Saturday, May 16, 2009

Laugh Loudly and Often

Mama had a well developed sense of humor and I'm pretty certain that she would appreciate the WTF Awards. She conferred quite a few such awards in her time. Her favorite time to share her nominees was usually at 7:00 am on a Saturday morning. The telephone would ring very loudly, (Ever noticed how the phone rings much louder than usual before 10:00 am?) causing me to flail about in an effort to locate the phone and extricate myself from the bed covers.


"Good morning baby girl, were you asleep?"

No, I'm up planting a vegetable garden to feed all the starving children in the world and when I get done, I'm going to bring about world peace. Okay, I never said that, instead I'd say, "Hey mama, I was just about to get up." We both knew I was lying but it didn't really matter.

Mama's favorite candidate for a WTF award was her sister, my Aunt Nellie Ruth. I could judge just how extreme my Aunt Ruth's behavior had been based on whether my mother simply called her Ruth or Nellie Ruth. Calling her by both of her given names was a good sign that whatever event my mother wished to relate was a real doozy.

My Aunt Ruth is in her 80's now, but she has been behaving with all the entitlement of someone who has reached the age of 100+ since she was in her early 50's. My mother swore that Aunt Ruth just decided to be old one day because she felt that entitled her to demand that everyone wait on her. Perhaps that's why Aunt Ruth had such a predilection for calling the rescue squad. She never had her "attacks" in the daytime; it was always in the wee hours of the morning. Around 4:00 am, Aunt Ruth would awaken and determine that her head felt hot, and that she felt dizzy. Certain that she was having hot flashes as a precursor to some major attack that involved her heart, she'd dial 911, get dressed while waiting for them to come, and be waiting when the rescue squad arrived, fully dressed and carrying her pocketbook. Once she got settled at the hospital, she would call my mother and announce, "I'm in the hospital. You need to come see about me and notify my church members that I'm in the hospital."

At first, my mother would hurry to get to the hospital, but after several years of multiple emergency room visits, mama would turn over and go back to sleep, confident that she could wait until the sun rose to check on Aunt Ruth at the hospital. Mama also began to question the hot flashes that always preceded the 911 call.

"Nellie Ruth, you can't be having hot flashes at your age! You're in your 70's, you don't have anything to have hot flashes with!"

"I am too having hot flashes all about my face and head. I've had three heart attacks!

Aunt Ruth doesn't call the rescue squad any more. She has settled into regular visits to her doctor in the daytime. She has never been diagnosed with any heart trouble of any significance, but she still insists that she has had more than one major heart attack. Indeed, her heart is so weak that the doctors didn't tell her directly that she has had the heart attacks, but she knows from the way they look at her and whisper in front of her.

Mama's youngest brother, my Uncle David calls me often just to talk. He used to talk with Mama several times a week from his home in Dallas. We find ourselves cracking up over how my mother would relate one of Aunt Ruth's 911 adventures.

Mama wasn't perfect and neither was our relationship. She was fully human, like the rest of us. We had our disagreements, our confrontations over things that I can't really recall any more. What I remember was her laughter, her ability to do all the voices when she was telling a story, the way she remembered the smallest details of the events that she related.

Thank you for all of the loving comments. I really am okay; I wouldn't trade the occasional tears for anything. They just remind me of how much I loved her and how much I was loved.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Doing Okay: Living and Grieving

Mama died eight months ago today, on September 15. I didn't have to work today; as of 8:00 pm yesterday, I had already put in 47 hours. Today I got to stay home. I planned to do so many things today--weed my rose bed, clean my house, and do the laundry. However, the best laid plans...let's just say mine went astray and I spent my day in far less productive pursuits.

I decided to catch up on my favorite television shows. I worship at the altar of the DVR. It allows me to keep up with shows that I like even though I haven't been home on average until after 10:00 pm for the last month. This was season finale week for a lot of shows, definitely must see television. It was while I was watching CSI: NY that I had my meltdown. A member of the CSI team died. Her boyfriend, also a team member, was on the phone with her when the bad guys shot her. At first I was just misty-eyed but then I realized that the ragged sobs echoing in my living room weren't coming from the television. I didn't cry for long, maybe five minutes. That's how it is now, I go from normal to falling apart and back again in a matter of minutes.

It's unpredictable. I'll be sitting at my desk, analyzing a bill that allows some municipality to license golf carts to drive on city streets, and without warning my world just tilts off its axis and I feel as if all of the air has been sucked out of the room. For a moment I want to wail out loud, but I press my fist against my lips and muffle my sobs, and it passes. Sometimes I'm driving, singing along with the radio and something--the words, the melody, or maybe it's the memory the song evokes--pushes me over the edge. It's not so bad in my car. I don't have to stifle the sounds and I can cry loudly.

We don't talk about grief in this culture. When someone dies, we offer our sympathies to the family but then we politely move on. We use euphemisms for death--she passed away; he moved on. Anything to avoid saying that someone died.

No one ever tells you about grief. Logic tells me that all of us are touched by death and therefore we all experience grief. Perhaps if we shared more of our pain, we could help each other cope with it. Instead, we barely speak of it and offer useless platitudes: she's in a better place or you have to get on with your life. Or the all comforting, "Death is a part of living."

Here's my truth. Grief is a living thing. It inhabits you like a virus and flares up when you least expect it. You can and will go on with the business of living, but there will be times when the grief will engulf you, a dark force squeezing you so tightly that you are certain that you will not survive it. That's when it is important to let the tears come, to cry as hard as you can, great heaving sobs that turn you inside out; it's your salvation, your release.

My ache for my mother is constant. Death changes those who are left behind. I see the same ache in my sister, my brother, my father, all of us who knew and loved her. I don't think that my pain is unique; that's the rub. It's as if society has made some pact to just not talk about grief.

So if you ask me how I'm doing, you'll get an honest answer, "I'm not fine, but I'm doing okay."