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25 Nov 2013

The Dreaded Holidays

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This year I will not celebrate the holidays as much as I will *cope* with them. As if the transformation over the last several years of the holiday season becoming one of obligation, expectation and duty weren’t bad enough, this year I am dealing with it without the good humor of my mom. I’ve read through the “grief at the holidays” brochures. One in particular deals with my sentiment—my deep desire to just skip the entire holiday season altogether. I’m giving myself permission to skip the holiday cards, to abstain from cooking or hosting Thanksgiving, and to leave the decorations in their boxes.

Other “tips” I’ve read are downright banal. “Give yourself permission to do what feels comfortable.” Really? “Open the windows—sunshine can help reduce depression”—great advice (if lacking in any scientific evidence) if we weren’t going to spend Christmas in Chicago, where today’s high was 32 degrees. Who writes this crap? Exercise. Check. Maintain a healthy diet. Duh.

I did find one item online that I liked…it’s called The Griever’s Holiday Bill of Rights, by Bruce Conley.

The material is copyrighted, so I can’t paste it here. But here are some highlights.

* You can do things differently. This year I’m not hosting Thanksgiving. It’s a ton of work, and the one thing that made this holiday fun was spending it in the kitchen with mom. Last year, despite how sick my mom was, she and my friend JJ tag-teamed on the one-liners (not fit for publication). Without that, it’s just another day that I’m alone in the kitchen all day. No thanks. What a lot of people don’t understand is that Thanksgiving was never about cooking FOR anyone. It was about cooking WITH someone. So unless I have help, and the entire process is a day-long party in the kitchen, forget it.

* You have the right to be where you want to be. Huh.

* You have a right to rest, peace and solitude. Amen.

25 Oct 2013

Buongiorno

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It’s a week since we returned from our two weeks in southern Italy. I feel revitalized, refreshed.The trip was a little bittersweet—an anniversary celebration delayed from May 2012, when we postponed it due to mom’s failing health. I know in my heart my mom would be thrilled that we were going, finally. She was so sad when I told her we were holding off on the trip.

Our trip included Naples, Ravello and Ischia, in the Campania region of southern Italy.

Campania-map-40

This is our fourth time to Italy and we have long believed in focusing on one area rather than trying to cover too much geography. I want to return from vacation relaxed, not exhausted from too much packing and unpacking, and the use of planes, trains and automobiles.

For me the highlight was our weeklong stay in an apartment in Ravello. This is the town along the Amalfi Coast where Greg and I were engaged in May 2002. Greg did extensive research and secured a gorgeous modern apartment in the very same building as the apartment where we were engaged, with the same gorgeous views of the coast.

By the end of the week, we had gotten to know the owner of Caffe Duomo, a cafe in the main square in town. We would get our daily cornetti (the Italian word for croissant) and cappuccino. I managed to regain enough Italian to be able to have short, basic chats. I realized how much I’d love to continue learning Italian. It’s such a melodic language.

Staying in an apartment for a week lets you get a feel for the rhythm of the town. It also relieves pressure to be constantly on the move. We did experience quite a few downpours, and I was content to sit in the living room of our apartment reading a book while Greg worked on his journal.

Ischia was equally relaxing, being a resort island for Italians. We stayed in a monastery high on a hill overlooking the island. And while the views were fabulous, we paid handsomely for them. After dinner in town, we had to walk across a bridge to the hill on which the castle stood. We would walk down a long tunnel to an elevator that would take us up. And then we had 102 steps (yes, I counted) before getting to our room. So leaving was a real commitment. We had two meals at the monastery, which were excellent.

For the most part, we ate a very typically Mediterranean diet that focused on fish as the protein. We did have some meat dishes, including perhaps one of the best pasta dishes of my life in Naples. But we didn’t have cheese (except mozzarella) or other rich foods.

Naples was intense. We stayed a couple nights at the beginning of the trip and at the end, staying in two different parts of town. The first time was in the older quarter. I had braced myself for an onslaught of stimulation, but didn’t find myself quite as overwhelmed as I’d expected. There are no sidewalks so you share the extremely narrow cobblestone roads with cars and scooters. And there are indeed a lot of people. Honestly, though, I found Amalfi to be much more overwhelming and over-stimulating with its crush of tourists with fanny packs.

On the return trip to Naples, I was getting tired and Greg and I both had come down with colds. So my patience was wearing a bit thin, and I got tired of all the graffiti. I also got tired of being stared at. I’m not sure why the Neapolitans had such a curiosity, but it was really uncomfortable. I also didn’t feel the same “love” that I typically feel from Italians in other parts of the country. It was hard to get a smile from someone.

Overall, though, it was a fabulous and much-needed trip.

25 Oct 2013

Sentimental

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I used to give my mom grief for being a bit of a pack rat. Partially it was her upbringing…living in near poverty taught her to scrape together everything. If you need it someday, you won’t have to spend money buying it again. As I go through the things in the house (yes, still) I realize that she was more of a sentimental pack rat. I have similar tendencies.

Today went through my baby clothes she kept (!). She didn’t keep all of it, of course, but a bag with some key pieces were in the hall closet. They’d be considered “vintage” now for a fashionable infant.

what the fashionable girls were wearing

what the fashionable girls were wearing

Of course, I don’t remember wearing these. I do have photos of me in them. And for a brief moment, I struggled with whether I should simply keep it all. I am certain my mom held on to a distant hope that someday I would have a daughter and she would wear these.

Other items included religious icons. One has an inscription on the back from someone—it was clearly a gift from 1961. Perhaps it was a wedding gift? In any case, I simply can’t give that away.

Perhaps the hardest part of going through these items and choosing what to keep, what to give away, is that each item has a story. I know I often say these items are just “things.” But I will admit there is a powerful force to them. It is why I like walking through ancient ruins. For many, they are just piles of rocks. For me, there is a power to them.

So for the grief I gave my mom for being a pack rat…an apology.

30 Sep 2013

Birthday

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I passed a birthday recently, the first without mom. No card. No call. No email from her. Just a deafening silence. I received some thoughtful wishes from friends (and mother-in-law) who acknowledged the poignancy of the day for me. Others offered a quick, breezy and cursory greeting via social media.

As with most birthdays, I spent it quietly, taking a leisurely 7-mile urban “hike” along the waterfront. I had ceviche at a Peruvian restaurant where I had taken my mom, and where we sat outside watching the boats go by. In so many ways, the day was not about me but about her and the gifts she bestowed on me throughout my life.

I had a quiet dinner at a nearby French restaurant with G., exactly the no-fuss, no pomp kind of thing I’d requested.

The next day, we and our neighbors took off for a long weekend in Big Sur. I had envisioned a birthday “in a cabin in the woods,” and these neighbors were kind enough to oblige and go on an adventure to a beautiful retreat near the redwood trees in a 20-acre canyon. It was a relaxing weekend of hikes, reading, eating good food and drinking good wine. I made arrangements for a massage therapist to come to the house. Four of us enjoyed massages—in fact, my triceps are oddly sore still.

And so I have survived the first birthday without mom, glad to put this milestone behind me. Now to mentally and emotionally brace myself for the holidays. As with my birthday, I would prefer to hide in a cabin in the woods for the entire season, from mid-November to mid-January. But that is not possible. The world continues, although a bit dimmer than before.

Mom and I get acquainted.

Mom and I get acquainted.

27 Aug 2013

An unexpected moment

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Came across this today when a friend posted on Facebook.

 

1 Aug 2013

The Timeline

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There is an article in today’s The Wall Street Journal (subscription required, I think) that discusses the “identity crisis process” after loss. The article focuses on divorce or a job loss. The article is clear that the death of a loved one is a more complicated and lengthy process. But there are some things that are similar, at least as I read them.

The article says there are two overlapping processes—the recovery from grief, and the more time-consuming process of rebuilding the structure of your life.

The routine of calling my mom every night after her Portuguese soap opera still feels like a gap in my day. Even if our conversations tended toward repetition, they provided a sort of metronome. Our daily contact was part of a rhythm to my life.

Frankly, I am not interested in creating some kind of surrogate activity to fill those ten to 15 minutes every day. I’ve considered taking the time to meditate, or pray. But I generally can’t muster the energy for it. So typically I acknowledge the moment, and move on.

In another article, which seems relevant through the lens of grief, a writer at The New York Times addresses The Ticktock of the Death Clock. It discusses the background clock that ticks for all of us, and discusses some of the major life changes that he made when he felt he had a concrete (albeit random) deadline.

Those two articles, as well as where my mind has been lately, give me pause to think about what the next phase of my life will look like. I have always been purposeful in how I set up my life—my career choices, my choice of friends, where I put my energy and how I prioritize my time.

The last two years were a slog of surviving one crisis after another. I just had to keep my head down, focus on what needed to get done, and keep juggling multiple responsibilities and obligations.

Now I have some time to think about how I would like my life to be. The Wall Street Journal article, and my grief counselor, recommend against any major changes or decisions while in the throws of grief. But the next year or two will be about listening to myself, to the inner voice, to be honest about what I want and what makes me happy, gives my life meaning.

22 Jul 2013

Mixing vintage and modern

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When I think of the kind of wine country retreat I would like, I do not immediately revert to the faux-Tuscan villa. There are many garish examples of that up and down the Valley. My vision is based on practicalities—easy to maintain, not so high-end that I’m always worried about things. I want it to be peaceful, yet welcoming. Mostly, I want it to honor my mom (its owner for 40 years) without turning it into a shrine.

There are some bigger projects to come and I’ve sworn I will not start bringing things into the house until I have done a thorough job of clearing the slate of the items I know I won’t keep.

That said, after nearly six months of “clearing out” I felt the need to create something…something that is an example of what I hope to achieve.

My mom was a prolific doilie-maker. Doilies cover every surface, as they do in many traditional Portuguese homes. I am not into doilies, although I have a chest full of them. I joked with my mom that they were mostly dust magnets. That said, there is no way I am going to part with the collection that I have. But rather than hiding them in a drawer, I wanted to figure a way to use them in a modern way.

I had seen an idea in a decor magazine that had a great, creative solution—framing them. I purchased three 25×25 white frames from Pottery Barn. I got some steel blue linen from Britex. While I was at Britex, the woman behind the counter walked me through what I needed to do; she used to work in a frame shop. Britex is a pretty expensive high end fabric store in SF, but it was totally worth the price to get the great advice.

After Britex, I went to a massive art supply store in SF and picked up spray adhesive and industrial-strength double-sided tape. Plus I had 1/8-inch foam core mattes cut to 25×25.

I cut the fabric into 28×28 squares (enough to wrap around the mattes) and ironed them. Then I ironed and starched three of my favorite, most delicate doilies. Working fast, I sprayed the mattes and rolled the fabric across them, smoothing the fabric down so it was flat. Then I flipped the mattes over and used double sided tape to adhere the fabric to the back. I had to do some fancy cutting to meter the corners so the would fit in the frames. That was perhaps the biggest struggle, believe it or not. I carefully placed the doilies on the mattes and voila:

2013-07-21 15.39.21

22 Jul 2013

The Next Phase

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It’s a fallacy, this notion of “closure.” You often hear about it, particularly on television news…the worn faces of grieved parents searching for missing children…”we just need closure.” But there is no closure, even when you long anticipate the loss of a loved one. What happens is that the grief burrows in deeper, like a tick or a splinter under your skin. It goes deep beneath the surface, so it doesn’t make its appearance as often or as acutely. But it does not “close.”

That is where I find myself, as we approach six months after mom died. The world is still a little dimmer for me. The laughing is still bittersweet. I think of her every day, sometimes all day. It all just sits in the background. Sometimes I am still struck by the reality of her absence, like a shock of cold water on my face. Oh, yeah. That’s right. She still gone. Still.

I’ve read a few grief books—didn’t want to be overwhelmed by them, but a couple of them that I found helpful. Neither addressed the practical realities of clearing out a person’s belongings and what that means emotionally. It means the slow chipping away of evidence that person existed. It means the waft of the person’s smell as you hand over a donated bag of clothing. I can’t go through too much stuff at once before I become overwhelmed. And I can take my time, since I’m keeping the house.

This leads me to the actual topic for today’s post.

I’m keeping the house.

My mom was so proud of her house. It symbolized her independence. She worked so hard to maintain it, doing much of the hard labor on her own. One year, she used her vacation time to paint the exterior of the entire house—alone. She would climb up on the roof, and crawl under the house to make repairs. She had her rain gear ready during the winter and would go outside in the middle of the night during downpours to clear debris from the gutters so the garden would not flood—alone.

The house needs updating, being the victim of someone who was getting older and tired. In her later years, she decided she would spend her resources on traveling when she could rather than investing further in the house beyond basic repairs. She used to say, “I’ll leave it for the next person.” That person is me.

I’ve started collecting ideas and thoughts on how I want to upgrade this little 900-foot-square cottage in the wine country. The first priority is the garden, as that will be the key feature of the home. I envision outdoor grilling and dinners under the grapevines. I met recently with a landscape architect, and hope to interview a couple more, to help me plan something. This winter I will start on the project and hope to have a the big “reveal” in spring 2014.

Indoors, the kitchen will be the first phase.

So the focus of this blog will change slightly now. It will transition (slowly) from the raw grief of loss to the excitement of creating a retreat in the wine country. At no point will this transition mean that somehow there is “closure,” because there is no such thing. It simply means that I am going to move a little closer to the next phase.

18 Jun 2013

The Phantom Limb

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There is a phenomenon among amputees called “phantom limb,” in which the person still feels the missing limb is attached to the body and moving. Typically the sensation is a painful one, according to Wikipedia.

That pretty much describes where I am these days, except it’s “phantom mom.” It’s the frequent split-second thought, reaction, or movement…when I expect to see or hear her. Or I turn to the phone to call. Or I check email to see if there’s anything from her. Or I drive up to the house, expecting to see her at the door. In the same breath I realize that she is, of course, not there. Still.

16 Jun 2013

Reflections on Fathers’ Day

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Growing up, I hated Fathers’ Day. My father was diagnosed with stomach cancer when I was two months old, and he died when I was three. I felt it really did not pertain to me. The whole American take on it—BBQ, scotch, golf—was utterly irrelevant.

In elementary school, there was an annual Father-Daughter dinner that I found insulting. Of course, this was long before political correctness and an awareness of different family structures came into consciousness, particularly in schools. I went with a friend and her father once or twice, but I remember distinctly feeling like a charity case.

As I grew into adulthood, I realized that my mother was really playing both roles—bearing the entire burden of raising me. And sometimes I could sense the weight of the burden on her. So often she seemed anxious, stressed, overwhelmed. My father’s absence was a cause of significant challenges in our relationship as she often felt utterly alone, and she grasped at me for support that, as a daughter, I could not give. I was not her partner. We spoke of this later in life, when we finally reached a point when she could be honest and put words to her sense of isolation.

Later in adulthood I was better equipped emotionally to stand by her, be a friend. In fact she would often say how I sounded like him, sometimes verbatim, when I was pontificating on some point.

When I was in the Acores a few years ago I met a cousin for the first time. His mother was my father’s sister (follow?). He was old enough to remember my father before he moved to the United States. It was great to talk to someone who remembered him. My father was adventurous, entrepreneurial, philosophical and a great storyteller. Everyone on the island knew him and respected him. He was also someone who did not mind saying what he felt, and acting on it.

Of course, both she and my father are in me.

At my mother’s memorial recently, I read this poem as a dedication to both of them.

From nothingness, from the play of molecules

in evolution,

pass through countless generations, tokens of

vitality and form, my seed atoms came from you.

Carried on a wave of chance, coincidence

and hidden necessity,

my portion of cosmic dust passed through you.

I am awed by the miracle at each step

that leads to my being. Yet here I am!

And so, you are.

I am the messenger of my father and mother,

a conduit for your future, and through this

you live in me.

Not just the stuff of your genes, but the stuff

of your dreams, too.

For as I feel the years imprint their inevitable marks

on my skin,

I look more honestly and clearly into my soul

and see you.

I feel your fears and sorrows in my chest, caught in

the intake of my breath, thumping in my heart;

I feel your cherished joys pumping through my veins

when I hear a favorite song,

after I’ve run along my Skyline,

when I look out on the waves, or face the sun

and feel it warm my smile.

If I’m quiet and still enough, I can feel you

living through me.

I recognize your spirit stirring memories,

emotions and desires.

Sometimes I look out on my world as if my eyes

are windows on our common soul.

I share this with you in gratitude and love.

Always.

–Christian de Quincey

 

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