Defining death. To a child.

I love words. I love reading and writing and hearing peoples’ stories, and telling them, myself. Anyone who knows me will freely say that I’m not often at a loss for words. I’m finding, though, that as a parent of a nearly three-year-old child,  attempts to describe or define the meaning of words and actions often leave me without the means to accurately convey a concept. To be sure, some of it is developmental; small children are not the most abstract thinkers. But beyond that, there’s a desire to shield him from the ugliness of the world, at least for now, while still making good on my values to raise him in honesty and reality.

As we walked through the cemetery in our neighborhood yesterday afternoon, I thought of my mom, as I often do, and that I should visit her grave. It’s been awhile; I have a hard time ascribing meaning to that space. I asked D if he wanted to visit Grandma Patti’s cemetery, and he said yes. He immediately started chattering as we walked home, about seeing her, bringing her some of the chocolate strawberries his dad had made for me the day before. We talk to him about my mom a lot, show him photos, tell him stories, to help him understand her importance in our lives. It broke my heart to listen to him, knowing that I needed to try to explain the reality of the situation.

We got to her grave, and he smiled, recognizing my mom and dad on the etching in the headstone. “Is Papa Steve coming here, too?” he asked. I told him no. A car pulled up, and he stood, wondering aloud if that was Grandma Patti. He really believed he was going to see her. I took a breath, and asked him to sit with me. I said, “Grandma Patti isn’t with us anymore.”He asked where she was. Knowing that he attends church with his other papa, I tried to use terms that he might have some concept of; “She’s an angel now. She’s all around us. She watches us.” He just looked at me. I finally decided to try to level with him, as leveling with a three year old is always the smart choice (ha ha). I said, “Honey, Grandma was really sick. There was something in her body that made her very, very sick, and it made her heart stop working. We need our hearts to live-so we can breathe, and play, and be with other people. She can’t do those things anymore. Her body didn’t work, and now it’s here, in this ground, to be kept safe. This big stone helps people to remember who she was, and lets us come visit her and think about her.” The entire time, I kept telling myself to stop talking, to stop being so pseudo-biological and blunt about it.

He listened, looking at the ground and running his fingers through the thick grass around him. “She’s in heaven?” he said. “Yes, baby.” “Oh.” For a moment, he looked like he might start crying, and I regretted all of it. Enough of us had shed tears over her loss, and I didn’t want him to take on that burden. Not yet. He never even got to know her, just being held by her once, when he was three days old. And then she was gone. But, I think he understood, as much as his three year old abilities would permit him. “You miss your mommy, Mom?” I blinked back tears. “Yes, I do.” He gave me a little smile.

We started to get up to leave, and I said my goodbyes aloud to my mom. He followed my lead, and said, “Bye, Grandma Patti. I love you and miss you. The doctors will come and fix your heart to work again, and you will come back to life”, blowing her a kiss. More blinked-back tears. That innocence over the permanence of death, the desire to make someone else feel better, made me both incredibly sad and happy at the same time. He’s trying to understand how others feel, while learning to manage his own emotions within those contexts. That’s a hard thing, something that most of us struggle with well into adulthood.

As I drove home, him watching a show on my phone, I thought about what happened. Maybe it was OK that I shared what I did; after all, life does not exist within an absence of conflict and sadness. I want him to grow with the understanding that it’s OK to display emotion, to communicate pain in a constructive manner. Maybe he can’t really grasp the concept of death, but he can understand sadness and hurt and love. Something that my mom instilled in us was empathy, and to truly see people and their complexities, even if they aren’t on full display. This experience with D yesterday made me hope that perhaps I am starting to lay the same foundation for him, to help him intuit what is in other people’s hearts, even if he can’t fully know what has hurt them.

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For my mom.

I lost my mom last week. Fifteen months of battling lung cancer that spread to her bones and kidneys, and it finally became too much for her. I knew on the very day of her diagnosis last year that this would take her, and the manner in which it would do so, and so I began to prepare. We all watched as she dealt with the side effects of her chemotherapy, losing a startling amount of weight, her hair, as well as her normally endless energy. We almost lost her last year after her first round of chemotherapy left her so weak with pneumonia that I still don’t know quite how she survived it. I often felt frustrated at the universe for giving my mom so many “sick days”, when I would see other women out shopping with their friends and daughters, clearly battling some sort of cancer, but healthy enough to enjoy life regularly. My mom didn’t get that. I remember telling her that, and her getting upset, having taken what I was trying to say the wrong way. She thought I was blaming her. I wasn’t, I was trying to communicate my sadness for what she was experiencing, but that was the nature of our relationship. Contentious, edgy, misunderstanding each other around every corner.

I never understood who she was, thought she had no interests or hobbies, wondered silently throughout my life why she didn’t “get a life”-go out with friends, cultivate interests, be her own person. In turn, she often felt that I was uptight, had self-absorbed interests and ideas, and I believe that she often thought that I believed I was smarter than her. In fact, she said as much to me, a few years back. During what I thought was a pleasant conversation, she suddenly erupted, “You think I’m stupid, that I’m not as smart as you are.” I remember confusion being replaced by shock, and my dad quietly suggesting to her, “That is your thing, not hers. She’s not implying that.” Our conversations were frequently a near-miss.

In all the horror of her illness and death, there was a beauty in learning about who she truly was. My mom DID have interests, joys and hobbies-her family and friends. She loved my dad with her whole heart, and never wanted to be a day without him. And each of us, even me-she worried endlessly about our happiness, even if it came out wrong sometimes. “Call or text me when you get there”, she say to me as I left town for work. I would roll my eyes, and say, “No, Mom..I’m a grown woman, I’m not going to do that.” I wish now I had just appeased her anxiety, and said, “OK, Mom”. Her passion and caring often erupted from her in a loud voice, and I would shut down, feeling “yelled at”. She was just trying to convey how much she felt what she was trying to communicate. In the last few months before her death, I spent many days caring for her, and while it broke my heart to have to remind her multiple times about why she was taking medication, or to wash her bald head with “that soap that smells so nice”, I feel so lucky that I had that time alone with her, for us to really connect for the first time, to talk about life and what her greatest joys were, what she would miss. She worried endlessly that she wouldn’t meet Dempsey, and it made me so happy on the day that she was able to rub his little head and kiss him. I feel at ease knowing that she died knowing how much I really did love her.

In the days after her death, there was an outpouring of stories from my mom’s friends, family, co-workers and students about her impact on them. The common thread in all of them was that she made them feel cared about, accepted, worth something. Despite all our differences, I always knew that my sense of social justice, of inclusion, of doing the right thing came directly from her, but I was humbled at the far-reaching impact this seemingly simple woman had on so many people throughout her entire life. I can only hope that I’ll have half the impact on others that she did, that I will raise Dempsey to be a man of strong moral character, with a heart of love to offer the world. Those were her gifts to the people that she loved, and even now, I can feel those things all around me.

To everyone that has shared their love and support with our family over the past year and a half, and particularly in the past week-thank you. You will never know the gratitude that we feel. Each of you has been a beautiful tribute to my mother, and her life.

A word on tragedy.

A precursor:  Some of you reading this may find it offensive, and that is OK.  Strong events evoke strong reactions, and this is mine.  I will not respond to, or validate any negativity from anyone.

Let me just put it out there-I can’t take anymore posts, news, information, stagnant lamenting about the horrible events of this past week.

What happened is beyond comprehension, because it was a senseless act.  There is no rationalizing any of it.  Innocent people died-many of them small children.  Like everyone else, it hurts my heart.  No one should have to endure such violence, and its resulting echo. I can’t even fathom what those involved feel, in the depths of their hearts.

I am bothered by the credence that tragedy is given, not just with this, but with the countless horrid things that happen daily in the world.  With every post about the gunman’s troubled past, we place a spotlight on his actions, thus making him the most prominent individual in this situation, not the victims.  Does endless information regarding his “social awkwardness” or possible Asperger’s Syndrome help us to make sense of the senseless? No.  Does post after post on social media asking others to wear Sandy Hook school colors, or regarding your own new-found fears of sending your child to school help anyone? Not likely.  As much as your heart hurts for those involved, remember that you weren’t.  Be thankful for that.  We are no more or less safe than we were the day before this happened.  Be mindful of the fact that children learning of this event will likely find themselves worrying about formerly unthinkable things, and will not benefit from any added amplification of those fears.

I do not mean to discredit the sympathy that we all feel for those involved (and I do feel a very deep, abiding sympathy), but I do take issue with the way we choose to channel it.  We are saturated with media coverage that places a high value on the quantification of tragedy; that is, referring to events such as these as “the worst school shooting in history” or “the second worst school shooting in history”.  Every school shooting is the worst one, for those experiencing it, and really, for our nation as a whole.  To buy into this rhetoric is to support the categorization of death’s significance,  according to the number killed. And that’s the exact opposite of what the true issue at hand really is.

So, pray and offer up a supportive thought for those suffering, in the silence of your day. And if you want to see change in our communities-stop talking about it, and do something.  Instead of perpetuating despair, perpetuate life.  Because in the midst of death and loss and unthinkable sadness, there is even greater love and joy and peace to be found.  Be a part of that.  Choose to move forward.

Legacy.

My paternal grandmother passed away last weekend, and yesterday was her funeral. These things, of course are never comfortable or easy, no matter what your relationship to the deceased. People came and went,paid their respects, and then the service got underway. I have to say that I immediately zone out whenever religious language enters the picture. It just bores me into a dazed-like state, especially in those situations, where the officiant is reciting canned words that have been used for (presumably) hundreds of other funerals.

So, fast forward to the part where he starts “speaking from the heart”, and all of the sudden I hear him say, “…and my last name is________, which is Polish, just like Olshewske…” and he continued on. Wait, what? Who is Polish? Olshewske? What? I started looking around, trying to make eye contact with someone, anyone, who just caught that. Nope. Everyone remained still and focused. So I decided in that moment that I missed some crucial precursor to that statement that would’ve made it all sensible, because let’s face it-he lost me at “Let us bow our heads.” It was anyone’s game at that point.

Later that afternoon, everyone gathered to eat. As I stood in line with my dad, waiting to grab some grub, I said, “Soo, what was that about? That Olshewske/Polish thing?” He looked at me, and said, “Yeah, I have no idea.” Me: “Is anyone in our family Polish? Was that Grandmas’ maiden name?” No to both questions. Then I *really* didn’t understand. What the hell was he talking about? The only conclusion I eventually came to was that maybe it was a multiple-gig day, and he was confusing his families. Either way, I feel like that is one of the times in life when one really might want to pay attention to detail.

Later that night it struck me that *I* wasn’t even sure of these pieces of family information. I was thinking about how earlier, I saw my grandmother’s life in pictures, and realized that this was a life I knew nothing about. My brothers, sister and I were never close to her, and so it went that we didn’t know much about the person that she was, nor did she about us. Surely, she was a somewhat contentious person throughout her life, but nonetheless, it felt sad, and…final. The finality that the potential for a relationship has passed, without me ever really knowing that part of where I come from, and without her ever knowing the extension of the life and family she created.

I think what was most difficult about it all was watching my father experience it. Not once during the service did he lift his head, and I wondered then about what he was thinking, if snippets of his life and memory of her were dancing across his mind, conjuring his senses. The sandpapery sound of her voice, the way her house smelled like home to him no matter where she moved to, the way she looked the last time was able to speak to her. Not knowing the way it feels to lose a parent, I can only imagine the things that your mind brings to the forefront. What I do know, though, is that no matter what she did in life, she produced my father. And to me, that’s a pretty respectable legacy.

And despite it all yesterday, he still managed to find something to laugh about. That’s one of the million things that makes him who he is-the ability to keep an open heart.