Christmas Peace Comes After Loss

Holidays have been really tough for me since 2013, a few months after my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Those last holidays together were excruciating and the years after have been difficult to say the least. You are just going through the motions feeling empty inside. While you try hard, it is never quite the same again and really that’s okay. It’s a change in your life, you keep old traditions and strive for new ones to make sense of the loss. The change is a way you cope and it seems that each year you embrace the old with the new, like feeling a warm hug from your lost loved one.

My mom loved the holidays and Christmas was her birthday so that day is a double whammy of grief for me and my daughters as well as the other people who loved my generous, kind badass of a mom. The first Christmas without her was blur and by the second Christmas, we no longer lived in the same house as so many of my memories which helped me immensely. But not everyone wants, can or needs to move, it’s just what happened in my life for other reasons but the change helped me spark into a new part of my life.

Last year, my oldest and middle daughter moved out just days before Christmas when my oldest bought her first house. Exciting and a little disconcerting at the same time. More changes. The nest was more empty but what I have found is that while at first, when that whole empty nest starts hitting you, you want to cling to the old and familiar life you had. That’s normal. I went from being a caretaker for my mom, to being an orphan, to having a mostly empty nest in just a few short years. Mid-life can be tough sometimes. There is a ton of transition not to mention the fact you realize, hey, my life isn’t all out there in front of me now like it was twenty years before. But that in of itself isn’t a bad thing either. I mean it sounds horrible but what it does is focus your energy, you start becoming very picky how you spend your time and whom you spend your time.

Chances are if you have made it midlife, you’ve seen some shit. You’ve dealt not only with joys and happy moments, but tragedy and loss. You’re nostalgic for the old days when you gathered at a table with your grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles but you realize that a good many of them may have passed or you live at different corners of the country. While this seems sad and it can be, you refocus once again on the ever-changing station of your life. This is the same things your grandparents and parents probably had to do. Let go of the past and embrace the present, the future. Nothing stays the same but there is joy in today.

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Mom opening presents

Today is a bit snowy and grey in northwestern Ohio promising a white Christmas tomorrow. After leaving my daughter’s house this afternoon, I decided to visit my mother’s grave as it will be arctic cold tomorrow and really, other than checking on it, I never feel that my mom is there. The graveyard sits on a hill above the small white clapboard Lutheran church where we have attended church off and on since the mid 1980’s. Many of the graves around my mom are people I knew as a kid and were very welcoming to us all these years. Before my mom passed, I would ride my bike on these hills and on a hot day, stop and sit under one of the pines to cool off. The graveyard is a peaceful, beautiful place if you aren’t creeped out by dead people (I am not). But since my mom has been buried here, it always made me incredibly sad and I avoid it for the most part other than to look after her grave.

When I drove out, I thought I’m probably just setting myself up to be down in the dumps. I was alone for the remainder of this Christmas Eve afternoon until my husband gets home later from work. I parked in the snowy circle next to my mom’s grave and bundled up. As I stood looking at her grave, I found I didn’t feel sadness but peace. My mom isn’t there, just her body. The graveyard is not a big one, but I walked to the side that faces the church standing between tall evergreens that have been there longer than I have been alive. The snow blanketed the plowed field between the church and cemetery, creating a pastoral winter scene that one might frame and hang on their wall. Maybe this is the point of acceptance. Not that I don’t miss my mom every day, but the point where peace finally settles over you like a warm blanket of love and memories.

I hesitate to say that I won’t have a day where I’m back at the cemetery in tears but this is a step beyond what I have felt. Grief isn’t something I do well but who does? My mom should be here with us, celebrating, wrapping presents, giving us orders on what food we will bring and so on. Except she’s not and it’s taken me four long years to get back into the Christmas spirit. A spirit that is different from my last happy Christmas. Loss changes you, changes the way you see life and now I embrace the small things even more. The edge softens and you start to be able to enjoy the happy memories without crying. There is no magic number or time that this will happen as I am certain it is personal for each one of us.

However, there is hope that one day the pain will dull, your heart will fill again with your changed life and while there is always that empty space, love fills that void allowing you to feel mostly whole again. The road to here isn’t easy. It really f’ing sucks. But now I understand how my grandparents were able to move on, their parents moved on and still be happy. They say that mid-life is one of the most unhappy points of a person’s life and I think with all the change along with just the stuff you have gone through just from living, it’s true. The flip side of that is that as people age past mid-life, they generally grow happier. I thought how could this be? But I think you grow and learn to appreciate the moment more. Each moment becomes more and more precious as your life quickly speeds past.

This year we started even more new traditions to keep our family close. First we had a Christmas Craft day where we did different crafts to help decorated cheaply for the holidays. I’m not a crafter so I rarely do this kind of thing since the girls have grown up. But it was so much fun as it was like when I used to do little projects with them as kids and we laughed so much. Then a few weeks later, we had our first official cookie baking day. Now I see why families do these kinds of activities as it’s a way to recapture the joy of having your kids around and doing what made you happy years ago. Just because the nest empties, doesn’t mean you can’t sit down and decorate sugar cookies with your kids anymore, it just means that the decorating might be more R rated than G now. Well, at least in my family where we all have a crazy sense of humor.

Life changes, you lose people your love, your kids grow up and move out and you get older but there are many beautiful things as well. There are the memories of holidays with my mom and the appreciation today of how our holidays have gone from complicated and exhausting to simple. That my kids can actually cut out and bake their own cookies, so I’m not exhausted by the end of cookie baking day. Where we can relate on a much different level, like friends, where it’s more fun anyway than telling them quit eating the icing. I seriously don’t miss fighting with them over things. I don’t miss them being little. One day, maybe I will have grandchildren but like my mom said the beauty of grandkids is you can spoil them and send them home. I can see where she is coming from even though I’m not a grandmother.

My Christmas Eve has been quiet and relaxing with a hike thrown in this afternoon. Ten years ago, it was always a frantic mess of wrapping presents, trying to do as much cooking as possible among tripping over a bunch of bodies milling in and out. I’m looking forward to tomorrow as I don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to rush through cooking, last minute present wrapping, etc. I’ve had the presents wrapped for a week. I have been spreading out the cooking the last few days. We have simplified our holiday menus, picking dishes that are easy to prepare rather than having more food than anyone could ever eat. Probably a leftover from when women stayed home and were graded on their homemaking skills. Now we’re out working and we don’t have time to make 3 kinds of cranberries. I get to pick how I want to do the day. There is no pressure. I wouldn’t care of my kids came over in the pajamas… None of that stuff ever mattered anyway. Being together matters.

I hope others who are grieving find some peace tonight and tomorrow, well, every day. As close as I was to my mother, I never thought I would really enjoy a holiday again. But I’m pleasantly surprised this year that I actually am looking forward to Christmas as is my daughters. Not that I haven’t had sad moments of missing my mom. They just are less frequent and intense. A relief from the past four years. Life changes, have faith that one day you will feel more peace. I don’t know when, but it happens.

Wishing you a very blessed Christmas (or your holiday celebration of choice) and a wonderful new year full of fun, love and laughter. Yes, there’s going to be some crappy stuff, but in between, I pray you find peace, love and joy. Bring on 2018!

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Life is So So Short… 

You hear all the cliches.  Life is short, YOLO, your health is everything, just do it, and so on.  They are everywhere you turn. When you are younger and you hear “if you have your health, you have everything”, you probably smile and nod then go on with your day.  It never really sinks in unless you are suffering some medical maladie at the time.  Most of these saying float around us, especially on social media, and we note them or ignore them but never really consider what they mean.

Yesterday was my first volunteer day at a local nursing home.  I chose the state-funded home rather than a private nursing home because they don’t have a lot of volunteers and most of their residents had no money or family to help care for them.  I’m no expert on nursing homes, so if this is ring, forgive me but that is my best guess.  My employer gives us one day a year to volunteer but while I used this paid day off to help, this is also my new volunteer project outside of work.  My therapist suggested that I was missing helping people and that maybe I try more volunteering.  I’ve been lost since my mom died and my girls are grown.  You go from being needed to being well, not needed quite as much.  And while I didn’t want to rush into something that would be as difficult as caring for a parent with terminal cancer, I did miss helping people.

I chose to try the nursing home becuase when my mom passed, we donated many of her medical supplies to this nursing home.  The lady who took them said how desperate they are in need for donations and help.  The building is an old brick building that once was an old infirmary.  The inside is a little dated and worn.  It’s not posh or set up to feel like a resident is in their own home.  It is simply like an older hospital inside.  They don’t have a lot of money to work with but the place is spotless and the residents are well cared for as far as I could tell.  When I walked in and asked the activities director about volunteering, she whisked me to a nurses station to start my TB test rounds.  They don’t get a lot of volunteers it seems.  It felt good to be needed again, even if it was for a few hours or so a week. 

People shy away from nursing homes because they seem depressing.  This is the place you go to die, confined to small areas.  And honestly, before my mom’s ordeal with cancer and her death, I felt the same.  What changed my mind was in the last weeks of her life, they had moved her to the nursing floor of the hospital and kept her there as long as they could to help us take care of her in her final days.  My mom at this point could not walk or care for herself, she was a shell of who she had once been which was a formidable force of nature who had rose through the ranks of her company to be one of the top people at her site.  Even today, people will tell me, I remember your mom.  She was quite a lady and didn’t mince words.  Yeah, that pretty much sums her up a bit.  She had spent so much time confined to her house and couldn’t do the things she loved anymore.  

For a month, she was under the care of the nursing floor.  They would have different people volunteer and come in and do crafts, or bring in a dog to visit her.  She had people around her in and out all the time.  The thing that was most surprising was she didn’t seem to want to rush home like her past hospital stays.  What you don’t realize is when a person loses their health, their world shrinks incredibly.  Suddenly instead of being grouchy that someone wanted to come sit and do a craft with her, she was excited about it.  Though it seems like a small thing, to her this person added happiness to her quickly fading life.  It gave her a way to feel productive and useful from her bed.  She crocheted up until the last few weeks of her life to keep herself productive.  She hated to be idle and useless.  I read a news story where a bed-ridden man knitted thousands of hats for people in need.  He couldn’t do much, but he could bring warmth and comfort to a stranger.  

The nursing staff became my mom’s friends and they joked with her, got to know us and even shared cake in our last birthday celebration (my husband, my daughter and my birthdays are all in February – my mom died mid-March) with her.  As sad as this all seems, they are the sweetest, most precious moments.  And yesterday, I walked the halls of the nursing home, pushing carts of presents, finding residents packages for ‘Santa’ and ‘Mrs. Claus’ to pass out to people.  Santa and his wife were telling me they do over 40 nursing homes a year and they enjoy it very much.  Watching them walk into an otherwise quiet dining room where half the people are sleeping and seeing them all light up like kids on Christmas, reminded me that it’s often the littlest things that are the most important.  

If you have your health you have everything is truer than we know.  Right now I have the world in my hands because I am able to walk and care for myself.  The people in this nursing home, the only things they own are probably right in their room with them.  You can’t take it with you.  You certainly can’t.  There is a married couple that have to reside in separate rooms.  Which I wish they had a way to reside in the same room.  I’m not familiar with why this is, but I am sure there is rules that require this.  I thought about my husband and I having to live on different areas of a nursing home and I held him a little tighter as I fell asleep last night.   

I watched the staff interact with the residents and saw very real caring.  They love the residents and watch out for them.  I’m not saying you don’t get a bad person in the crop sometimes but the people who work there aren’t doing it for the money because I doubt they get paid premium working in a state home.  I collected a lot of smiles yesterday.  I helped put a new bead on a lady’s charm bracelet, I heard how one of the residents had a sore butt.  I had talked to this lady  before when I was waiting for a nurse to read my TB test.  And just like the first time we talked, she took my hand, smiled and thanked me for stopping to talk to her.  I about cried, I should have thanked her for talking to me.  She was in the memory unit so I don’t even know if she remembered me but it doesn’t matter.  If me talking to her made her day just a little brighter, then that was awesome.

I went home feeling elated.  Yes, some of what I saw could be considered very depressing but reaching out to people, strangers, it felt very good and it made me realize that at this point and time, I own the world.  I can sit around and feel like I missing out on something, that I didn’t achieve this or that goal that in the end, doesn’t even matter.  I have my health, I have my family, I have a home, a job and health insurance, I have food and clothes and more possessions than I know what to do with sometimes (and donate a lot).  

It is easy for me to feel sorry for myself sometimes especially around the holidays.  I miss the hell out of my mom.  Christmas (her birthday) just isn’t the same.  But there are people in that nursing home with no family or friends that care for them.  The activities director was telling me that residents’ families bring in the gifts to be passed out by Santa but they also donate extra items to make sure each person receives a gift.  I recognized some of the people since it is a fairly small town.  A lady who had been a cashier for years at the small grocery store.  I never knew her whole name but I do now.  A gentleman I vaguely remember from my church when I was younger.  His wife had given me a Precious Moments figuring when my first daughter was born.  She had passed years ago and her grave is close to my mom’s.  He no longer remembers me but I said hello anyway.

Yesterday’s experience really gave me levity in this week of Christmas.  It is a tough week for me.  I want to be happy and celebrate for my grown daughters to carry on our traditions but part of me just wants to take down all the decorations and forget there was Christmas at all.  Last night I came home and felt much different.   Who knows how many Chrisstmases we have to celebrate in our life or even the choice as to where we celebrate it at all.  If our body gives out, if our mind fails, we could be sitting in a wheelchair half asleep when ‘Santa’ brings us a small gift.  

Life is so short.  Love today.  Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year.  Do yourself a favor in 2017 and volunteer if you don’t already.  It is a wonderful gift.  

Charity – Even the Smallest Gestures Matter

The holidays are a time of year when people seem to band together to help those less fortunate have a happier holiday.  There are toy drives, food drives, Angel trees, Adopt-a-Family, holiday meals, etc.  With all the bad news in the world, bombarding the television, social media and print outlets, this helps me feel like most of the world isn’t crazy terrorists or psychopaths.  I’d like to believe there is more good in the world than bad, otherwise, our world may not even exist soon.

Today, my daughters and I are going shopping for a girl, age 10, whose mother is living at a women’s shelter.  I don’t know anything about her, her life or her situation other than the list of her like on a paper stocking.   I picked her name from our break room board because we always pick the oldest kids as their names are usually the last ones chosen.  This girl loves books and science and girly things.  I figure my daughters could relate to her as they are self-proclaimed nerds who love books and science and sometimes even girly things.

I have no idea if the child we pick will like even one thing we purchase or if she even appreciates the gifts.  We give in faith that we are guided to make the right choices.  I overheard someone Scroogy when I was out one day shopping saying to their shopping companion, they didn’t give to programs like the angel tree because they figured the parents or kids would return the gifts or sell them for drug money.  The person went on about how it was a waste of their money and I had to bite my lip to not walk up to a perfect stranger and tell them how short-sighted they were being.  I just reminded myself, that they were missing the entire reason for giving.  Sure, I bet some people do take this charity and convert it into drug money.  But I’m pretty sure the majority of people who are struggling to give their kids Christmas are not corrupt, drug-addicted heathens.  They are simply having a rough patch.  Anyone can have a rough patch.

Some people think you have to give a lot to give at all.  Not true.  Even a ten-dollar football or baby doll could turn out to be a cherished gift they always remember.  Even if you don’t have a lot of money to give yourself, you could buy 10 cans of canned corn to put into the food drive the next time you grocery shop.  Every little bit helps.  Not all charity has to be donating thousands of dollars to matter.  Even something so small as reaching something on a top shelf at the grocery for an elderly person makes someone’s day brighter.  Acts of kindness are another type of charity that cost $0 to do.  And think if everyone in the world, every day did one kind thing for another person how much better our world could be as the positive energy affects others through a wave of kindness.

I’ve told this story before but when I was young and living in a very, very tiny town in Missouri near my father’s parents, our life was always in upheaval due to my father’s alcoholism.  I never felt as if I fit in at school where I had 7 people including me in my class because everyone knew my daddy was a drunk.  I literally attended a two-room Lutheran school-house, it even had the bell on the roof much like a church. At times I would get tormented by the other students if my dad did something stupid like ran his car off a dirt road into a tree one night.  There wasn’t much going on but farming in that area, so someone like my father generated a lot of gossip which of course kids over heard and then fomented me with shortly after.  I always prayed for summer break because I could lose myself out in the fields of my grandparent’s dairy farm, milling about with the farm animals who didn’t judge me or just hang out in my bedroom, safe from ridicule and the knowing, scorning glances of my classmates.  We were the joke of the area.  The family that made everyone else feel better about themselves.

Looking back and knowing more about my classmates families, mine wasn’t the only one that had dysfunctional drama going on behind closed doors, mine was just more public.  I imagine it made them feel better about their own issues and I don’t hold any bitterness or anger toward anyone.  Not fitting in gave me the gift of my own company, a very creative imagination and the ability of enjoying being alone without feeling as if I’m missing out on something.  This also started me writing as I would make up stories of “dream lives” where I could escape from my own pain.  This bred a lifelong love of writing and reading that has always been a comfort and escape.  It also taught me humility and how even the smallest charity can bring love into a troubled family.

I might have been 8 or 9 when the social worker showed up at our small white house next to the cemetery .  Someone on my mom’s side of the family who lived in another state called social services worried about our living situation.  Actually, I believe they thought my dad was sexually abusing my sister and I which was the furthest from the truth.  My mom was angry and bitter about that for years, I can’t really blame her, I would be too.  The social worker would talk to my sister and I, both together and separately with my mom there or not.  It’s been so long it’s all a blur at this point.  I didn’t really understand what was going on.  I just remember it was near Christmas and the social worker had pretty blonde hair that was curled into ringlets almost which was the fashion of the late 1970’s.  She had a kind face and bright blue eyes.

One day she came with oddly shaped packages wrapped in bright Christmas paper, two of them.  We sat on our small couch and she gave one to me and one to my younger sister.  We were so excited, a present BEFORE Christmas and from a complete stranger.  This never happened.  We knew we were poor, at least I did.  My father didn’t work but attended college classes when he wasn’t too drunk and my mom worked as a typist for a company near the University of Missouri campus that typed dissertations and papers for faculty and students.  We got a few from our parents gifts on our birthday and Christmas and usually not in between.

We ripped open the paper and immediately I was let down.  It was a blonde doll with yarn for hair, a  happy plastic face and a soft green calico fabric body.  My sister got one with brown hair like hers.  She was thrilled, she loved dolls.  Me, no so much.  But not wanting to hurt the lady’s feelings, I smiled big and told her thank you, I liked it very much.  Then I took it up and threw it on my bed and ignored it for days.  One night we were upstairs when we heard my dad’s big booming “drunk voice” carrying on in the kitchen.  These are the times I would get scared and hide under my bed or covers.  Usually my  bed covers because our floors were not carpeted and you could hear whatever fight or commotion even more because there wasn’t much insulation between you and the first floor.

I heard something break and knew he was fighting with my mom.  Sometimes he would hit her or throw things at her in a drunken rage.  One time my mom called the Sheriff but they just shrugged it off telling my mom they couldnt’ do anything because they were married.  Back then, domestic abuse was not something a man, at least in that area, got arrested for.  Today my dad would get arrested and hauled off to jail.  I am sure pre-Internet age, women’s shelters were more for people in larger cities.  My mom felt as if there was no where for her to go.  She would run away to her family only to have my dad follow her back to Ohio and convince her to go home.  That was the time when you didn’t divorce, you had to stay, even if it was abusive.

As the fight escalated, I crawled into bed and for the first time, hugged the doll close.  The soft body and yarn hair were comforting.  As I cried into the doll’s hair, I was grateful for the social worker’s kindness.  She must have known the doll would serve as a way for us to cope with the turmoil in our house.  I kept that doll until my house burned down in 1994.  It was always a reminder that a stranger cared enough to show me a small gesture of love.  The doll probably only cost a few dollars back then but the love it held was priceless to a scared little girl hiding under her covers when her life was so out of control.

Eventually, in 1983, my mom and dad were then living in Ohio and my mom was employed full-time at the company I work for now.  She came home one day from a business trip to find my father passed out drunk at the kitchen table, a shotgun pointed at me and my sister as we cowered in the corner too afraid to move, me, always the protective one, in front of my sister shielding her.  My mom sent us to my friend’s house while the city police removed my father.  This time she wasn’t patronized and told there was nothing they could do.  My father never came back into the house.  My mom and I took all his possessions out of the house and left them on the rental house’s car port for him to pick up.  She had enough.

I can’t say I was sad about my parent’s divorce.  It was more of a relief.  I still lived in a small town but not near as small as in Missouri.  I’m sure people knew about my father but eventually he went back to Missouri and we were left alone.  He never paid child support so we were always hurting for money until about the time I was a senior in high school five years later.  My mom moved up in her company and finally bought a house, all on her own where she lived until she died in 2014.

Since we worked together from 1998 until she retired in 2010, we participated together in the food drives, etc. that our company sponsored.  My mom, knowing the charity and generosity of others who helped her through tough times, gave generously.  Paying back and paying forward the kindness she received during her hard times.  We’d go to stores and load up on canned foods, toiletries and other things she knew people would need filling up the trunk of her Buick Lesabre and sometimes even the back seat.

We would smile knowingly at each other in the car after these shopping trips because we knew we had overcome a lot together.  My mom especially, raising two teenagers on her own while working long hours at a very stressful job.  Sometimes she’d squeeze my hand as if to say, “we made it”.   My mom and I were always a team of sorts, even from the time I was younger because we had to do the things needed to survive.  I cooked and cleaned while she worked long hours, doing laundry to help out.  At a young age, I figured out how to fix plumbing issues because we simply didn’t have the money for a plumber.  I mowed the are and raked the leaves.  I started working early to ease the burden of her having to buy me clothes  and give me spending money.  She never asked, I just did it as I knew I wanted to pull my weight, I wanted her to not feel bad because she couldn’t give me the things she felt she should.

We used to ride to work together, I would get phone calls at my desk all day long as she needed this or that even though I didn’t usually directly report to her.  That’s just how it was with us, we relied on each other heavily over all those years up until the moment she left this earth.  And now I feel her watching over me, her voice still in my head, her soul still living on in try daughters as I will watch them do or say something that sounds just like their grandmother.

Today, the girls and I carry on her spirit of charity not only just around the late year holidays, but all year in being kind to others, especially those who don’t quite fit in.  I’ve seen my girls champion for kids or people who are ostracized by the larger group.  They don’t see race as an issue or disability as something to be afraid of or avoid.  Nor is sexual orientation or even gender differences are something they judge a person on.    They seem to look past all these things that people especially in a small, predominately white town are wary to be exposed to and see the person as simply a person.  I am incredibly proud of my girls for accepting others as they are and not expecting them to be just like them.

Sometimes I hope this is a bit of my influence, teaching them as they grew up that you can’t always judge the book by its cover.  Like when I was younger and people of my community probably poor white trash or someone to feel sorry for as she had a drunk for a father.  Just because my daddy was a drunk though didn’t mean I would grow up to be a drunk too.  Or that being poor meant I was lazy or stupid or would grow up to be on welfare all my life. Or that I had to prove anything to anyone else at all.  I only had to prove things to myself.  There were times, when I had such a bad day at my tiny school, that the only thing that made me feel better was that blonde-haired doll my social worker gave me.  I could look at that doll and know I was worth something to a complete stranger.

Charity can be a powerful way to change the path of someone’s life, it shows them love and that love can make all the difference in someone’s world.