family, grief and loss, Inspiration, Uncategorized

The Working Title is….Trapped in a Love/Hate Relationship

I find myself being defined by the complexities of a love/hate relationship I simply cannot escape.

No, it is not a torrid romance with a fella. Nor is it in my relationships with family or friends. (love/love)  The love/hate is not found with food or booze (love/love) or exercise and clean living. (hate/hate)

My love/hate relationship is with the Gregorian calendar.

Every since I was young, I loved the order and structure the calendar provided our home. It served as an infallible guidepost hanging in the kitchen, directly next to the phone, with every family birthday and anniversary noted, every party, appointment and school activity logged, every holiday and vacation blocked.

When I became an adult, my head almost exploded when I first walked into the Franklin Planner store. It had the unmistakable magnetism of a fibrous-pulp crackhouse for any type-A, hyper-focused organizational freak like me. When technology amped up the game, I dove headfirst into life with a Palm Pilot, and I haven’t looked back since my iPhone calendar took things to the next level.

The first time I hit “add attendees” to alert my kids to scheduled dentist appointments on our shared Apple calendar, I wept tears of organizational joy.

I love seeing important dates in print, like my girls’ birthdays on a newspaper masthead. Heck, I get excited when I see my own birthday as an expiration date on milk in the grocery store.

Birthday Expiration Date

Our calendars are so much more than the here and now. They are as much a look into the future as they are a reflection of our past.

Ay, there’s the rub.

From mid-July through the beginning of September, my calendar serves a dual role as a painful diary.

Most everyone I know has one’s own personal “day that will live in infamy” where your life changed course forever. For me, those days are nestled in what is supposed to be the most leisurely, fun filled time of the year.

My mom died suddenly and unexpectedly on July 16th.  In each subsequent year, I would replay that day in my head…hour by hour…the call to get home as quickly as possible, standing at a payphone in O’Hare as an ER doc says “despite our best efforts..,” landing in Syracuse to face my Dad’s mournful gaze. It may sound self-destructive to be lost in such reverie, but I can’t help it.

Exactly fifteen years later, to the day, I sat in the hospital with my husband as they tried to diagnose the source of his uncontrolled pain. I thought, for sure, no bad news would come our way on this day that already had its ominous shadow hovering over my calendar, and yet, that very afternoon, we heard the words “cancer cells” for the first time.

Fast forward eight more years to the current year, and again on July 16, a pathology report returns with a melanoma diagnosis for my brother.

It defies understanding.

The beginning weeks of August always replay in my mind like a horrible movie flashing back to Pat’s final days. It’s a movie that I still don’t fully understand or even believe the ending. There is no dramatic goodbye scene, which only leaves the audience feeling woefully unfulfilled and forever at a loss. His absence continues to loom large. The heartache looms larger.

As my calendar flips to September, I remember keeping vigil at my Dad’s bedside. As he slipped from consciousness, I read countless prayers and bible verses to comfort this dear man for whom his Catholic faith was so important. As he continued to hang on, I moved on to Jewish prayers then Hindu, Sanskrit, Buddhist and Islamic. I guess I wanted to make sure we had all our bases covered. After 36 straight hours, I whispered in his ear that I was going home to sleep just a little in my own bed, and I would be back in bit. I hadn’t even yet pulled into my driveway when they called to say he had died. For whatever reason, he did not want me in the room when he breathed his last. I suppose he could finally rest in peace without me babbling in his ear.

For me, it is impossible to ignore these difficult days on the calendar. But they serve to remind me that I am a sum total of all my life experiences, the good days, the great days, the bad days and the devastating ones.

This morning, I went to mass to celebrate my Dad’s life on this third anniversary of his death. I could hear his voice in the reading. It was about God strengthening each of us through the Holy Spirit.

I was reminded that the Holy Spirit aims to bring us gifts of wisdom, knowledge, understanding, courage, right judgment and wonder and awe.

A different day may call for a different gift.   We can only aim to have hearts open to receive them everyday…no matter what may be on our calendar.






family, Uncategorized

The Working Title is…What’s My Noun?

Last night, I watched a television show where the characters were discussing their gender neutral, genderfluid, nonbinary self-identification and the pronouns with which they associate.

My head was swimming just watching the scene, and I was comforted by the fact that the lead actor’s lines were reflective of how I was feeling…attempting to be respectful but utterly confused.

When I turned off the tv, my thoughts went much the same way of that scene; totally focused on self. Except for my attempt at self-definition didn’t dig deep enough into the grammatical categories to even hit pronoun. I’m stuck on noun. And I’m reminded of that every year on the second Sunday of May.

When I entered the world, a doctor presumably announced my noun as girl to a woman, or maybe a teenager, who made the selfless decision to place me up for adoption. For the next six months, my noun was foster child until I was welcomed into my parents’ home and my noun became daughter and sister.

Two and a half decades later, my noun also became wife. And four months before I was to give my Mom the opportunity to claim the noun grandmother, she died. Suddenly and unexpectedly, so much of how I defined myself was gone as well.

As my girls grew up, I always noted that when they would ask about my childhood, they would refer to “Grandpa and your Mom” as my Mom never took on the proper noun of Grandma. And if there were anyone in this world who would have savored that proper noun and all that comes with it, it would have been Mary Anne Barthel.

The last picture I took with my Mom. I’m four months pregnant with Maddie. My mom died four weeks later.

In the years that followed my mom’s death, the second weekend in May was heartbreaking for me. I would stand in the Mother’s Day section of the Hallmark store holding back tears with varying degrees of success. I would mourn not only the loss of her words of wisdom, her contagious giggle or the safety of her warm, healing, empowering hugs, but also, and even perhaps more painful, I mourned all the joy on which she was missing out; what she would have done with that proper noun and the impact it would have had on my world.

I was daughter first. I was daughter for such a long time. It was so much of how I defined myself. And it took my husband to point out to me that my overwhelming grief, while real and understandable, was not fair to my children who, much like I did, savor their definition as daughters.

And, thus became the tradition of the Mother’s Day nap. It was my fifth Mother’s Day that Pat put me to bed after brunch and said, “It’s ok to be sad, but don’t let it take away from their joy of celebrating you.” So I would wallow for about an hour, and invariably, during that time, I would end up counting my blessings.

The blessing of having a great mom, albeit for far too short a time. The blessing of having a great dad who tried admirably to fill the gap and provide love enough for both of them. The blessing of a great husband who also happened to be my best friend. The blessing of his family who welcomed me as one of their own. And the blessing of two healthy, happy, exceptional daughters who have given my life joy and meaning through the most wonderful noun, mother.

On Sunday, I will pray for the women who also struggle with grief…the grief of losing a mother or the unimaginable grief of losing a child.

I will pray for the women who are desperate to accept the noun of mother yet life’s circumstances hold that at bay.

I will pray for the courageous, selfless women who know in their hearts that they are not equipped to accept the noun of mother, and so they show their love by embracing the noun birth mother and charting another path for the life they brought into this world.

I will pray for women estranged from their mother or daughter or sister or friend to find the courage to take the first step if repair to the relationship is possible.

And I will pray with tremendous thanksgiving for the mothers and daughters who, through their love and kindness, embrace all the nouns I identify as today.   I will focus on gratitude, counting my blessings and letting joy soothe my grief.

A few years after the nap tradition began, I was visiting Syracuse and went to the cemetery with my Dad and my daughters to plant flowers at my Mom’s gravesite. As my Dad walked away to fill up the watering can, I turned to see my older daughter, Maddie, with her head bowed and hands folded in prayer. I was moved to tears, and could only imagine what my Mom was thinking looking down from heaven on this blessed scene. Certainly, she was sharing in the great pride I was feeling over my obvious exceptional parenting skills.

And then I turned to see my youngest, Clare, probably five at the time, perched atop the headstone and tracing the letters carved into the stone. She looked up at me, her face somehow covered in potting soil and said, “Hey, what’s the dead girl’s name again?” I could hear heavenly peals of laughter as I lifted her down and said, “Ummm, you mean Grandma?”

What can a noun radiate?

Laughter. Wisdom. Patience. Kindness. Gratitude. Forgiveness. Encouragement. Love.

xoxo Happy Mother’s Day xoxo