Tag Archives: death of a child

Happy Merry Us

happy-holidaysWhen I googled “Holiday Stress” this morning, I got 7 million, 500 thousand items. Top picks were articles and blogs attempting to help people manage their holiday stress. As an expert on dealing with tough stuff, I feel obliged to jump into the fray of suggestions for surviving and thriving this holiday season.

Let’s first look at the stress we create for ourselves.

  • What about the big deal hassles over the proper way to wish a friend a happy winter holiday? In an effort to be inclusive of all citizens, the White House has sent Happy Holiday cards for the past 8 years. Some Christians take that as an insult, as a “war on Christmas.” Some Jewish people have their own issues on greetings at the holidays. Coming out of my health club yesterday I overheard a couple of Jewish women ridiculing a non-Jewish woman’s mispronunciation of Hanukkah, or Chanukan. (For those who don’t know, to pronounce either word correctly, a soft guttural clearing of the throat needs to precede the H or C.) And this matters why?
  • How come we expect our holiday season to always and continuously, be happy? This unrealistic obligation pumps pressure into all our activities; In searching for just the right gifts, planning decorations and menu items we’ve seen in magazines, addressing holiday cards to business contacts that reflect our brands, and writing an annual letter to friends and family recounting all the happy successes of the past year.

Meanwhile in the real word – life continues as usual – people get sick, family members disagree, loved ones die, accidents happen, and bad weather delays travel plans. Instead of blaming ourselves, one another, or the gods, for this unexpected bad timing –

How about…

1) Lowering our expectations, it’s just a fleeting season of the year

2) Calling on helpers, both seen and unseen, while reaching out to help others

3) Saying yes to whatever cannot be avoided and asking ourselves “what good can come from this?

4) Continuing the radical self care practices that have kept us sane and healthy throughout the rest of the year  

5) Honoring those no longer with us by sharing stories of when they were here, or giving a gift in their name to a charity or cause they believed in

6) Connecting with previous experiences of peace, joy and love and bringing them into the present moments of this particular holiday season.

Allow me to wish you a blessed holiday season and a peaceful,  joy-filled New Year.

 

A Grandmother Looks at Vaccinations

In 1945, during the only semester I attended kindergarten, I brought back to my family’s household of four younger siblings, the three most common childhood diseases of that time; measles, mumps, and chicken pox. Luckily my mother was a nurse and knew how to take care of a houseful of sick children. We all survived and since then, we’ve had immunity without being vaccinated. But survival had not been assumed, especially for my youngest sister Mary Jane, who was six to eight months old at the time and still recovering from being gravely ill at birth.

11973371-child-vaccination-2Part of how things turned out well during and after our house became an infectious disease ward, was that no pregnant woman visited us during that time. No person with a suppressed immune system came past the front door. We were able to completely quarantine ourselves so as not to become agents of illness and death to anyone else, especially someone who might not have the immune system strength to recover that we apparently did.

Flash-forward to 2015, and I’m watching the accounts on the evening news of the spread of measles in the United States – ten states, then twelve, then eighteen. I note the state where I live, Pennsylvania, is one of them as is California, the state where my unvaccinated 2½-year-old granddaughter lives. Her parents, concerned for her safety have not decided to have her vaccinated yet.

Am I worried? Yes. But my worries have changed as I’ve paid attention to the realities and the science behind vaccinations. Initially, I was worried about my granddaughter. Last fall, I didn’t want her flying through the DFW airport when I heard that some cases of Whooping Cough had been reported in Texas. Since she hadn’t been vaccinated, I reasoned, she might get the disease and die from it.

color-flu-vac-cat-webBut now I realize if my granddaughter, who is extremely healthy, contracted one of the diseases prevalent in my childhood, she most likely would survive it as I did.  My worry now moves to a concern for somebody she might infect, somebody not as fortunate as she is. Frail elderly people are at risk, as are children and adults whose immune systems are compromised, like someone in treatment from another disease or health challenge. My unvaccinated granddaughter could be an agent of serious illness and death for some one else. And in the manner that epidemics move, it would eventually become impossible to trace the trail of how many people had died from her particular linked series of exposures.

I wish I had the power and influence to make certain that my granddaughter will not be an agent of harm to someone else.  But apparently I do not. My own son, my granddaughters’ father, thinks as many of his friends do, that the government can not be trusted to tell the truth. They’ve heard stories of perfectly healthy children being harmed by vaccines as these stories are passed through the community where they live. They don’t watch television news or read the morning papers. They haven’t heard that the stories, even the study they are based on, have been scientifically refuted.

They think my advice is based on experiences from the olden days, not relevant to their generation. And it is true that, in my day, we had no choice but to take our chances with the diseases themselves, before there were vaccinations to prevent them. When vaccines became available, as they were when my three children were young, my family and most others gratefully followed the medical guidelines and had them administered to our children. Now as an elder, my own self care involves following the medical profession’s advice and getting shots to prevent the flu, pneumonia, and shingles.

But to this grandmother, as the opportunities to prevent illnesses are greater, so are the risks to humankind if such opportunities are not subscribed to. Modern life involves international travelers sharing oxygen in small cramped quarters of airplanes, newborn and young infants clustered together in daycare centers, families eating in restaurants and coming into contact with others at large shopping malls; none of this existed in my day. So my prayer for my granddaughter, and for us all, is that we not return to the days when most people were not vaccinated against highly contagious diseases. That we not return to the days when everyone knew someone who had died or been seriously impaired by diseases that, in the 21st century, are entirely preventable.

Hallow’s Eve

The pumpkins are prominently displayed at the grocers, along with the colorful pots of the season’s most celebrated flower, chrysanthemums. Front yards in my urban neighborhood sport dried corn stocks while the nearest farmland is at least a twenty- minute drive away. Homes with resident young children exhibit walkways and front doors decorated with spiders, cobwebs, and life-size white-sheeted ghosts.

Halloween-Home-Decor-Ideas-Cobwebs When visiting the homes of older children you may likely be greeted by a life-size black outfitted, gory, fanged, blood dripping, skeleton. As the costumed trick or treat crowd make their way from house to house on Hallow’s Eve, no one mentions that these playful, sometimes scary provocations of horror, are actually a contemporary version of ancient end-of-harvest ritual that celebrated the spirits of the dead. It was believed that in this transition time between fall and the hibernation of winter, the veil between the worlds was lifted, and spirits who had once walked this earth, might return on this one night.

 For my children Halloween was their favorite holiday, and before the Halloween candy had been sorted, let along eaten, they would begin planning for what they wanted “to be” for the following year. The dressing up as someone or something that they were not, or the opportunity to express a part of themselves in an artistic creative way seems especially satisfy, way beyond other holidays where gifts are exchanged or the turnover of the calendar is marked.

I still remember my youngest son, Ken dressed as a three year old devil, carrying a pitchfork made of cardboard, seven year old Corinne, dressed as a fanged tooth witch, her blond hair hidden by a black wig, and handsome five year old Kevin, outfitted as a swashbuckling pirate, (his dagger was also hand crafted by his parents out of cardboard.)big-scary-halloween-props

During this period of time in my life, my then husband was a radio news broadcaster assigned to the 6 pm and 11 pm news, so for all practical purposes, I was a single Mom on Halloween night. Fortunately I had a sister who came to help dress the children and who stayed at the house to give out the candy while I took the kids on their walk around the neighborhood. The evening  really was a two adult person operation.

One particular year, the scary costumes didn’t keep the evil spirits away from our house. While my sister and I were at our agreed upon posts, someone came around the back of our house and through an open window took our purses that were sitting on the kitchen table. In the aftermath of the celebration, not only were we both out of the money that was in our purses, but it was impossible to get a check cashed or have access to a bank account without our stolen identification.

Now all three of my children are grown and two of them are “on the other side,” as first nation peoples refer to death. As I light a Jack-a Lantern in my front window, I hope the spirits of my relations know that I would welcome a visit from them, in whatever state of dress or undress they might be.

The Summer Solstice

Today is the Summer Solstice. It is the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, because the Earth tilts 23.5 degrees on its axis and causes this part of the Earth to face the sun directly. We’re not moving closer to the sun as people often think, it’s just a better direct angle. In the southern hemisphere, it’s the Winter Solstice and the shortest day of the year as the tilt changes their angle in the opposite direction. 

Summer-solsticeI don’t remember much mention or attention to this day in my family or in the Catholic schools where I was a student, but I somehow always knew it was a special day.

It must have been later research and actually visiting some sites in Mexico and Ireland where I learned the true importance of this day. Many ancient cultures around the globe; the Mayans, Druids, Celtics and others, oriented their sacred sites to highlight this day.  For them it symbolized the triumph of light over darkness. Stone structures or caves were crafted to allow the light to stream in to their altars announcing that the journey to enlightenment had reached its apex.  

I remember just after my son Kenneth died, looking up at the bright moonlight streaming into our living room, and realizing his death was on a particularly auspicious day, the summer solstice. This assured me that I would never forget the day, never allow it to go by unnoticed. My practice is to find something special to do to honor my son, and to express my gratitude for his life and the part I was allowed to play in it.

Ken, Sheila and Rich in CorpusThis year I’m participating in the Re-Source Gathering of Creation Spirituality here in Pittsburgh around the theme of Compassion.  The conference began last night with circle dancing and chants lead by master teachers from the Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist traditions. We used InterPlay forms to connect with ourselves, each other, and those we love who are far away, on this plane and on another. This focus on compassion seems especially fitting for this occasion as Ken and I were compassionate companions, suffering together until, on that early morning of the Summer Solstice 1997, the suffering was no more.

Commencement

It’s a tremendous accomplishment, though I’ve often wondered, whose accomplishment is it? If it takes a village to raise a child, when the eldest child of my eldest child was scheduled to graduate from college a couple of weeks ago, our family determined it would take at least that many relatives and friends to help him celebrate.

 EthanGradThe graduation was to take place in the spring in the center of the country, in a city where none of us lived. Traversing the country from all directions, relatives drove south 10 hours from their home in Nebraska, Auntie Pat flew from Detroit, my husband and I from Pittsburgh, one granddad from Oregon and our grandson’s uncle, wife and 20 month old flew north and east from Palm Springs. His sister Vitoria had to stay home due to a rained out and rescheduled soccer game but she was able to participate via Facetime when her brother’s Iphone was passed around during the family’s celebration dinner.  

 Spring rainstorms across the country turned everyone’s travels into a most challenging saga, testing our stamina, flexibility, endurance, financial solvency, and group problem-solving skills. When flights are cancelled due to weather, airlines bear no responsibility and are held harmless, thus the need for all the above skills. When our nearly 20 month-old granddaughter and her parents were slated to spend the night at an airport on cots, this grandmother had to swing into action to find them real beds nearby.

MeEthanKelly Looking back now was it all worth it, all this effort to mark a family milestone? It wasn’t till I got home that I fully realized why it was all so important to me. I’d worked with my grandson to plan the events. I’d rented a house so everyone would have a place to stay.  His grandfather and I held a reception that included his friends and ours, and we sponsored the family dinner he wanted at one of his favorite restaurants near campus. Ethan’s mothers had died when he was 12, and as her mother, I had to be sure and do for him whatever she would have done, had she had the chance.

A Different Kind of Gypsy

In the musical comedy theaterTravellers_Decorated_Caravan_(6136023633) the dancers are called “gypsies.” I suppose it’s because the nature of their employment involves changing jobs and moving around the country often. The first year I was in New York, I lived in 11 different places around the city, including the times I arranged to sleep on a friend’s couch.

This week I’m falling back on those learned long ago gypsy skills – moving around the world with a spirit of adventure, and practicing the spiritual discipline of extreme flexibility. I’m been in North Texas on what might be termed “a book tour.” With the help of my sister who lives north of Denton, I organized one book event in Fort Worth and two in Dallas. Sandwiched in between I attended a women’s retreat at a ranch an hour and a half northwest of Fort Worth.highways

I lived in this area of the world for over 20 years but having left eight years ago, I’d forgotten the amount of time people here spend in their cars and how carefully they plan their trips to miss the rush hours and the logjams created by road construction projects.  As a visitor it strikes me that most every roadway is being worked on, or expanded to accommodate even more traffic. Toll roads are under construction to swoop people over the top of the current roadways and make money for the state and the construction companies.

I’m now at my next stop, Atlanta GA. doing a home stay with a friend as I prepare for a Warrior Mother Performing the Book event this evening at Charis Books and More,  http://charis.indiebound.com/ the nation’ s oldest independent feminist bookstore. If you’re in the area, please join me as I help Charis celebrate their 43rd year as one of the “must see” places in the Atlanta area.charis

Saying Goodbye to Our Best Friend

There’s a lot of empty, silent space in our house these days. Nobody’s sitting at the front window, guarding the perimeter from potential intruders. There’s no greeting as we return home and open the front door, no heralded announcement that guests we have not yet heard coming, are in fact arriving.  As friends and I I sit on high stools at the kitchen counter, no one begs to be lifted up so they too can become part of our conversation. And sitting on the sofa to watch some television after dinner, no furry ball jumps onto our laps and sits between us, behaving as if he too is watching the screen. 

watchdog Clancy has been an important member of our family and constant companion for nine and a half years. Yet I must admit, things didn’t start out particularly well. Besides the usual challenges in house training a puppy, this one had a propensity for chewing the edges of the dining room rug and, his specialty – chewing through each and every electric lamp chord in our house.

 Our daughter was very ill at the time, and I traveled often to be with her and assist with my three grandchildren. This situation may have contributed to my lack of patience with my incorrigible new charge, but we did start thinking it might be necessary to find a different permanent home for Clancy. We were rescued by one of my dear friends who offered to become his temporary “foster mother.” She had four older small dogs of her own and in a few weeks she, with the help of her dogs, civilized Clancy. We always gave her full credit for what a special companion he became.

tinyclancy Several years ago, Clancy developed a problem with his liver. As his body began retaining fluids we were told that he might not have more than a couple of months. Some adjustments were made in his medication and he rallied. He continued to have symptoms repeatedly, receive treatment, and return to his peppy, happy self. No one ever had any real understanding of why or how this kept occurring. This phase of our life together was difficult at times but, as happened in going through serious illnesses with our children, it caused us to appreciate most every moment we had with him.

sayinggoodby.clancy

 When the end came, it was a surprise. And it wasn’t. I’d taken Clancy to the vet in our neighborhood for one of his treatments and when he came out he seemed his usual peppy self, but he was shaking. By evening he was not doing well. He didn’t eat and lost control of his bowels several times. Suspecting this might be the end, we took him back to the clinic the following morning and left him for observation. We got the call at 10 am. His kidneys were failing. It was time to say goodbye. 

The Family Carries On

As our plane finally lifts from the ground in Palm Springs CA. we’re offered a panoramic view of the mountains and red tile rooftops on the valley floor. “Goodbye palm trees. Goodbye warm swimming pools and even warmer hot tubs. Goodbye dear family, till the next time we can arrange to be together from across the continent.” 

family1

It’s said we don’t remember days or years, only moments. The moments that stand out from this year’s family Christmas vacation are:

– the clicking sounds of cue balls, hopefully hitting other balls into the side pockets, mixed with laughter and the lilt of college boys and adult men’s teasing challenges,

–       the sight of ten family members seated in a circle on the front patio, obeying  the unwrapping gift ritual of my long deceased father’s family – carefully opening one gift at a time in rotation from youngest (16) to eldest (85).

–       The stomping feet of sixteen-month-old Krya Joy as she turns her head from side to side saying an emphatic “no” up and down to say ‘yes’, followed by the show of smiling deep dimples when she gets her way.

Kyra.KevinThis was our tenth holiday season without her. Family’s carry on without a pivotal loved one, and we have done that. The first year we met at a water park in Kansas City. It was strange to be swimming indoors in the middle of winter, stranger yet doing it without their mother, his wife, our daughter. The first spring, we met in Fort Worth to take in the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, something promised before she died. Last year, we met in Colorado for a ski vacation. Some years in between we’ve missed getting everyone together during the holidays but most thanksgivings were spent at my son-in-law’s dinner table in Nebraska with his family; father, brothers, nieces, and cousins.

One summer we hosted the family at our house in Pittsburgh, (the U.S. Open Golf Tournament was being held nearby.) Another summer, the year the golf tournament was in Washington D.C. my brother-in-law hosted us in his home as the tournament was held at his home course. Some springs we’ve gathered to celebrate high school graduations, and soon, we’ll meet for a college one.

family2The photographs will show how the kids have grown into fine young adults, how parents, uncles and grandparents have been aging, the joy of new additions, and how fortunate we’ve been to be able to share such fun times together.

 What the images won’t show is what’s been missing at every family gathering throughout the years. There’s always a moment when I’m reminded, and this year’s moment came when we began passing out the ice cream for dessert. Sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Tori said, “What kind of ice cream is this? It says it’s whipped. Does that mean it’s less calories?” She doesn’t know that particular ice cream was selected because it was her mother’s favorite. She doesn’t know it’s her grandparents’ way of remembering.

Resting In Peace

 Last Saturday morning, while visiting the Bay Area, my husband and I were walking in a seaside park dedicated to the memory of the farm labor organizer, Cesar Chavez. As we walked the weather gave a clear demonstration of the micro-climates of the bay area; one moment we’re bundling up our jackets against the sea breezes and the next, as we round the bend inland, we unbutton our jackets, and think about taking them off entirely to wrap them around our waists.

Pk_Bench3

Walking alongside the bay, I began stopping at benches placed every dozen feet or so, in order to read the inscriptions on small rectangular plaques fastened to the back of each of them. The benches are a great gift to the community, providing a welcomed opportunity for people to view the water as they rest or meditate, or hold a conversation with a friend. As I learned from my reading, each bench was given in memory of someone; a neighbor, a councilman, a family member or friend. I noted that many, perhaps most, of the birth dates were later than my own.

I guess it was the plaques and memorials that got me thinking about the grieving process, a process that my family and I have been engaged in quite frequently the last fifteen years or so. As we walked, and stopped to notice and ask about the dogs running in the free dog zone, without their leashes, I thought about the legacy lessons that each of our families left to us. What did they demonstrated when faced with the loss of a loved one? And how has that influenced our own processes, for good or ill?

bench@sea

I had two rather opposite role models in my family. My mother’s reaction to her youngest son, (my brother’s) disappearance and the eventual confirmation of his death at age 26, was devastation. She did not survive well or long, having a heart attack six months after his funeral. Years of ill health followed until she died of pancreatic cancer at age 70. After my brother’s death, my father, who had been orphaned at the age of 5, became determined to not waste a moment of whatever life he would be given moving forward. He lived a full and vital life until he died at 87.

benchwithgreenery

Rich’s family had trouble accepting death as a part of life. His mother would tease about what a lousy system it was.  “You’re born, you work hard, you get sick, and then you die.” His father told and retold the story of being 21 years old when his father died of complications from an elective surgery. “When I walked out of that hospital after learning of my father’s death I saw a bum on the street and I thought, ‘What kind of God would take my father, who had everything to live for, and let this bum, you has nothing to live for, live. “ He never found the answer to this question. Perhaps if he’d donated a bench to a park in memory of his father, he would have had a way to honor him and a way for the sea breezes to comfort him in his grief. 

Journey to a Shrinking Frontier

A trip to the Alaskan Glaciers is on many peoples’ bucket list of things to do before they die, and Rich and I were among that group. In 2009 we had a cruise to Alaska all planned and nearly paid for as a way to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. But 2009 was the year of the global economic meltdown and Rich, along with many other people, was downsized out of the job that had taken us across the country five years before. In spite of whatever concerns we had about global warming shrinking the glaciers we were hoping to see, we canceled our trip, and hit the ground running to re-imagine our work lives.

image.glacierI read somewhere during that time, “the loss of a job is similar to the death of a close family member.” The impact on us of this particular meltdown seemed particularly overwhelming as we had only recently arrived at some sense of equilibrium after the illness and death of our 42 year-old daughter, Corinne.

Now four years later, we stand on the balcony of our cabin in front of a tidewater glacier, observing its irregularly sculptured peaks and crevices, listening to the snaps, creaks, and pops of this gigantic frozen river of ice, in its constant movement towards the sea.  Yes, most of the glaciers are receding, and as Alaska warms more severe colder weather events come to the lower 48 states and Europe. As the permafrost melts huge amounts of methane are released, further fueling the rate of climate change.

imageforest.515We learn that after the meltdown, the land left bare beneath begins anew. Moss and lichen populate and create a covering that adds nitrogen, preparing soil for wildflowers and scrubby bushes, and finally, deciduous and evergreen trees join the dance, creating a forest.

Through all these changes, sea and land animals change their habitats, following their food, just as we humans relocate to find work and an environment where we, and our offspring can prosper and grow.