He Flies

I’ve kept this to myself for more than a year and at the risk of sounding completely delusional, I’ve decided to share my secret, I talk to flies.  Not so bad?  OK, it gets weirder…  I talk to my dad as a fly.  Yep, I warned you, now hold your judgement and let me explain.

I know a lot of people who see signs, symbols or animals and remember a loved one.  Most of the time I hear butterflies or cardinals, usually creatures with less filthy and annoying reputations.  My dad always wished he had the ability to fly and beginning with the day he passed it seemed he was communicating literally as a fly.  After battling a cancer that ate away at his bones, robbed his ability to move comfortably and provided a hellish amount of pain, he was finally free to fly.

The police arrived after his last breath before 4 AM, a fly flew in with them.  It was early spring and the first fly I had seen that year rested on the ceiling in his bedroom as I sat with my mom, numb from the previous year leading up to that moment.

fly-machu-picchuBreaking the empty silence,  “I still want to go on the family vacation we talked about,” Mom said.  We had been trying to keep my dad encouraged during his illness by talk of taking a big trip to Machu Picchu, a place he had always wanted to see.  We promised him we would all go when he regained his health, as we all believed he would.  The fly took off from the ceiling and circled around the room several times before landing again.  Half joking, I identified the fly as “Dad” and stated he was showing his support of us going.

Over the months that followed, I continued to have symbolic moments with flies.  Times when I was overwhelmed with sorrow, flies seemed to appear in the most unlikely or random places.  I didn’t associate all flies with my dad and there was some frustration within myself for even recognizing the connection an insect could have with someone I admired so much.  Generally, the disgust I had for flies and what they represented before, turned to comfort and humor when I needed it during the darkest moments of grief. An early fly memory was watching as the creature floundered in flight, wobbling like a drunk as if it were learning to fly brought a smile.  I lost my natural instinct to swat away flies and instead forced me to tune into the present in those moments they appeared.

Six months after his death, I dreaded my parent’s anniversary.  I knew it would be unbearable for my mom and I figured she wouldn’t want anyone around.  The hopelessness I felt during his illness returned with the hopelessness I had knowing there was nothing I could do to help my mom.  For the better half of the day I debated whether I should bring her the roses I knew my dad would have brought to her as he did every year.  I agonized, cried and could not turn my thoughts to anything else as I sat at my kitchen table confused.  Of course a fly appeared and circled around me, maybe out of anger he wasn’t physically present and my mom was suffering, I left for the opposite corner of the house to let my tears continue to flow.  The damn fly immediately followed and rested on the ceiling above my head.  For the first time in six months I spoke to the fly, to my dad.  “Do you want me to bring her roses,” I asked.  The fly left the ceiling and flew into my raw wet cheek.  “Fine Dad, I will go get them.”  I can’t imagine they helped Mom much that day, but Dad wanted her to have them.

Without hearing his words, the fly has been his form of communication to quiet my emotion, to remind me to breathe, at times to let me know his disapproval and more than anything to signal he is and always will be with me.  As strange as I know it is, I accept my bizarre connection to this six-legged, giant eyed buzzing creature.

This past summer my uncle also passed.  My cousin, sister and I all decided to get a tattoo for our dads, likely one of the last things they would have wanted us to do for them.  My uncle even told his daughters “tattoos are like putting a bumper sticker on a Cadillac.”  I guess I think of my body as more of a Volkswagen bus with a statement to make.  Of all the words or imagines I debated to use as a tribute to my dad, one thing seemed make the most sense.  The fly sits high on my left femur, the bone which broke on my dad’s way to being able to fly.

Happy Birthday Dad, the flies are not much of a substitute for being able to see you, talk to you and feel your hug.  I appreciate them either way.  You are free from pain and at peace now,  I miss you today and always.

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Grief at Five

“We feel mad and sad,” these were the words my five year old daughter articulated to my mom’s neighbor when Mom couldn’t respond to his question the day after my dad passed.  Parker’s wisdom in the moment demonstrated some maturity and emotional understanding of what we were all experiencing.

And just as everyone in the family has shown moments of strength, we have all succumb to the weight of his loss in different moments too.  For my daughter, she began grieving the changes to her Papa long before he had been diagnosed with cancer.

Parker and Papa shared rituals.  She would get the stick and flashlight for Papa and they would get down on their hands and knees to get kitty toys out from under the stove.  She would bring him the DVD case and together they would put in a movie and she would snuggle on his lap to watch.  Parker would sit with him after dinner to have dessert and he would allow her spoonfuls from his bowl of ice cream even when she had her own.

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Papa would let Parker interrupt his work in his home office to let her sit in his chair and play on the computer or make copies of her hand on his printer.  She would get excited when Papa would fill up the teapot and assist by getting out the honey and a spoon then patiently waited for her helping of honey.  Parker started calling him “Poppy,” a term of endearment he adored.  And a favorite ritual before we left their home was for Papa to pick her up for a giant sandwich hug with Poppy and Nana.

When my dad injured his back we made modifications to the sandwich hug.  Instead of getting down to play on the floor, she found joy in getting to play in his remote lift chair.  She naturally became more gentle with him and found on some days when he was more comfortable, she could still snuggle in to watch a movie with him.  Parker asked a lot of questions and mourned why Papa couldn’t pick her up anymore.  I tried to reaffirm it would only be a matter of time, he would heal and things would be back to normal.

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30 July 2015 – One month before diagnosis.

This time last year, her worry became even more evident, she questioned daily when Poppy’s back would be better.  He was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma about a month shy of Parker’s fifth birthday and it seemed too complex to try to explain what was happening to her Papa.  “The doctors are helping Papa because he is sick,” seemed the only rational thing to say to a five year old.  Then we would talk about praying for him to heal and for his back to be all better again soon.

Repeating this conversation seemed to temporarily satisfy her and my dad improved through the autumn of 2015.  He was showing signs of healing and getting around easier.  Parker understood his limitations and adjusted to how their adoration for each other was changing.  A huge setback came just before the new year when a lesion on his femur broke with only the weight of his body standing.  With the exception of medical appointments, Papa lived in his own personal medical suite upstairs.  As the months passed in late winter and early spring, Parker went upstairs less and less.  I could see how nervous she felt in his presence and witnessing him suffer.  I made attempts to encourage their interactions with playing games or showing him a dance she was practicing in class.  Right or wrong, I tried to explain what was happening to his bones in five year old terms.  For months straight she would pick out the same bedtime story “Magic School Bus: The Human Body,” and often stopped on specific pages displaying a graphic of a skeleton to talk about Papa’s bones.  It was her own way of coping and trying to understand.

Dad never rebounded from the surgery, medications and treatment.  He passed at home in his sleep days after Easter.  Since it was early in the morning when I got the call, I left before Parker woke.  My husband and I agreed not to tell her, instead sending her to school so we could have a day to sort out arrangements.  The following morning, I dreaded telling Parker what happened to her beloved Poppy.  I worried she wouldn’t understand what death meant as she had no memory of losing someone.  We sat down with her in the kitchen and I did my best to conceal my tears and calm my voice.  Her tears were immediate as though she completely understood the gravity of him being gone.  We embraced and tried to turn our sadness to appreciation for him to no longer be in pain.  When we told her we would be going to Nana and Papa’s house for the day Parker begged to go to school, a place where she could be happy and forget.  She didn’t want to go to the house where Papa is supposed to be and him not be there.

As always, the opportunity to see her cousins and trumped the fear of the empty house.  She played with her cousins while the adults seemed to float around the house without intention, numb from the turbulence of the last year.  After her cousins had been gone a while in the late afternoon, Parker came running from upstairs sobbing.  Mom and my dad’s sister and I all felt the ripple of emotion and broke down with her.  I believe she had been upstairs to play in his lift chair, a game that was no longer fun with him gone.

In the days and weeks following we cried together frequently.  We expressed gratitude he was free from pain and we talked about how he would always be with us.  I encouraged Parker to know he could be with her whenever she felt she needed him.  On the way to school she would say she was going to bring him with her and talked to him on our way there.  She joked “He’s going the wrong way, no Poppy that’s not the right turn…”  And when we talked about him being with his mom, she would sometimes bring Grame along to school too.

It seemed the tearful sadness of losing Papa was lessened during the early summer.  She could talk about him without the heavy emotion and I was relieved she was coping so well.  Then there were times I wondered if I was doing everything right to help a five year old with grief.  On a few occasions she got stuck looking at pictures and would break down unable to catch her breath.  I validated her feelings by recalling stories of him and the funny things we would remember him by to help in the moment.

I had been concerned maybe my daughter was reflecting my emotions, maybe she was feeling the grief I was immersed in and so I have been careful to not initiate her thoughts or feelthelightfeelings.  I know her moments of grief are her own because many times I am blindsided by her eruption of sadness.  Like a peaceful ride in the car interrupted by a quivering voice in the backseat “I miss Papa.”  Parker recently began associating one song to Papa, a song she has loved for a long time but now can’t manage to hear without thinking of how much she misses him.There are even joyful celebrations where she turns to despair because Papa is not there to share in it.

The variety of ways Parker has expressed her heartache demonstrate how much she deeply loved her Poppy and also resemble the complicated way our whole family is coping with his loss.  In the last six months there have been times when talking about him was easy and then there are days when even the sight of a bird soaring can cause hysteria.  We know we each have individual triggers which can cause deep sorrow; a song, a date, a place or any synchronistic event.  And then there are other waves of grief which don’t seem to have a pairing, the misery builds to a peak and subsides.

The helplessness I felt with my dad in the last year of his life has transitioned to feeling helpless to support my mom and my daughter.  I want to always have the perfect words to make them hurt less.  And just as there were days I couldn’t do anything but stare at my dad, there are moments I am paralyzed in the faces of my mother and my child.  I am managing as best I can and accepting the unpredictable nature of grief and how it is impacting us in unique ways.  I understand it will get easier over time, though the waves may be less intense or less frequent we will ride these waves of grief indefinitely.

My hope is the waves Parker experiences will calm much sooner and easier than my own.  I want her to be able to remember the love he had for her without the deep sorrow of missing him.  I worry her memory of their rituals will fade, though I know she will never forget how much she loved Poppy.  And I know the pride he had in her will live on forever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How are you?

A while back a friend inquired, “Has anyone asked you any stupid questions?”

After the conversation, I was still left lingering on the thought.  In general people make statements and ask questions which may come across as stupid, when really it’s with good intentions or out of complete ignorance.  I know I am guilty of this at times too, we all have been there.  When it comes to sensitive topics, these stupid questions can come across as insulting and evoke strong emotions.  Fortunately, I’ve been able to brush off some comments and find the humor in them.  There is always one question I get stuck on and don’t know how to answer.

“How are you?”

This usually simple question has a much different meaning to it when people look at you with their head already tilted to one side and a worried frown on their face.  My mind frantically looks for a reasonable reply and I wonder if I should state my mood right in that moment, or an average of the past day or week?  I give a thoughtful pause but really it’s to internally criticize my own response before it escapes my mouth.  I don’t want what I say to be too positive and have someone judging me for being happy or too negative and risk they might think I’m not handling things well.

“How are you?”

Does someone really want to know it’s a struggle to drive in the car alone with your thoughts at times, that for some reason those are the moments when the regrets become their strongest?  Is it okay I have had fun days full of laughter and smiles when I have been present in what’s happening in front of me?  Should I tell people there are lapses in time when I have been completely numb and have proven to be ineffective at everything?  When is the appropriate time to say I haven’t been able to keep myself together when my daughter is full of sorrow and I cannot possibly fix what she needs fixed?  Is it unhealthy for me to have times when I think I am accepting and other times when it is unreal, it didn’t happen and it’s not true?  Do people want to know I can be fine one minute and completely loose my mind in a sobbing mess all while washing dishes?  Is it alright to tell someone “I was great until you asked and made me think about it”?

“How am I?”

Dad passed four weeks ago today, how I am is existing moment to moment.  Sometimes I am good and sometimes I am really not.  There isn’t really a consistent progression of things getting easier, one day may feel less emotional and the next day feels as raw as the day he passed.   The truth is I don’t know how I am doing, I know I am doing the best I can and things will be okay.

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My Father, My Friend

Early yesterday morning my dad passed at home in his sleep, he had been ill and fighting for his life for the past year except we didn’t know how quickly it would take him from us.  How unfair it had been for him to get sick right at the time he should have been celebrating his retirement and living well-earned carefree years traveling with Mom.  I keep thinking of other things I wanted to tell him, words I wanted hear from him one more time and other ways we would have handled things if we weren’t acting out of a paniced fear.  My Dad and I knew each other in a way no one else on earth could relate to and I can’t think too long about how lonely life will be now without his connection.

I knew he was dying, I could see life fading away and I felt helpless to know there was nothing I could do to take the agony away from his body.  He pushed his body past it’s limits while bones collapsed and broke with no effort at all.  Dad’s steps became slower, his body weaker.  Towards the end he was sleeping more and eating less each day.  I knew he was dying, I could see life fading and I still believed I had more time.  His appearance became more fragile, he avoided having visitors because he didn’t want others to see him and remember him so sick.  For months I avoided being physically close to him when I came to the house, afraid I would unintentionally infect him with germs and make him feel even worse.

In the past few weeks I returned to giving him kisses on the forehead or cheek when I said goodbye.  Being so close, I could feel his bones protruding through his face and still I wanted to believe he would rebound, this would not be his fate.  I realize now our final interactions were my last goodbye.  If I had known, I would have stayed for longer. I would have told him I’m okay with him going because I don’t want him to be in pain.  I know he knows this now.

There are moments when peace calms the house and I feel reassured, Dad is not in anymore pain.  He is not suffering.  Our family is together now and connected by hugs, holding hands and laughter.  Then there are waves of grief which catch me off guard and squeeze the air tightly from my lungs, how did we get here to this point, how could this have happened to him?

Seeing how family and friends have responded in the last day has made me observe I am not the only one who has a unique and special connection to my dad.  It’s both comforting and distressing to recognize how influential my dad was to so many people.  He taught life lessons, was an example for how to be genuine to people and a devoted husband, father, brother, uncle and friend.  His cancer spread to impacting the lives of so many who loved and respected my dad, the grief is widespread.

In one of the moments of calm yesterday, I looked through the photos on his cell phone.  As predicted there were pictures of his grandchildren, of him with my mom, of his motorcycle travels with his brother, of the only cat he says ever loved him “Mozie,” and of the countryside in Italy where he took his last international trip.  Some pictures made me sob to see the joy on his face and the love in his eyes, knowing I wouldn’t ever see this in person again.  Then one image seemed to stand out from the rest, a heaven sent message from my dad for exactly this moment.oksign.jpg It hurts so much right now to think about him being gone and I know down the road everything is going to be okay, even if I can’t see it or feel it today.

What Is There To Say?

Expressing concern for someone’s grief always leaves me wordless…  I am mindful not to deliver the usual cliché condolences as these phrases can instigate more suffering and be invalidating.

“I understand how you feel,” is often used even when it’s not comprehensibly possible to know what someone else is experiencing.

“There is purpose in everything,” ouch – while true – not important to hear about in the midst of grief.

“Things will get better,” not helpful in the present moment when loss is so fresh and suffering is so painful.

Being fearful of saying the wrong thing leads me to say “I’m sorry,” and then stare blankly in the absence of something profound or the necessary empathetic expression which actually may help.

The reason this is on my mind is because of an e-mail I received from a friend last week.  She and I met several years ago in school, we work in the same field several hours away from each other and keep up with each other’s lives sparingly through Facebook, phone conversations and the occasional lunch.  My friend was elated to report of her pregnancy this spring, shared pics of her pregnant belly via Facebook and asked me questions about labor and planning for a newborn.  To say there was no baby daddy drama would be like belittling the Clinton sex scandal.  Regardless of no stable relationship she was glowing with excitement about this growing miracle.  From a distance it appeared her life revolved around preparing, planning and providing for the little one, and her smile in the pictures could not have been any brighter.

Her e-mail indicated she had gone into pre-term labor last week and delivered her baby at only 22 weeks gestation.  The tiny 1lb 1oz girl was too premature to survive and passed with less than an hour in life on earth.  

The thought of what she is experiencing right now takes my own breath away and puts me in a state of grief considering with how devastating the experience would be.  I want to hug my friend, I want to be able provide the explanation she doesn’t have as to how this could have happened, I want to fast forward to the point in life where she can feel some happiness again.  I really want to know what I can say to bring her some comfort because I am without words right now.