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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Damn Tear-Jerking Doll

It seems I can't escape the emotional roller coaster that wants me to ride it over and over and over again.

Yesterday I went to Ft. Lee with my mom. Because my dad was retired Army, she had paperwork she needed to complete after his death and she asked me with her to the casualty assistance office to finalize the everything with my dad's passing. My mom told me she wanted me to come along for moral support, and to help her ask questions if she needed something clarified. The whole process seemed pretty cut and dried ~ at least I thought it was.

We sat in the office with Mrs. Hicks. She was a lovely lady who knew how to go above and beyond in order to help my mom with questions, concerns and the whole process of transitioning from the title of spouse to that of widow. As we finished with all of the paperwork signing and question answering, we got up to head to a different office, to ask different questions. Before we could leave the office, Mrs. Hicks stopped at a giant filing cabinet. She opened the bottom drawer and asked my mom if she had any grandchildren as she pulled this doll from her cabinet.

I thought to myself as I looked at it, Oh, how silly. We don't need dolls. 

I told Mrs. Hicks so as I said, "All of the grandchildren are teenagers. The youngest is 13. I don't think we need any, but thank you." 

And then I looked at the doll. I really looked at the doll. In the space where the face is pictured was a little piece of paper that said, "Please remove and replace with a picture of a soldier you miss." The tears came unbidden as I took in the true meaning of the doll. It's for children whose soldier parents are now gone. I pictured my dad's face in the spot where the paper was. I pictured Zach's face in there as he prepares to head to Virginia Military Institute and will have to decide whether a career in the military is for him. I pictured the thousands of faces of soldier parents who aren't coming home. And the tears fell. Unexpected and unwelcome tears. That damn doll nearly broke my heart. All because of its true meaning.

These past weeks have been harder than I could ever imagine.

And the coming weeks will be harder, but in a different way. I have to say, "Farewell," as I pack Zach's belongings and take him to his university where he will have untold opportunities, both academically and personally. I'm excited for him. I truly am, but I am going to miss his sweet, smiling face and man-child ways.

The doll. It brought tears to my eyes and an ache to my heart, but I know it's a good thing. The damn tear-jerking doll. It's a new little treasure in our house and in our hearts.

Oh, for the love of my children....

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Saying Good-bye to Frank the Tank

Today was my dad's funeral and this was my final tribute to him at his mass.

Frank. My dad. He was quite a character, and he was many things to many people. He lived his life for others. He lived his life with honor and integrity. He was a complex man who never shied from a laugh but one who didn't particularly care to share the warm and fuzzy aspects of life with many. Don't get me wrong, I know he felt the warm and fuzzies, he just didn't care to talk about them much. It wasn't always easy to talk with him about the lovier side of life. So I want to share my story of the man I called dad in a way I think I do it best, through a letter I began writing this to him before he passed away, but didn’t finish until after he left us.

Dear Dad,

Through your life you have taken on many names. And you relished each and every one of them. To Chris and me you started as Daddy and then became Dad. To mom, when you crossed the line and she was beyond irritated with you, you became "Well, Crap Frank," but on most other occasions, your name, Frank, rolled off of mom's tongue with loving tenderness. To some of your friends you were called "The Gum Gardner" because of your devotion to your patients, and to your profession. To your brother, sisters you were Frankie or "The Imp." You were the youngest, so you endured what was heaped upon you. Your name with your grandkids was Granddad and Grandpa. I know there are many other names you were blessed to have, but I think my favorite name for you is the one you earned last. "Frank the Tank." That name was bestowed on you in your final days, but it sums up perfectly who you were throughout your life. You embody the name Frank the Tank. You plowed through situations none of us could ever imagine. And you did it with ease, never complaining one iota.

Before I started this letter I said, you worked and lived your whole life for someone else. I don't mean that you were a doormat or a pushover. What I mean is, you lived your life for mom, for us and for your friends. You weren't a big, showy type of a person. So sometimes we overlooked the little things you did to live your life for others. You never bragged about things you did, or any of the things you accomplished in your quest to live your life for someone else. You probably never told anyone many of the things you did for others, but they were there, at the core of your being. And it was at the end of your days where I saw it the most. I know you were never one to complain. I know you always wanted others to be happy, even at your own expense. At the end, when the pain from your hip had to be more than many people could bear, we would all ask, "How are you today?" You would say, with a smile on your face, "I'm fine. I'm just fine." And you meant it. You lived your life for us. You made sure, until the end of your life, that our pain was eased while you endured your own. In all of this, you were the living, breathing entity of living life for others.

You were a man of honor and integrity. You taught Chris and me how to live our own lives with the same honor and integrity. You weren't perfect, so don't think I'm blowing sunshine up your you-know-what. I just want you to know it was the perfection of your imperfections that taught us the most. Your most shining moment, to me anyway, was when (at the age of 75) you realized you had a problem with alcohol and you fixed it. You fixed your imperfection and you showed us it's never too late to make amends, to turn things around and to right things that aren't quite right. In that shining moment of a perfectly imperfect time, you showed us how to live life with integrity and honor. You looked at yourself in the mirror and you saw a man you didn't like so you changed him and you set a wonderful example for all of us to follow. I couldn't be more proud of you for the strength and courage it took for you to admit your faults. It took honor and integrity to admit you had a problem, to admit you had a fault.

So, I want you to know, Dad, that I think you did a good job here on earth. I look around this room and I see how impactful your life was on others. I told you a little of this before you left us, but I never got the chance to tell you exactly why I think you did such a good job. I look at Chris and myself and I see happiness in our lives. Chris and I grew up and we grew up well. We have happy marriages and beautiful kids who are part of your legacy. You and mom set a prime example of how to live, how to love and how to work through good times and bad. You set the example of making marriage work and work well. Stan and I, along with Chris and Tammy, have a beautiful path to follow because of you. I look around this room and I see your six stunning grandchildren. Each and every one of them has a special course in life and a special role in this world because of you. I look at Kristine and Zach, both outstanding students, always striving to do their best. You always demanded excellence, not only of yourself but us as well. Kristine and Zach have taken your example to heart and are running forward with it. I look at Katrina and Lucas, the two who follow your example for being the ones who strive to make other people happy and put someone else's needs above their own. I said above you never complained and you made it look easy to make others happy. Katrina and Lucas are working to follow in your footsteps. I look at Karli and Claire, they are the two lovey ones. They are the ones who freely gave you their love and demanded a little more of you than you were ever used to, but they were the two who sensed your lovey side and captured it. They took your deep, abiding love for your family and they magnified it. You did a good job. The more I look around this room and the more people I know are here, I know what a supremely good job you did. Your friends and your family came to bid you farewell. And they wouldn't do that for just an ordinary man. People only do that for others when they've lived a good life, and you obviously did. People are here for you because of the wonderful job you did living your life. You weren't perfect. No one is. But you were perfectly you and you did a good job. I couldn't be more proud to be your daughter. I couldn't be more proud to have been able to call you daddy and dad. You were a wonderful man whose life here on earth is at an end, but you lived such an honorable, integrity-filled, good life that your legacy will carry on.

One final thing, Dad, I know you never were one for sappiness. But I have to leave you with a quote that you might just believe rank up there in the sappiness quotient. You goal in life was to laugh and make others laugh. So although this is a little sappy, it truly fits you. Perfectly...

On Mother's Day I gave Mom a card from one of my favorite card companies. Just as a little aside, Mother's Day is the day you left us, so I have to believe there is a bigger picture to this story. The logo for this card company is the hummingbird. I think you might know why the hummingbird is important to this story...because it reminds me of you. When we went camping every summer you would always mix up the bright-red. sticky. sweet, syrupy water, fill the hummingbird feeder and put it just outside of the window so we could watch the beautifully, delicate creatures who came to enjoy the meal you carefully prepared for them. So when I read the back of the card I gave to Mom and saw the story of the hummingbird, I knew I had to share it with you, "Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy and celebration. The hummingbird's delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life's sweetest creation."

Thanks for listening, Dad. Until we meet again.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Too tired to feel

Three and a half years ago, I started this blog it with the sole intent of telling my children's stories. I wanted to document, relish and mourn the passing of time with them. One of my first blogs was about Zach's march toward freedom and his learner's permit. I waxed poetic (or maybe not quite so poetic) about how it made me feel to think one of my children would soon be a little more grown up and ready to leave our nest.

Today, Lucas achieved the same milestone that was the catalyst for the this blog. He took the test so he could get his learner's permit. And he passed.

I couldn't be more proud of him. 

But today was totally different then it was three years ago when I dreaded the day I had to take Zach to the DMV. I counted down those days, wishing each one back as the days flew by, faster and faster.  

Today snuck up on me. I knew it was coming, but I didn't know it was today. Lucas had to remind me this morning by asking if I was going to pick him up early so he could take his test. My focus has been everywhere but on my feelings of sadness about my sweet, little Lucas growing up and getting ready to stretch his wings a little. 

I haven't been here for a while, on this blog. I haven't had time to blog. Or maybe, really, I simply haven't had the emotional energy to blog, or work on my books. I'll tell the story of why I don't have the emotional energy. I think it all ties together on why I let Lucas' learner's permit test day sneak up on me...

Since the end of February my dad has had two heart attacks and two strokes.  

The heart attacks put him in the hospital for a week each. His heart can't be repaired. It's too weak and the arteries are too calcified to risk stenting them. His cardiologist wouldn't touch his arteries with a ten foot pole. The surgery could have easily killed him. Instead, medications were ordered to help keep the heart attacks at bay and his heart pumping as well as it could.

After the two heart attacks came the strokes...

The first stroke hit while Claire and I were cavorting through France with her French class. I got a phone call from one of my parents' neighbors one night at dinner. She had no idea I was in France. She wanted to know what happened to my dad and couldn't get a hold of my mother, so she called me. According to my friends, my face turned white when I saw who was calling me. I had a feeling something would happen while we were gone, but I never considered a stroke. I talked to Stan and he eased my fears, and my conscience, a little when he told me that my dad was doing pretty well for a man who had two heart attacks and a stroke. I breathed a little sigh of relief, kept the news from Claire and finished out our trip. My dad was released from the hospital the day Claire and I flew home.  It was the day before Easter and plans were made for Easter Mass and a lovely dinner and family time. It was good to be home.

We stopped at my parents' house on the way to ours. I needed to see my parents. I needed to see my dad. I needed to know he was OK. I needed to tell him our stories. I needed to be there.

On Sunday morning as we were getting ready for Mass, and dinner and family time, I got a text from my mom that went something like this...

"Dad's left side of his face is sagging and his speech is slurred."

And then my phone rang.  It was my mom.  It looked like he had another stroke. The ambulance was called and another trip to the emergency room began. I told my mom I'd meet her there. Claire and I rushed to get ready and out the door. All three of us arrived at the same time. 

We converged on the ER waiting room and then it happened. The thing I didn't think could happen. My mom broke down in tears. In all of the other three emergencies, she held it together. She was tough and strong. But on Easter morning, she broke down and I was the one who had to try to be strong for her. I had to take on the role of the protector, the strong one. It was up to me, in that instance, to be the strong one. 

My dad was re-admitted to the hospital less than 18 hours after he was discharged. They believe he had a TIA (trans-ischemic attack), which is where blood flow to part of the brain is stopped briefly, causing stroke-like symptoms.  His face mostly recovered and his speech came back within hours, but his vision was gone. They put him on the neurology floor to observe him for the night. 

In the middle of that first night back, my dad got out of bed to use the bathroom and he fell. His hip fractured at the top. The ball joint just snapped. His hip broke in two. Early that next afternoon, Easter Monday, a decision was reached by the doctors that my dad's hip needed to be replaced. Everything happened so fast. There was no time to think. No time to feel. We just had to act. Decisions flew by left and right.  He was scheduled for surgery late Monday afternoon.

Not long after they took him down for surgery, the phone in the waiting room rang for my mom. It was the surgeon. My dad's blood pressure couldn't be stabilized, it was bottoming out. His heart wasn't strong enough for surgery. They were calling to ask permission to stop resuscitative measures on my dad. We were told he wasn't going to make it. We were told to come and say good-bye.

The tears began to flow. My mom said, "I'm not ready to let him go." It was the hardest sentence I've ever heard my mom say. 

My brother, mother and I went to say our good-byes. And wouldn't you soon as he heard my mom's voice he opened his eyes and a little color came back to his cheeks. The color of death began to fade away.  

He's still here, but he's not the same.  It's been a rough three weeks, or three months if you throw in his heart attacks. His vision is gone. His hearing is gone. He's lost so much weight that his dentures don't stay in. He's a shell of himself. He doesn't know who I am. At least I don't think he does. Sometimes he thinks I'm his sister, sometimes he just really doesn't know who I am, but he tries hard not to admit it. Sometimes he thinks it's 1957. Sometimes he thinks its 1640. I think he knows who my mom is, which is the only small, bright spot in all of this.  

We put him in a nursing home and planned his funeral.  The nursing home will probably be where he lives out the remainder of his days there, however long that will be.

I said above that I've been too busy to blog, and then I said I didn't have the emotional energy to blog. But the truth of the matter is that I haven't wanted to blog. I haven't wanted to see this story down in black and white. I haven't wanted to tell this story because telling it makes it real and I don't want it to be real. I don't want to feel the emotions of this story. 

I remember when I was in the thick of having babies and raising little ones. People would ask me how old my kids were and I would respond with, "They're five, two and half and six months," or, "they're 10, seven and five" or, "they're 15, 12 and 10." And invariably people would say, "Oh, you're one busy mom. I don't know how you do it."

Well, when you're in the thick of things you just do it. You bull through it and do it. When the kids were babies, there wasn't time to feel. There was just time to do. That's kind of how it is now. There's not a whole lot of time to feel. It's only time to do. It's the only way to survive. 

I don't know who I'm really kidding here.

The fact is, I don't want to feel. If I let the feelings take over too much it will result in a bone-crushing, soul-wrenching pain. And I don't have time for that.  

You see, in writing this down ~ in seeing it there in black and white ~ the story takes on a whole new meaning...

Lucas is my dad. If you didn't know any better, you'd swear they were biologically related. They're shaped the same. They can eat anything they want and never gain an ounce, but if you take one bite of food away from them, they lose weight faster than you can imagine. Neither of them ever complain about discomfort or pain. They both delight in the quirky and unusual. They have twisted senses of humor. They both share a love of history. But most importantly, for this story anyway, they have a wonderful, sweet, shared memory.

This evening after I dropped Claire at swim practice, I stopped by to see my dad. I wanted to tell him Lucas' happy news. I wanted him to hear it from me that Lucas got his learner's permit. And it was as I was saying, "Dad, guess what Lucas did today?" that I remembered. I saw my dad's eyes light up at the sound of Lucas' name and I remembered. My dad was the first one to take Lucas driving. Lucas was 13 years old when my dad took him out in his 1997 Lincoln Town Car. It's a giant behemoth of a car and he let Lucas drive it. He let Lucas cruise through the streets of their retirement community. And he never once batted an eye when Lucas rolled through stop signs or drifted to the center of the road. He just let Lucas drive. So today as I said, "Dad, guess what Lucas did?" and I watched his face light up at the sound of my voice and the mention of Lucas' name. I let Lucas' happy news roll off my tongue and saw my dad's excitement for him was genuine and from the heart. The gentleman sitting next to my dad clapped wildly for Lucas. And my heart broke a little more. 

I may be too tired to feel, but the feelings are there anyway. And it's a whole pot of emotions all stirred together in one giant bubbling mass, threatening to spill at any time. So if you see me and I look tired to you, know I already realize how tired I look, but please know I'm really not too tired to feel. I just really don't want to.

Oh, for the love of my children....