Happy New Year! I hope 2017 is off to a bright and hopeful start for you.
It’s been a month since I’ve written a blog post because immediately after publishing the last one, we accepted an offer on my parents’ house, and the world started spinning faster than ever! We accepted the offer on December 7, which included agreeing to close by December 30.
Well, on December 7, everything my parents owned was still in their house. To say the house has generous storage space is an understatement, and their belongings filled up all that space. We had on our hands the accumulated possessions of a lifetime – and not only their lifetime, but my grandparents’ lifetimes, as well. There were boxes upon boxes of my grandparents’ things that appeared not to have been touched since the day they were brought into the house. It became obvious that my parents saved everything. And that made for a ginormous job for us, during the holiday season, no less.
There was only one weekend available before the projected closing date to have an estate sale: the weekend of December 17. I had met with a woman who organizes and runs professional estate sales, and she told me to get back in touch with her when we have a buyer. Then we wouldn’t have to worry about staging the house for showings anymore and could organize for a sale. However, given how soon the closing would be and the time of year, that option was out. So I researched how to run your own estate sale, took copious notes, and researched values of things, while working around the clock hauling items and boxes out of the far reaches of my parents’ storage spaces to see what we were dealing with. I had no time to price things, so almost everything was “make an offer.” And in the midst of that inhuman workload, I came down with my first cold in at least four years, and it was a bad one. I was sick for 12 days straight, including the weekend of the sale, when I could barely talk above a whisper! AND there was a snowstorm that weekend, which made driving perilous. And of course, it was the last weekend before Christmas, as well, so people had lots of other things to do besides help with or attend an estate sale. However, a few angels showed up and helped me organize for the sale and were on hand during the sale for moral support. I couldn’t have done it without them – or even come close!
Needless to say, the outcome of the estate sale was disappointing. If we had more time to work with, or if it were a different time of year, it would have been a completely different story. At the end of the weekend, aside from getting rid of some furniture, it looked like we had as much stuff left as we had begun with. So then we started bagging and boxing donations. My sister rented a dumpster, and I rented a self-storage unit to literally buy some extra time to sort through things at a more leisurely and mindful pace.
Let me tell you: They were the craziest weeks of my life. I intend to write more about the whole experience because there is so much to say about it. But for now, I want to focus on the piano.
The Mehlin & Sons 1954 spinet piano was my mom’s first big purchase when she was working at her first job at General Electric after graduating from high school. She was passionate about music and taught herself to play. When I came along, she bought me a toy piano (pictured partially below) that I adored, and I became fascinated with “the big piano” and couldn’t wait until I could learn to play it.
I started taking lessons in third grade, and piano quickly became not only my passion but also my identity. My mom was delighted. She worked at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and arranged for me to interact with dozens of classical pianists and musicians through the years. When she thought my motivation to practice was waning, she asked Andre Watts to have a little talk with me. I met Liberace more than once and babysat for Emmanuel Ax’s son, which involved interacting with Mr. Ax both before he left for the performance and when he arrived back home.
In high school, I was piano accompanist for school choral groups and played piano (and marimba) in jazz band. I accompanied vocalists outside of school, played for weddings, and even competed on piano in the local (county level) Miss America pageant at age 19 and won the talent competition (which was the only reason I was in it). Piano was the first Great Love of my life.
It turned out I didn’t have the confidence or resilience to pursue a career in music or even major in music in college, and that is something I still regret. And stage fright was an issue, too – because I was playing for the wrong reasons. I was more focused on impressing people (including pleasing my mother) and doing it “right” than on expressing the music in me. I think I also was not playing the kind of music that resonated most with me – which I know now to be more meditative, flowing, and New Age. I remember how I dreaded being called on to solo in jazz band because improvisation felt too personal and vulnerable. It felt safer to play the notes on a printed page – someone else’s music.
I went to Ithaca College, a school known for its excellent music program, where I majored in psychology. When I took a piano performance class with music majors, I felt like I was out of my league and dropped the course. I’ve continued to play now and then through the years, but just for fun and relaxation and almost never in front of another human being – although there have been very occasional jam sessions that felt really good. However, when I’m playing (often with headphones so nobody can hear me), there’s no feeling quite like it. I feel totally in the flow and joyful. It feels as if, in those moments, I am doing the thing I came here to do (i.e. be my authentic self), especially when I have no music in front of me and play from my heart. So I guess you could say that I’m quietly picking up the broken pieces of my abandoned talent and putting them together in a more authentic “Zen and the Art of Piano” way. I have other Great Loves now – namely photography and writing – but piano remains my first, and first loves can be especially powerful and hold a special and enduring place in our heart.
So I married a man with a music degree, and after we got divorced, I married a professional musician who doesn’t read music and is all about improv.
My daughter took piano lessons (which my parents paid for) and played my mom’s piano, and my son taught himself and played it, as well. One of the most poignant memories during the last few weeks of my mom’s life was on Mother’s Day, when the house became quiet and heavy with the realization that she would be gone soon. My daughter broke the heaviness by going to the piano and playing “Hallelujah”, and my mom made her way to the living room with her brand new cane, to sit close and listen.
So that Mehlin & Sons spinet piano means a great deal to me. It was my first Great Love and possibly the deepest connection my mom and I shared. It filled her with such joy to hear me play it and to fall as deeply in love with it as she had. I wished I could keep it, but I couldn’t because I don’t have the space or any kind of storage area for it. So it became important to find the right home for it. And when the right person approached me and expressed interest in buying it for her son and granddaughter, I could not put a price tag on it. The personal value was too great to be measured, and it felt better to give it away to a good home.
Two days after Christmas was the Big Day when the piano movers were scheduled to take the piano to its new home. Although I hadn’t planned anything beforehand, I woke up early that morning knowing exactly what I needed to do before going to work. I jumped out of bed and into my car and drove to my parents’ house to play a final, private concert for my mom on our piano.
All that remained in the living room that morning was the piano, a lamp, and an easy chair – which was perfect for such an occasion. The piano needed to be tuned but always had such beautifully weighted action.(I will miss that familiar touch so much.) And I knew exactly what song to play: “Flying Free”, a choral arrangement with a simple, flowing piano accompaniment that I hadn’t played in many, many years. When I asked what I should play, that song came to me so clearly and instantly that I didn’t question it. It was neither challenging nor impressive – in fact, I considered it “easy” when I played it back in seventh grade – but it was a song that always felt soulful and uplifting to play and that I could play through inevitable tears. Even the lyrics (though I was too choked up to sing them) were perfect on so many levels.
After all, discovering and expressing my soul is what my relationship with piano has been about all along. It’s a path that wouldn’t work if it was based on comparing myself to others rather than being truly inspired. It needed to be authentic and include music and mentors who stirred something in me and led me to the threshold of my soul, where my own music resides. Improv, the thing that scared me most, is perhaps what I needed most to learn, to take me to another level where I could feel and express the music flowing through me more authentically. And that’s something I can still work on when I’m alone with my keyboard and headphones – although I yearn to ditch the headphones at some point and not give a damn what anyone will think or whether I’m “good enough” to be heard.
Playing this farewell concert was what I needed to do to honor my relationship with this piano and with my mom (who gave me the gift of music for which I am so grateful) the best way I knew. I cried a lot as I played, but it wasn’t because I was sad or depressed. It was because I was expressing what was alive and real in me, rather than pushing it down and denying it. When you are able to risk being emotionally open and vulnerable, you can go to some incredibly beautiful and transcendent places and flow with the music within you that longs to be set free.
It was like making love to a cherished lover for the last time.
As I played, I imagined for a fleeting moment that I was back in high school, practicing piano while my mom was in the kitchen making dinner after getting home from work. The house was filled once again with love, light, warmth, cozy furniture, framed art on the walls, and the comforting aroma of my mother’s cooking. Even though she didn’t particularly enjoy cooking, my mom was happy listening to my pre-dinner music.
But mostly I allowed the music to flow through me like a prayer. A somewhat out of tune prayer, which was actually a lovely testimony to the instrument being played and loved through the years.
When I closed the cover over the keys for the last time before leaving for work, it was like closing the lid to a coffin and saying a final farewell to a dearly beloved person. I caressed it, patted it, gave it a kiss, thanked it, thanked my mom. Two hours later when I was at work, my sister texted: “Piano is gone.” I blinked back the tears that would flow like a waterfall after I got out of work and was alone.
At least I know who my beloved instrument has gone to and feel that it has found its way to its next rightful home. I hope that if the new owner ever decides he no longer wants it, he will contact me, and maybe I will be in a position then to take the piano back. But if not, at least I got to say goodbye to it for real and play a last concert for my mom. A friend suggested that perhaps my dad was there, too, and they were dancing in the room as I played. I love that idea. I hope they danced.
A few days later, on New Year’s weekend, the new owner sent me an email expressing his gratitude for the piano. It included a picture of him and his young daughter sitting “at the helm of our new treasure” with their hands touching the keys. The little girl was beaming. It was the perfect closure for me and the perfect ending to a very difficult year. That piano was the most cherished of all my mom’s possessions, and she would be so pleased to know that a young girl will be able to enjoy it now and learn to play on it, just like I did. And so am I.
P.S. Since I very rarely let anyone hear me play, it was terrifying for me to share online the humble, imperfect recording of me playing my mother’s piano for the last time!! However, a voice from deep within insisted that I must. So I did. And it felt like recovering a very significant part of myself that had been banished for a very long time. It felt like healing!
I remember the first time I was overcome by a wave of grief after my mom died. It was when I walked by a children’s clothing store in Bennington, VT that I thought she would find delightful. And then it hit me that I couldn’t tell her about it. And I cried, right there on the sidewalk.
It happened for the first time with my dad recently when I was at work. A friendly, elderly man came into the library limping a bit. He said hello, smiled at me, and reminded me of my dad. Fortunately, I only had five minutes left at work and was able to keep it together that long. But as soon as I got inside my car, I lost it.
I can align myself with a more expanded, “spiritual” awareness much of the time, but it can be so sad on a personal level, and some moments and events catch me off-guard. That night, I fell asleep with a question in my heart: How do you handle such grief?
The answer I received: Hold it differently.
Hold it differently. But don’t try to bypass it. Feel its weight, its shape. Examine it from different angles. Get to know it. Don’t be afraid, for it comes bearing gifts.
I’m not psyched to go through this all over again, so soon. I’ve grown weary of goodbyes. But that’s life. People come and go. It’s something we all go through.
I’d rather feel grief deeply and fully and have the scars to show for it than not experience the love and caring that precedes it. I’ve come to realize that mourning life’s inevitable losses is a wondrous opportunity to grow in compassion, empathy, love, and wisdom. It is an invitation to wake up. A dark blessing that expands and connects us. If we accept the invitation, ultimately we learn that we are so much larger than our grief.
I’m also re-learning that grief is hard work. Physical work. The waves that come along and knock you to the ground are physical, not just emotional. You have to find your balance and strength to stand up again as the waves continue to exert their force on you, leaving you disoriented. You have to find your footing because the alternative is to be pulled out to sea without anything to keep you afloat.
It’s interesting to have powerful experiences that feel like communication with the other side of the veil and still be knocked off-balance from missing the physical presence of a loved one who has crossed over. It’s not a question of having enough faith, for the purpose of faith is not to bypass challenging emotions such as grief. Rather, faith is like a life vest that helps us to stay afloat when we are knocked off-balance by a big wave. It assures us that we are bigger than whatever loss we are grieving and that we can handle it. It won’t kill us. It can lead us to discover and develop inner resources.
That is so hopeful and exciting!
We can hold our grief differently, and that doesn’t mean pushing it away or internalizing admonishments to “get over it” and move on, for grief follows no timetable. It means having a different perspective regarding the purpose that grief and loss serve in our life – and that they even have a positive purpose to begin with.
I see all my recent losses as a tremendous invitation to expand and grow my soul and hopefully inspire others to do the same. I’m grateful for all the experiences I’ve had, including and especially difficult and challenging ones because they allow me to do my work in this world better than I could do it without them. They have been my impetus for awakening. This is perhaps the biggest “aha” insight I’ve had thus far in my life. It is revelatory!
As I actively experience grief, it is my intention to explore it with all my senses rather than flee from it. To be curious about it. I want to learn all I can from it, for the better I come to understand my own suffering, the better I can connect with the suffering of others. I invite it to teach me and grow me, to link me with others, and transform me into something more magnificent than I was before.
We live our lives on multiple levels, which is why we can hold a loss in our heart and feel it deeply while simultaneously trusting in Divine Timing and sensing that in a much, much broader context, all is well, all is evolving, and we are part of it. For example, it is possible to feel that it was my dad’s time in a spiritual sense while also feeling sad about losing him and upset about the circumstances.
Inside bereavement there are a number of rooms – different spaces we can settle into. There is the room in which you miss your loved one’s personality and physical presence acutely. There is a room in which you sense everything is unfolding according to Divine Order, and there are no accidents. There are other rooms, as well. You can sit in one of the rooms and then discover there is a movable wall separating two rooms, and you open it and find yourself sitting in a more spacious awareness in which you can be in both rooms at the same time because there really is no separation between the two.
Imagine the room of Acute Grief being dark and cold and not having its own heat source, whereas the Serenity-Faith room has a cozy fireplace and windows that allow in plenty of light. When you open up the wall between the two, the heat from the Serenity-Faith room warms up the Acute Grief room. In this space, I realize it wasn’t just my dad’s time. It was my time, too. My time to become more and grow exponentially while my feet are still walking on this earth.
You can stand in the middle of the two rooms and be in both environments at the same time and feel your heart simultaneously breaking and expanding. You can perceive your sorrow from a much greater perspective while also acknowledging the pain. And this allows you to sit a little longer in the grief room and to be mindful of what’s in there so you can learn more about it and transform it with presence into wisdom, compassion, and other spiritual blessings. That’s something you can’t do when the wall that separates the two rooms is in place, making the grief room too unpleasant to stay in for more than a brief moment and motivating you to seek shelter and distraction elsewhere.
I am certain this situation did not present itself in my life to weaken or diminish me, but so I can learn from it. So I can expand, awaken, and love better. Challenging times invite us to cultivate inner resources. We can’t let our sadness, upset, etc. get out of control and drown our light. We are called to channel our painful emotions and become greater versions of ourselves. To discover what we are capable of.
There have been some mighty strange goings-on in my world since my dad died three weeks ago. This post is just in time for Halloween, although the timing was not at all intentional. I’m sharing my experiences in as straightforward a manner as possible so you can draw your own conclusions. Be sure to read all the way to the end!
1. Technical Difficulties
There have been a plethora of problems with electronics. (And no, Mercury hasn’t been retrograde.) Three different keys to two different cars haven’t worked at certain times, and I’ve had unprecedented phone connection issues. While creating the photo slideshow for my dad’s funeral services, I experienced a series of at least 20 bizarre technical glitches that I’d never encountered before. And last week, this very blog sent out a post from several months ago to email subscribers without any action on my part. I didn’t even know it was possible to resend an old post and was surprised to see it in my inbox!
2. Lights Out
My daughter and son were in town for my dad’s funeral two weeks ago, and after the service, we met at my house before they went their separate ways, back to Georgia and the NYC area. As they were leaving, I turned on the light on the side of the house so they could see better as they drove away. I went to bed just before 10:00 and fell asleep instantly. When I woke up in the middle of the night, I glanced at my phone to see what time it was and noticed a text my husband sent at 10:22 PM asking me to turn out that light. He was sleeping in the RV, and the light was bothering him. So I went downstairs to turn off the light but saw that it was already off. I assumed he had come inside and turned it off himself. The next morning, I asked him about it and explained that I didn’t receive his text until the middle of the night. He was really surprised because no sooner had he sent that text, and the light went out. It went out so immediately that he found it odd because he wasn’t even sure he’d had time to hit “send”. I also found it odd but didn’t want to jump to conclusions and suspected the lightbulb might have blown out at an uncanny time. So I went over to the light switch and was surprised to find it in the “off” position. As soon as I flipped the switch, the light went on – so it hadn’t burned out after all. It just happened to turn off at the exact moment when Jack requested that I turn it off.
3. Swirling Mist
My dad passed away in the morning. That evening when I was at my parents’ house with one other person, we saw a swirl of mist traveling around the kitchen, followed by a significant drop in temperature in the room we were sitting in. At the funeral service at the church a week later, something caught my eye as I greeted the continuous line of people coming to pay their respects. Again, I saw a white mist moving around high above us. It was an overcast/rainy afternoon, and it wasn’t caused by sunlight coming through the windows.
4. Clock Works
Last night’s experience took the cake. After spending the whole day at my parents’ house with my sister, I was alone there in the evening finishing up some work on my laptop at the dining room table. The chair I was sitting in had become uncomfortable, so I moved to the couch in the living room. When I sat down on the couch, I looked at my dad’s empty chair – the chair he always sat in – and said out loud sadly, “There’s no more dad here to talk to.”
Just then, the grandfather clock – which hadn’t worked in years – made a soft, chiming sound from across the room. It was not on the hour (6:05 – not the correct time), and I hadn’t heard that clock all day or for a really long time – months or even years, for that matter. The chime sent chills down my spine. Alarmed, I texted two close relatives, and right after sending my text, the clock chimed again. Then I noticed my cell phone battery was getting low, so I got up to retrieve my phone charger. When I walked through the kitchen, I heard a fast, ticking sound that I hadn’t heard before then. It sounded like it was coming from the direction of the cuckoo clock in the family room. When I went closer, I realized the cuckoo clock – which hadn’t worked in decades – was ticking! Again, this was a clock that had been dormant for a long time, and it just started ticking all of a sudden. At this point, I was quite spooked! Not just one, but two clocks had come alive simultaneously!
Even though I was startled and shaking, I sat back down on the couch to see if I could become still enough to pick up on any messages that might be trying to come through. I said, “OK, you have my attention!” and became still and silent, imagining white light surrounding me and filling the room. Then I heard my dad’s voice inside my head. He sounded happy and spoke in the voice he used when he was relaying a funny story or a story of something peculiar that had happened to him (like when my mom’s grandfather came to him in a dream shortly after he died, and when my mom came to him in a dream some time after she died). He said he was with my mom…AND THEN THE CUCKOO CLOCK CUCKOOED FROM THE FAMILY ROOM!!!!
It seemed he wanted me to pass along a message to my sister, who was at his bedside constantly for the last 14 or so hours of his life and was quite shaken by the whole experience. I said out loud to confirm, “So you want me to tell her…” And then the cuckoo clock cuckooed again!
At that point, my shaking hands texted another relative to ask if she’d experienced anything at the house, and she texted me back, saying she had experienced something with the cuckoo clock and her cell phone playing a tune (ringtone) she’d never heard it play before when she sat in my dad’s chair, which really freaked her out.
So it wasn’t just me.
Even though I still felt alarmed, I had to laugh because it was comforting to feel that my parents were there with me and to think of how entertaining or gratifying it must be to make the clocks go off. It seemed to me that making the clocks sound was like making the telephone ring and wondering if somebody would pick up and answer at the other end. And I did.
I continued to have a conversation with my dad in which I told him that I’ll do my best to listen if he tries to get in touch with me and that dreams are usually a good way to communicate if he knows how to do that. Then I told him that I’m going to get going now…and the cuckoo clock cuckooed again!
When I stood up to leave, the (landline) phone rang, and I was afraid to answer it! But I did. Nobody was on the line when I answered. No clicks or anything. Just silence. I said hello at least three times before hanging up. I had been at the house for more than eight hours, and the phone hadn’t rung a single time until that moment when I got up to leave.
After leaving the house, I called my daughter to share the experience with her, and she reminded me that the only other time she’d heard the cuckoo clock sound was right after my mom passed away. I’d forgotten about that. But at the time, it seemed like a big deal.
So, how do you explain THAT? I’m not committed to the notion that hearing my dad’s voice inside my head was actual after-death communication, although that might be the significance I ultimately attribute to it. It could be me working things out inside my own head. Conversations with my higher self. Wishful thinking. Or…who knows what? The way I see it, if you can arrive at some kind of resolution, answer, or insight that truly feels right in your heart and leaves you feeling at peace, it doesn’t matter where it came from. It is part of your healing and growth. I can’t claim to fully understand what I experienced. I certainly know what it felt like and am open to other explanations and possibilities. But in the end, the meaning I make of it is my own, and all I know for sure is that it’s part of my experience and that it left me with a sense of hope, comfort, and peace once I got over the initial shock.
5. Dream Time
On the morning of that same day, I had an intriguing dream in which I was standing on a bridge and was drawn to stunning orange foliage on trees across the river. Then I noticed the trees moving together in a strange way: First the branches stretched out to the sides and then moved upwards so the foliage was a little higher up from the ground. The trees went through the same movements a couple more times, and each time the leaves traveled higher up toward the sky.
When I woke up from that dream, I felt a little peculiar. I recalled three other dreams I’d had of nature acting in a bizarre way that captured my attention and felt that something was attempting to get through to me. I sensed it might have had something to do with my dad. It wasn’t until I told my sister about the dream later in the day that I realized I was standing on a bridge in the dream. The dreams I’ve had of contact with deceased loved ones always have some kind of boundary like that.
So when I had the experience with the clocks later that day, the dream felt even more significant. I told a couple of friends about my experience and explained, “Well, it’s the time of year when the veil is thin” and recalled writing an article with that title last year at this time. This morning, I pulled up that post and was astounded to read about a similar dream that also began when I noticed beautiful autumn trees.
To be honest, I wasn’t really thinking of sharing these experiences until I read that post from last year and remembered that sharing my experiences is something I need to keep finding the courage to do without worrying about being judged because that kind of sharing is my path. Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions and theories, and I’m just sharing my experiences without any embellishments or exaggerations, in case it’s helpful to anyone. I’ll let you decide what to make of them.
What an enriching and joyful process it’s been going through pictures spanning my dad’s whole life and reading the cards and online condolences through which people described him based on the context within which they knew him best. Over the past two weeks, this process has helped me to see him in a much greater context above and beyond the particular relationship I had with him—which also differed from the relationship either of my siblings had with him.
Every relationship is unique, and every life is composed of different relationships and chapters through which we express ourselves in different ways, much like a multifaceted crystal that is held to the light and turned to see the different angles from which the light shines through it. And yet, there are some qualities that remain more or less consistent at the core.
With my dad, some core descriptions that came up repeatedly included:
Warm and friendly
I remember being at his USAirways retirement celebration about 15 years ago, which provided me with my first glimpse of who he was in a broader context, beyond just “my dad.” When it was his turn to speak, he was quite a storyteller. And funny! I’d never experienced that side of him before! Those were some of the traits that endeared him to so many.
He also could be stubborn, and that’s a side I saw a lot. As he was in the hospital on what would be his deathbed, I commented to my son about how stubborn he was being as we left ICU one day. His “stubbornness” seemed to frustrate me more than anyone else and usually had something to do with him not being receptive to my ideas and how I was trying to help him. Holding tightly to previously established preferences and opinions. But my son suggested that he was dignified, rather than stubborn. My dad was determined to do things his way. A true Taurus!
He loved his hot dogs and ice cream and refused to follow a diabetic diet. He refused to have a fistula put in his arm in preparation for the increasingly likely event of kidney failure and a regimen of dialysis to keep him alive. He wanted nothing to do with a life without hot dogs or a life centered around time-consuming dialysis treatments and not being able to go to the YMCA to exercise and socialize. This summer, whenever he told me he had a hot dog for dinner or that friends brought him one or two when they visited him, my heart smiled because I understood my dad was an old dog who wasn’t about to learn new tricks and that he was choosing quality of life over longevity. His quality of life took a great blow when my mom died, and wherever he could find moments of happiness and comfort…was good, in my opinion.
One day back in February 2013, he was exercising at the YMCA and went into cardiac arrest. When I was on my way to the hospital with my mom, all we knew was that they used the defibrillator to get his heart started again, but it was very shaky. We didn’t know if we would arrive at the hospital to find him alive or dead. When we arrived, he was in the care of one of my best childhood friends, and we were able to talk to him. He was about to be transported to another hospital, and again, we didn’t know if he would survive the ambulance ride. But when we arrived at Albany Medical Center, he was alive and in good hands. He ended up surviving quadruple bypass surgery. Our family is so grateful for the YMCA staff, who gave us an extra 3 ½ years with him. For some reason, it wasn’t his time then.
In his novel, Illusions, Richard Bach wrote:
“Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t.”
Always one to look for meaning, I often contemplated why my dad didn’t die that day. What was he still here on earth to learn, experience, or do?
At the time of my dad’s cardiac episode, we had no idea that my mom had pancreatic cancer. She was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer by the end of the year and passed away within six months of being diagnosed. But in between my dad’s cardiac episode and my mom’s death, they were able to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary together at Disney World.
Losing his wife of 50 years – his best friend and soulmate – was so hard on my dad, and I’m sure that was obvious to everyone who knew him. His life would never be the same. Yet, I believe she needed to leave when she did so he could experience some things and grow in ways he wouldn’t have been able to grow otherwise. For example, he had a more direct relationship with my siblings and me when our extroverted mom wasn’t in the picture doing most of the communicating. And I think that was really important for him and for us. We had nearly 2 ½ years to do that. During that time, he was able to meet his first great-grandchild (my granddaughter) and see his grandson (my son) graduate from high school.
Two weeks before my dad finally went to the doctor for foot pain that kept getting worse this summer, a friend contacted me late at night to tell me that he walked past a particular music venue and saw my dad sitting in there alone. I reminded him that’s where my parents used to go to listen to music and added that my mom is probably there with him in spirit. My friend replied that my dad looked really sad, and I said it’s because he doesn’t realize she’s there with him. Understanding how difficult and painful it was for my dad to walk, I was surprised he went through the trouble of finding parking in downtown Saratoga Springs during the busy, summer tourist season and walking to the venue. He must have had a strong purpose or longing to go there.
A few days before he went to the doctor, my husband dreamed my parents were dancing together. It was one of those dreams that felt more real than real, if you know what I mean. My mom was in full, vivid color, looking so happy and vibrant as she danced. Although she was dancing with my dad, he was in black and white and didn’t seem to realize she was there dancing with him. Surprised to see my mom, Jack exclaimed, “You’re not supposed to be here!” And my mom replied, “Well, I am! And I always have been.”
* * * *
Things aren’t always what they seem. Sometimes what seems to be a cruel twist of fate is merciful. We just can’t see the whole picture from where we stand.
A diabetic with significant cardiac history, my dad had a rough summer that included six-hour bypass surgery to correct a circulation issue in his leg. That was followed by a recovery period, and in the midst of recovering, he ended up back in the hospital for a sore on his foot that resulted in his little toe being amputated and another recovery period. After being discharged from the hospital, he spent a couple of weeks at a rehab center and in less than a week after being discharged from the rehab center came down with the pneumonia that claimed his life.
During the last few weeks of his life, I worried about how my siblings (one local, one not) and I would care for our dad when he got out of rehab and was being his stubborn or willful or dignified self. Like when my dad and I came back inside after our first wheelchair excursion outside of the rehab center on a beautiful day, I dashed into the restroom for about 15 seconds, only to find him wheeling himself down the hallway toward the main entrance when I reemerged. A custodian witnessed it and had a look of combined shock and amusement on her face. I felt like the parent of a toddler, who must be ever-vigilant. It was a strange feeling to have in relation to my dad.
I became anxious about how he would fare living on his own in his split-level house with stairs all over the place. On the way home from rehab, I reminded him that there was a walker on each level of the house that he was supposed to use, and he exclaimed that he wasn’t going to use any walkers and then took off like a racehorse when we arrived home. Again, I felt like an anxious parent trying to get him to follow doctor’s orders that he claimed he never remembered hearing. How could I help him when he wouldn’t do what he was supposed to do?
I wondered how long this would go on, how long he would need a caregiver at the house, and whether he would need to go into a long-term care facility at some point. But throughout this time, I kept hearing my mom’s voice in my head assuring me: Don’t worry.This isn’t going to take long. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but two days before he died, when he was back in the hospital being treated for pneumonia and congestive heart failure, I found a dead cardinal in my driveway. I’d never seen a dead cardinal before, and my dad loved cardinals. When I saw the cardinal, I had a sinking feeling that he was not going to make it this time. And although my mortal heart was breaking, my intuition assured me that it’s okay because it’s his time.
My dad would not have wanted to live a life in which his freedom was restricted. In the end, it seems his swift death was merciful. He didn’t have to languish in a nursing home or undergo dialysis. He didn’t have to observe another wedding anniversary without his beloved wife and passed on in time to spend their October 19th anniversary together in spirit.
As much as I will miss my dad, I realize that losing our parents is part of the natural course of human life. In recent years, some of my friends have had to face the tragedy of losing a child, and a couple of my kindergarten students suffered the sudden loss of a parent. I have not lost a child, and I am not a child who has lost a parent. What I am experiencing is within the natural cycle of life. It is to be expected.
My parents loved each other so much, and although he kept going the best he could, my dad’s life would never be the same again after losing my mom. With a love like that, it’s not unusual for the surviving spouse to follow close behind. So I really feel it was my dad’s time to go. In the end, pneumonia wasn’t a thief that came along and stole him from us before his time. It was a swift, merciful ride to the other side that saved him from declining health, a restricted lifestyle, and continued mourning. That he was able to avoid that kind of pain and suffering brings me peace.
It is with sadness that I write about my dad’s passing eight days ago. He succumbed to pneumonia Legionnaire’s Disease (we learned later) after being in ICU for five days. He died less than two-and-a-half years after my mom died of pancreatic cancer, which isn’t unusual for couples who love each other greatly. As difficult as it is to lose my dad, for many reasons (that I will share in a separate post), I feel it was his time, and that certainty brings me peace.
We had his calling hours and memorial service yesterday at his church – the culmination of a week of tremendous activity. There were many meetings and lots of work involved in creating a video slideshow for the church events and working around numerous, unprecedented technical glitches that arose. I went through boxes of my parents’ photos to assemble photo collages to display in large frames on easels. Wrote a eulogy. Found a new, loving home for his cat. Visited with my two adult children and nine-month-old granddaughter, who traveled from out-of-town.
In other words, I attended to the usual tasks that fall on the closest relatives immediately after someone dies. But I also did something not so common in our culture: On Tuesday, I drove to Bennington, Vermont to be present for my dad’s cremation, as I did when my mom passed away. And that might sound morbid, but it wasn’t. It was transcendent.
I was not with my dad when he passed away. I couldn’t make it to the hospital in time but was able to say goodbye to him over the phone. I told him that I love him and thanked him for being such a great dad. I encouraged him to let go and assured him that everything is going to be fine. We are going to be fine, and so is he, for he is about to go on a wondrous journey. I told him I’m so happy for him because he will soon be with my mom, his beloved wife of 50 years. His last words to me were: I love you, too.
I couldn’t be there when he died, but I was able to show up for his cremation, which felt like another part of the process to witness with love, light, and presence.
When my mom died, I pushed her cardboard coffin into the crematory retort and then retreated to my car to meditate for a while before walking around Bennington for a few hours until her cremains were ready to be picked up. But with my dad, it was different. The funeral director invited me to come and go as I pleased. He left the crematory door unlocked and placed a chair next to the retort for me, along with two bottles of water.
I sat next to the crematory retort for an hour and a half meditating on my relationship with my dad. I remembered good times and reflected on all the ways in which he expressed his love. The small but meaningful gestures, such as vacuuming my car, filling my gas tank, and taking us out for dinner. And larger gestures, such as when he helped me out financially when I needed an implant for my front tooth and when I was getting divorced. How he and my mom made it possible for me to attend the private college I felt so drawn to, without having to take on much student debt. The family vacations that usually involved amusement parks, such as Disney World. How he always had my back and conducted himself in such a kind and dignified manner, which made me proud to call him my dad.
I also visualized any sadness, grudges, regrets, and human weaknesses and impurities burning away until only love and light remained. Until only spirit remained, released from any human shortcomings – his or my own. That included any negative feelings or resentments I harbored because, at the personality level, my dad and I were so different, and I challenged and disappointed him in many ways. He was a traditionalist with a worldview that was much more conservative and black-and-white than my own, and through the years I came to accept that rather than try to change him or get him to understand my worldview and choices. For instance, when I got married, I wouldn’t let my dad give me away because I did not consider myself an object to be transferred from one man to another. I’m sure that all the explaining in the world couldn’t help him understand that because, with my dad, you didn’t question tradition. You just followed it. So I let all that burn away until only love and forgiveness (for him and for myself) remained.
I sat there and told him everything I wasn’t able to express when he was alive. Sometimes we don’t recognize the different ways in which people express love in the best way they know how. We might not realize that the questions and comments that seem so judgmental on the surface arise from a spirit of deep love and concern. Our communications pass through our human filters and so often get misinterpreted. And we build walls to protect our fragile egos. And we build histories, stories, and communication patterns that are often so hard to rise above. And we don’t say what is in our heart because the patterns are so entrenched. That’s what I got in touch with in the crematory and allowed to burn away. I bathed all that in love, and it transformed into nothing but love.
I recalled the scared look in my dad’s eyes during the last few days of his life because he sensed something was different this time. How he absolutely refused to engage in a conversation I initiated about hospice care, and it felt like just another example of him rejecting what I had to offer based on my knowledge, experience, values, and sincere caring. How I couldn’t be there when he died because I needed some distance from a situation that arose, in order to maintain my strength and sanity. How I felt I could support him better from a distance that last day of his life, not knowing it would be his last day. I let all that burn away until only love, forgiveness, and an appreciative sense of humor remained.
I essentially composed his eulogy (which I will share in a separate post) while sitting in the crematory. The tears I cried were mostly tears of appreciation and gratitude for all the ways in which he expressed his love and continued to love and care for me, despite our differences. I appreciated what a steadfast provider he was for our family and for having such a stable, secure childhood. I appreciated the ways in which his traditional worldview was challenged to the core by some curveballs life threw his way and how he responded with love every single time. I appreciated how much he and my mom loved each other.
As my dad’s body burned in the crematory retort next to me, I reflected on all the ways in which he expressed love for us, acknowledged our relationship and humanness, and honored the spirit that unites us. The spirit of love and kindness. It was a powerful process, though not one that many in our culture choose to experience or even realize is possible. By the time I left the crematorium, I felt so light and filled with love and light and appreciation for my father. I felt his light shining so brightly.
Lyrics from India Arie’s song, “I Am Light” came to mind:
I am not the pieces of the brokenness inside…I am light.
I am not the mistakes that I have made or any of the things that caused me pain…I am light.
I am not the color of my eyes, I am not the skin on the outside…My soul inside is all light.
While waiting to hear that my dad’s cremains were ready to be picked up, I drove around and decided to take a walk before dark. I ended up in Old Bennington and couldn’t resist parking near an old church with an adjacent cemetery. It seemed like a perfect place to walk with my camera.
Not knowing anything about the history or looking for anything in particular, my intuition led me through the cemetery, and I came upon poet Robert Frost’s grave.
How perfect, I thought, for that day I took the road less traveled, and it made all the difference.
There are many cultures in which funeral rituals, including cremation, are not performed by professionals out of sight of grieving family and friends. The image of open cremations on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, India comes to mind. Families gathered around the funeral pyre watching the body burn, coming to terms with mortality and relationships. What do we gain by keeping the care of our dead at arm’s length? What do we lose?
Being present for my dad’s cremation was such a positive, healing experience for me. I wish it were more commonplace in our culture…even as I see my dad in my mind, bristling and shaking his head, wondering how on earth I could think that way. Knowing he’ll never be able to understand me but loving me just the same.
Earlier this week, the vascular surgeon said it would be a wild ride, and has it ever been! I spent a couple days this week crying and rebelling against my current realities and have the puffy eyes to prove it. This week has been exhausting. Illuminating. Clarifying. And so much else. But today is a new day, and I have quite a story to share. One I hope you will find inspiring.
My dad underwent emergency bypass surgery two days ago to fix a severe blockage in his leg so he wouldn’t lose his foot. It was no simple procedure, given all his medical issues. I stayed with him in pre-op, and when it was time to leave, I looked in his eyes and saw how frightened he was – of losing his leg or worse. I assured him that he was in good hands and had the easy part because he’d be out the whole time, and as far as he’s concerned, I’d see him in about two minutes, post op. I held his hand, told him I love him, gave him a kiss, and left the hospital with his wedding ring in my possession and my mother’s voice in my head telling me that I am a good daughter and that everything will be alright.
Hearing her voice brought tears to my eyes. Remote mothering, but mothering, nonetheless. Two family members have had “very real” and vivid dreams of her in the past two weeks convincing them that she is still around and watching over us.
Before my dad went to the doctor because his foot pain had become unbearable, my husband, Jack, dreamed that my mom and dad were dancing together, but my dad didn’t seem to realize she was there. He was in black and white and seemed very down, whereas she was in full, vivid color with a big smile on her face, dancing all around. Aware that she had died, Jack exclaimed, “But you’re not supposed to be here!” With a big smile, she replied, “Well, I am! And I always have been!”
That was the first time he had ever dreamed of her or experienced a dream that felt “so real”. The same was true for my daughter, who dreamed my mom came back one more time and told her that she’s been watching over her and is aware that she has a daughter and really wished she could meet her but wasn’t able to.
I haven’t had such a “dream” in a while but have been hearing my mom’s voice in my head quite often. It is the most loving, compassionate voice. Maybe it’s actually my own voice growing stronger, but it sounds like her, and I’m grateful to hear it.
But back to my dad…
He was in the operating room for six hours. And what a journey those six hours were! Understanding that the surgery would be quite complicated, I left the hospital in a bit of a daze. While he was on the operating table, I felt like an orphan. I felt so lonely and drove around longing for a warm hug and a few kind words. I parked my car, and when I got out, there was a single white feather on the ground right next to the car door. I associate white feathers with deceased loved ones, so I immediately thought of my mom and felt her love.
I cried a lot over the next six hours. And reflected. Heightened, ultra-real moments, such as when you’re waiting for a loved one to come out of surgery, carry a special power to cut through illusions, break spells, and offer the gift of clarity. I was able to see more clearly what was most important, what was missing, and what needed to change in my life.
I realized that for a long time, in some ways I had only been seeing what I wanted to see, not what was really going on. It was like when I accompanied my parents to my mom’s oncologist appointments, and when we left the doctor’s office, they agreed cheerfully that the news the doctor gave them was hopeful – though I heard something entirely different. And when my dad managed to convince himself the day before his surgery that the vascular surgeon didn’t really intend to give him a bypass the next day even though she stated it clearly and gave him instructions to prepare for it. It’s like when someone tells you they love you, and you want to believe the words rather than the actions, which indicate otherwise.
Hindsight may be 20/20, but when clarity emerges – even if it brings somber revelations – it is always a blessing because at least you know what you have to work with and can move forward, blinders finally removed. Even after my dad’s surgery was successful, I continued to cry for virtually the entire next day because what I realized in those hours of clarity was hard to bear. And I hadn’t gotten enough sleep, which never helps matters. All I could feel was the pain of the great void of loss that felt like it was growing and threatening to consume me. I missed my mom terribly and wished my arms were long enough to pull her back from wherever she is. Even if she really is closer than we realize, it wasn’t close enough.
Where did everybody go?
My mom and grandmother are gone. My son will leave for college in two weeks. My daughter and granddaughter have moved to Georgia. That’s a lot of empty space that used to be filled with activity and face-to-face interaction with loved ones!
So yesterday was Crying Day – I Miss My Mom Day – from start to finish. But when I went kayaking in the morning, there were white feathers scattered all over the river for as far as I paddled!
This morning, I opened my eyes and was called to the dock by the colors of the sunrise. I sat on the dock listening to the cicadas, crickets, and birds and feeling the cool, morning air on my skin as a single dragonfly zipped around, and the sunrise colors developed. After a day of crying and lashing out against all the empty spaces in my life, I was able to wake up in the morning and “be here now.” Be at peace with what is rather than vehemently oppose it. And that’s how I realize I will need to proceed: One mindful moment at a time. Focus on what I already have, rather than on what is missing.
There have been too many goodbyes lately, and sometimes it feels overwhelming. But that’s life. People will come and go, often before we are ready to release them. And the spaces they leave behind can feel like vast, haunted caverns of sadness and loneliness. But in what feels like empty space, the Universe has created an opening that holds glorious, unlimited possibilities.
Yes, there are some gaping spaces in my life – and perhaps in yours, as well. But there is also so much love and nourishment in our world if only we can look through the lens of the present moment and its wealth of possibilities rather than try to prolong the past. And embrace our wholeness! When we feel ourselves craving more or wanting something or someone out of our reach, we can take a deep breath and remember that we already have everything we need. Focus on that. The miracle of gratitude.
My dad made it through his surgery. The sun rose again this morning, and the sunrise was quite beautiful. The water lilies floating on the river are irresistible, and the large clusters of Queen Anne’s lace give off a sweet, subtle fragrance. I am married to a man who is the personification of peace and love and who has transformed himself in ways I never imagined possible. My son is about to embark on the next, exciting chapter of his journey, and I can connect with my daughter and granddaughter via video calls. I have wonderful, healthy friends who have stepped forward and filled some of the empty spaces with empathy, caring, and wisdom. Their nourishing presence has helped me to make it through this week.
So I offer this advice for you and for me: Accept the love and blessings that show up in your life. Focus on that. When someone hugs you, for instance, be present. Feel the loving, caring energy that is wrapping itself around you. Melt into it, and connect with that instead of ruminating on who or what is missing or what is causing you sadness. A mindful hug or conversation can transform your mood, your day, and even your life.
And because I’ve done it myself and have witnessed others doing it, I ask us both to consider: How are you pushing away the love that wants to flow to you and then calling yourself lonely? Who is right there dancing with you even though you aren’t even aware of it? How does love want to enter your life? How can you open yourself to it?
After my mom died and I had quit my job teaching kindergarten, my wise son realized I was feeling down and remarked that he thinks I need to find “something precious to care for.” After more goodbyes and empty spaces, I suspect that precious thing might be me. Because for so long, I have been busy caring for others: My children. My family. My young students. A troubled friend.
As I sat on the dock this morning witnessing the sunrise, I realized that in the gaping emptiness, my book is waiting for me – the one I am going to publish once I finish writing it. A precious thing to care for. A glorious possibility!
A new day. A new opportunity to integrate the lessons of yesterday into cultivating greater wisdom, kindness, and love and bringing our best selves into being. May we forgive ourselves and others for how we have fallen short. In other words, for being human. Each of us is a brilliant work in progress, and the possibilities are endless.