Saturday, March 20, 2010

Long, Maudlin Post

I just found out from my sister in Michigan that my Aunt Dorothy died. Dorothy was Teh 'Dad's older sister. She was 92.

Ian, Teh 'Bride and I will be heading down to Philadelphia today for our usual weekly visit with Teh 'Dad, so we will probably be the ones who break the news to him.

I'm pretty sure Teh 'Dad will take the news in his usual restrained way. He loved his sister, but Teh 'Dad has experienced so much loss in his long life that I think he has to kinda wall himself off from his feelings; because if he allowed himself to feel them too deeply, he might spend the rest of his days doing nothing but weeping. I know there are times when that's exactly what I feel like doing when I think about these things too much.

Teh 'Dad had seven kids, three of whom he has already outlived: My brother Frank died when he was 30; my sister Laura when she was 46; and my sister Virginia just after her 49th birthday.

I have one child and I simply do not know how Teh 'Dad (and Teh 'Mom, when she was still alive) managed to keep going after the loss of a child, much less the loss of three. I guess in part they kept on going for the sake of the rest of us, but you hear stories all the time about parents who, after the loss of a child, basically give up on life. They get depressed; they withdraw; they drink; or they just literally die themselves of heartbreak.

I get that. I get that entirely, because I'm pretty sure it's exactly how I would react.

I think no one knows better than Teh 'Dad — knows viscerally; knows in the gut — the truth of that famous line uttered by one of Saul Bellow's characters: "[E]veryone on this side of the grave is the same distance from death". I'm sure Teh 'Dad expected to die long before any of his children; because that's how it should be; that's the way life goes. That is the natural order of things. Except when it isn't. And it always seemed arbitrarily cruel to me that Teh 'Dad has had to endure seeing not one, not two, but three of his children die. I too was affected by all of this because they were my brother and sisters; but I did not fully comprehend until Virginia's death, which occurred after we got Ian, how different the feeling that a parent has for his child is. I'm pretty sure I have harped on this in other posts on my other blogs, but I learned it rather late in life and when I did finally learn it, it came to me with the force of a revelation. There is simply no equivalent to it — there is nothing as profound, as all-consuming, as true as that love, for if there is anything that is both true and good in this life it is a mother's love for her son, a father's love for his daughter — a parent's love for his child. And that unique love has to evolve because even though you as a parent feel essentially the same way about your child when he is 50 as you did when he was 5, you can't express that love the same way; part of that love has to be allowing the child to grow up, make his own mistakes, become responsible for himself.

It is hard to do.

When another kid picks on Ian or hurts him emotionally or physically — which doesn't happen often — I find I have to restrain myself from teaching that other kid a lesson. But Ian's 10 now, and I have to let him fight his own fights. I was allowed to when I was 10. But that parental love pulls you in opposite directions: The understandable desire to Defend My Child At All Costs must give way to the necessity of Letting Him Stand Up For Himself.

All of this has very little to do with my Aunt Dorothy. But I'm getting to that.

Teh 'Bride and I recently attended a funeral. The mother of the assistant director at Teh 'Bride's library died. She was 98. I used to work at Teh 'Bride's library but I quit one day eight-and-a-half years ago over a blatant injustice that is irrelevant to this particular story, but which I mention here only to point out that I have not set foot in that library — which is my local library, two miles away — from that day to this. I shook the dust off my feet when I left, vowing never to return.

But Floyd, the assistant director, never wronged me and so I told Teh 'Bride — without her even having to ask (which she wouldn't have done because she knows how I feel about her library and about many of the people who work there) —  that I would attend Floyd's mother's funeral. I knew Floyd's mother lived with him and that they were very close. Nevertheless, I was thinking, Well, she was 98. How unexpected could this have been? He'll be upset, of course, but probably not too upset.

Of course I was wrong.

When we got to the funeral service, Floyd, even now, days after his mother's death, was visibly upset, still, and said to us he just hoped he could hold it together long enough to get through the eulogy. He was very appreciative of my attending his mother's service because he knew how I felt about the library and many of the people there. I tried to tell him that he should be prepared for these waves of emotion to come over him at the oddest times. I am not sure if I managed to convey what I meant in a coherent manner. I told him that I watched, essentially dry-eyed, as my mother, comatose from a heart attack, died in a hospital bed; I sat dry-eyed through her funeral mass.

And three days later, while making the coffee early one morning before work, I broke down sobbing loudly enough to wake Teh 'Bride from a sound sleep upstairs. And I realized why the sound of the coffee being made caused this: My mother gave birth to, and raised, seven children. By the time I was 6 (and my youngest sister, the seventh child, was a mere 1 year old), she was also working full-time as a teacher in the Philadelphia public school system. Teh 'Mom didn't sleep much — she was a bit of an insomniac — and she would rise before the rest of us and have her coffee in the morning alone. As the mother of seven with a full-time job, she did not have very much time to herself: These mornings alone with her coffee in a temporarily quiet home were her mini-vacations — her me time. The only real me time she had.

And the sound of the coffee forced me, finally, to realize that. When I was a somewhat troubled beginning college student, still living at home, and I would hear her downstairs making coffee, I would sometimes come down and join her and we would have coffee together. And she would ask me what was bothering me because she knew. And I would say that nothing was bothering me but she knew I had come down so that I could be alone with her and we could talk. And I realize only now that I was intruding on her me time, but I never knew that then because she never begrudged me the time. She just asked me, "What's the matter?" and kept talking to me until I told her and she listened and she made me feel better about myself and that — making me feel better — was more important to her than her "me time" ... which she had never really claimed as her own, anyway. It was always provisional. She'd give it up gladly if one of us needed her.

And I wanted to say to Floyd, it may not be coffee, but it will be something, and when it comes it will be unexpected, and because it is unexpected it will hit you like a truck, and you'll be unprepared and it will hurt. But it will also mean that your mother made a big difference to you and you'll be glad it hurts because that's what love for someone who has died feels like.

And I realized what an idiot I had been for thinking, O, his mother was 98. He must have been prepared.

You're never prepared.

My mother died when she was 71 — which is about a decade longer than anyone else in her family ever lived — and I wasn't prepared.

Floyd's mother was 98 and the moving eulogy he gave — his voice broke once, but he did manage to hold it together — proved, yet again, as though it needed any further proof, that he was not prepared.

And we just got back from our visit with Teh 'Dad and we told him of his 92-year-old sister Dorothy's death and the catch in his voice when he said, "She died? O, she was such a beautiful woman!" told us he was not prepared, either.

Thirty years is not enough.

Forty-six years is not enough.

Forty-nine years is not enough.

Seventy-one years is not enough.

Ninety-two years is not enough.

Ninety-eight years is not enough.

None of it is enough.

There is never enough time.


  1. That is a lot of loss. i'm truly sorry. losing a parent, sibling or child is something that has to be dealt with in your own very personal way.

  2. No, there isn't enough time. Never is. Even working with hospice, even taking care of families who know that death is imminent, when death actually happens, it still throws them.

    I was 29 when I had my first-born, almost 21 years after my mom had died. I thought I was over her death until I brought my son home, then all of a sudden, I was thrown all over again. I missed her with an acute pain that I didn't think I could feel after all that time.

    I'm glad you and TB2 were there for Teh 'Dad with the news.

  3. Hey you're back...

    I completely get the thing about wanting to crack some skulls when someone hurts one of my kids...I never knew there was such anger inside me.

    We lost my MIL about a month ago. It's never easy. I agree

    PS...glad you're back to blogging. I've missed your rants :-)

  4. Sorry for your family's loss, thanks for reminding me to never waste a day...

  5. You seem to have found your genre, G. You are a seriously gifted, thoughtful writer of "long maudlin posts". I am sorry for your loss. It must have been so hard to watch Teh' Dad process the news.

    Your post made me cry and remember my dad. He died of lung cancer five years ago. I stopped crying about it after six months or so...but not really, because you are so right about it hitting you unexpectedly.

    Thanks for the post, G.

  6. Tom:
    A heart-felt and heart-stirring post. I'm sorry for the family's loss. Everything you said is so true and you wrote it beautifully. Thanks.

  7. that was moving. thank you.