments don’t pass?  What causes one child to become your favorite…for life?

I thought about this over the weekend after finding the movie, Ordinary People, on one of the cable channels.  I own up to the fact that I sometimes adore Robert Redford more than my husband, and even though he physically doesn’t star in the film, Redford did direct one of the most important stories about family dysfunction.

If you don’t know Ordinary People, it concerns the disintegration of an upper-middle class family in suburban Illinois. The Jarretts try to return to normal life after the death of one teenage son named Buck, and the attempted suicide of their other son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton). Alienated from his friends and family, Conrad sees a psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch), who helps him deal with the sailing accident in which he survived his older brother.  Buck, more outgoing and more accomplished than Conrad, seemed to come first in everyone’s opinion (particularly his mother’s).

Beth Jarrett, played by Mary Tyler Moore, is an unforgiving perfectionist. She  can’t understand Conrad’s emotional problems (or her own, for that matter). Ashamed of Conrad’s fragile mental state, Beth simply can’t find the same level of love for him as she had for Buck.  In one scene, Conrad walks up to his mother and wraps his arms around her.  Beth hardens under her child’s embrace; her lips drawn into a thin line, her eyes fixed on the air in front of her, her arms glued to her sides.  She wants distance, and in the end, that’s exactly what she gets.

But, back to my house: I love my oldest daughter, Ava, because she’s reserved, thoughtful and kind.  She prefers to read chapter books and write stories of her own, and she’s a true homebody.  She also has an old soul that reminds me of my mother. A throwback.

Maryn, however, is exactly like her father. She likes to go to baseball games and eat hot dogs.  I love it that she dances to Motown hits and knows all the words to “My Girl”.  She’s a bundle of energy and laughter.

Two completely different little people need two different types of motherly attention from me:  Maryn calls for lots of hugs and the exchange of our special handshake.  Ava requires reassuring pep talks and a safe hand to hold. The  confident, free-spirited child is easier to take care of, and I’m grateful for her independence.  I enjoy her.  The emotional, sensitive child is harder to take care of, but I’m thankful for her sincerity.  I understand her.  Yet loving my girls for different qualities doesn’t always feel quite right.

C.T. O’Donnell II, president and CEO of KidsPeace, a charity helping families overcome the crises of growing up, says loving children individually is typical.

“Parents are people,” said O’Donnell in an online article for NYMetro Parents. “People respond differently to behaviors, aptitudes, and physical characteristics. It’s human to be more engaged with those who share your similarities and interests.”

The author went on to explain that stages in life play a role in determining a child and parent’s companionship, and time changes everything. After all, children are “guilty” of favoritism, too.  Which parent does a child run to when he or she is sick? In pain? In trouble?

What’s most important, experts believe, is that favoritism — while normal — is best kept under wraps. “Parents need to be very conscious of how they treat each child,” stated one doctor. “If a parent displays favoritism, it’s hurtful and potentially destructive.”

Ironically, the intense secrecy that destroyed the fictitious Jarrett family is the one rule that real life mothers and fathers need to follow:  Keep your preferential thoughts to yourself.

So now I’ll flip back to my leading man Robert Redford, who looked as handsome in his white Naval uniform in The Way We Were as he did in his white New York Knights uniform in The Natural. What woman would be able to choose between All American Hubbell Gardner and Roy Hobbs, considered “the best there ever was in the game?”




Finding the right words

Tuesday, May 17, 2011
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Julia and Mike, June 2008

I waited two days after my husband died to tell our daughter. I didn’t want anyone around to hear me as I struggled to find the words to tell a 3-year-old her dad wouldn’t be coming home. Ever.

How could she possibly understand death? Illness? Finality? Or the concept of heaven? She was so little. She still called him dada.

We were so careful never to use the word cancer around her. We didn’t want that word to be part of a toddler’s vocabulary. We never told her he was sick. We didn’t want her to have worry in her heart.

That day, what came out was something like this:

Sweetie, I have to tell you something. Dada isn’t coming home. He’s in heaven now. We won’t get to see him anymore, but we can keep him in our heart, and we still love him and he loved us very much. We’re going to be sad for a while, but we’re going to be OK. You and I are going to be OK.

She showed the kind of concern a 3-year-old can show, and then went back to playing with her stuffed animals.

Every now and then she would ask about him. “I haven’t seen dada in a while,” she would say.

I didn’t use the words dead, or died, or dying. She doesn’t know what those words mean.

Six months later, we were putting up the Christmas tree. As we were hanging Mike’s beloved Three Stooges ornaments, she asked what happened to him. I decided it was time to get more specific.

She asked. I had to answer.

Dada was sick, sweetie. He was very, very sick. Not like the kind of sick you or I get when we have a cold or a stomachache. He was very sick and his body just stopped working. And he died. He went to heaven. He didn’t want to leave us. But he was just too sick.

And then came the questions: Why did he get sick? Why did he have to die?

And then came my answer: a big, fat “I don’t know.”

I don’t know if I handled it the right way. Maybe I should have consulted a professional. I just told her what I thought she could understand and tried to be strong for her.

Lately, she seems to fear that I’m going to leave her. I promise her that I won’t. And I pray all the time for that to be true. Yesterday, she asked me if the reason we don’t see him is because he lives in Florida and we live in West Virginia.

It’s so hard to know what’s going through her little mind. And she’s too young to express what’s she feeling about something so complex that even I can’t understand.

I worry I didn’t say the right things. I worry that maybe she didn’t get to grieve because I just wanted to assure her everything was going to be ok. I worry if 3- and 4-year-olds can even grieve. I worry that something will happen to me.

Most of all, I worry she won’t remember him.

My 4-year-old has a lot of questions. I have a lot too. How do you explain death to a child? How do you reassure her that you’re not going to leave her too? How do you describe heaven and God and an afterlife? What do you say when she wants to know why?