family, Uncategorized

The Working Title Is…The Ghost of Christmas Past

Christmas is my favorite time of year in our house. This year was particularly magnificent as our home was filled with the laughter and stories of thirty Parks family members shared over Christmas dinner.

Decorating starts the day after Thanksgiving when the girls and I put up our tree with It’s A Wonderful Life playing in the background. The stories and memories associated with every ornament are retold with greater appreciation every year.

It takes me more than a week to decorate the rest of the house. After the girls leave on Sunday following Thanksgiving, my brother comes over for a few days to help me decorate. We, too, share happy memories of past Christmases and dream about ways we can make this year special as well.

Taking the Christmas tree down, however, is a solo act. And it’s more spiritual than utilitarian.

I spent almost a full day, with college basketball playing in the background, packing the ornaments away. I savored the memories associated with each and every one. I can track the growth and maturity of our girls from the priceless ornaments they made and the ones we gave them each Christmas commemorating something special from that year; from Veggie Tales and Barney, to American Girls and Hannah Montana, piano keys and play marquees, drivers licenses and diplomas, a red solo cup and a rather stern looking Boy in Blue.

I say prayers of thanksgiving as each ornament brings a memory of the vacations we’ve taken, the houses in which we’ve lived, the schools in which we’ve studied, the teams for which we’ve cheered and the friendships made through it all.

And I repeat countless prayers to God asking for blessing and protection for each family member and friend whose spirit is somehow tied to a memory, enmeshed in a symbol and attached to a wire hook. I ask God to keep those people happy and healthy until the next time I hold that same wire hook in my hand and again thank Him for their place in my life.

In an attempt to outsmart the January sadness that routinely and quite stealthily sneaks in trying to fill the void left by the now-curbed conifer, I started 2018 armed with a plan.

Energized by goals I’ve set for the year, I wasted no time diving into the “house organization” objective. I started with a tiny little drawer in our family room that sits partially hidden behind a chair.

The drawer had a blanket shoved in there along with an unopened murder mystery dinner party game, cocktail napkins featuring Santa’s face, a balsam fir-scented candle boasting its unblemished wick, and a book.

The book was Traveling with Pomegranates: a mother-daughter story by Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees, and her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor. I opened the front cover to reveal my mother-in-law’s handwriting, “Christmas 2009.”

I immediately felt as though I had been kicked in the stomach.

My in-laws have the beautiful tradition of giving each adult and child a book every Christmas Eve. Their selections are made with great care and consideration of the interests, essence, and place in the life of each distinct family member.

Clearly, this little drawer somehow became a time capsule of Christmas 2009. These items must have been placed in there and summarily forgotten.

Christmas 2009. Our last Christmas together. And the reason why, for every Christmas moving forward, taking down the tree has become a spiritual exercise.

We would never have guessed what the next months were to hold. Weeks after these items were curiously stowed away, Pat would come home from playing squash complaining of pain. Hernia surgery would follow. The pain would not diminish. More doctor visits. More questions. Mid-July would come the news of cancer cells. And on August 12, without even the chance to say goodbye, Pat peacefully offered his last exhale. His pain abated and ours began.

I speak often of the fog that follows such a devastating loss. I’m not sure how long it lasted. Quite frankly, there are days that I’m not convinced it still doesn’t linger.

And now I hold in my hand a gift given to me from the time I will always think of as the “just before.”

Life was good, and all was right with the world.

So, I’ve since abandoned my cleaning goal and found a place on the couch with this literary Ghost of Christmas Past. It is astounding how much more appropriate the message is for me now, so many years later.

Described on the jacket cover, this mother-daughter undertaking is a “wise and intimate dual memoir…each on a quest to redefine herself and rediscover each other” written primarily over two trips to Greece and France.

The mom is struggling with turning 50 and the daughter, a recent college graduate, is struggling to find her path. I’m enjoying the back-and-forth first-person narratives and find myself empathetic to both authors especially since I just turned 50, and my oldest daughter just graduated from college.

I’m only two-thirds of the way through the story, but I am feeling personally inspired by their reflections, profoundly grateful for the depth of love and, now, adult friendship I share with my own daughters, and pretty damn sure we need to visit Greece and France. Soon.

One paragraph, however, jumped off the page for me. Now a year or two into her 50s, the mom, Sue Monk Kidd wrote, “My only personal encounters with death have been with those of my grandparents, who were ripe with old age and the fullness of their lives, and with that of my father-in-law who died abruptly of a heart attack at the age of sixty.”

Wow. I honestly don’t know one human being who can share that sentiment.

Death has been a part of our lives since my children’s earliest memories. As I read this mother-daughter memoir, I can’t help but acknowledge how our life experiences have given us a different base of perspective, a unique appreciation for what is truly important, and a depth of communication that spans their entire lifetimes.

On some level, nearly impossible to articulate, I am aware of the impact loss has had in defining who we are—without actually defining who we are.

Which brings me to this morning. I sat down with a cup of coffee to read another chapter of Traveling with Pomegranates when a text dinged its arrival. My eyes were first drawn to the date at the top of the phone… “Thu Jan 25”

One month ago, this house was filled with a flurry of activity. And now I sit, reading, reflecting on the past and contemplating the future. Immediately drawing me out of any melancholy was this text sent to our family group chat.

Apparently, we don’t need a “wise and intimate dual memoir” to grapple with life’s deepest questions. We just need a Thursday morning in January when the oldest daughter (clearly very busy in the work world) texts, “If your life was a movie what songs would you want to be in the soundtrack?”

I needed all of six minutes to draft my knee-jerk playlist.

And then I went back to read and reflect with Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor, but this time with Stevie Nicks singing in the background.

Oh, mirror in the sky
What is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?

I’ve been afraid of changing
‘Cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I’m getting older too.

I can only hope this literary Ghost of Christmas Past adds force to a Landside set in motion by my hopes and dreams for 2018.

The soundtrack of my life is still, very much, a work in progress.


family, Uncategorized

The Working Title Is…You Talkin’ To Me?

In the often quoted classic 1976 film Taxi Driver, Robert DeNiro’s character imagines what he would say if he were confronted by a bad guy and practices his response by speaking to his reflection in the mirror.

I’ve taken a hint from his playbook and often preemptively planned conversations with my own reflection. But as I look back on my first half-century of life, I wish I had done that more often.

I was reminded of that this week when the New York Times electronically reprinted an article linked here that asked the question “What to Do with Their Stuff?”. This is a topic that will hit home for many peers entrenched in the Sandwich Generation. And it certainly hit home for me.

Closing up my childhood home a number of years ago was agonizing. I kept more than I should have because I just couldn’t bear to part with the memories associated with the items. With each passing year, I find myself painfully and courageously letting go, bit by bit.

I will forever cherish my parents’ beloved Hummel collection and their wedding album, but, truth be told, I’ve stood over the trash on more than one occasion with their wedding cake topper which looks like it still has crusted frosting on the bottom and a lock of my Mom’s hair from her first haircut. Both just gross me out, and yet they have been saved from the landfill every time.

Recently I came across a super creepy looking childhood scrapbook of my Mom’s that looks more like a witch’s grimoire but instead includes a gold star from a Spelling Bee given to her in 1943, coincidentally, from the same Franciscan nun who would be my freshman science teacher, 38 years later.

And then there is this….


I have no idea why my Mom would have an egg with the decoupaged face of Pope John Paul II, but I can’t bring myself to toss this phony Fabergé that’s been shellacked with the smile of a steadfast servant now sacred Saint.

I wish I had talked about these things with my parents. And not just about what to do with their stuff, but I wish I had the really difficult conversations like the ones Atul Gawande talks about in his book Being Mortal. I wish we had conversations about plans for aging parents, siblings or adult children with special needs or terminal diagnoses.

There were many things, generationally, that fell under the category “Of Things We Will Not Speak” and so I didn’t have the benefit of those conversations with my parents. As a result, I have been winging it for quite a while with varying degrees of confidence and success.

But that was then. This is now.

I won’t do that to my own children. I don’t think anyone should.

And so I have resolved, and not just for the New Year, but also for all my remaining days, to be open to drafting a game plan rooted in love.

Before the clock strikes midnight and 2017 is a mere memory, I resolve to write a letter to my future self. It will be my 50-year-old voice telling my presumably much older self to trust my children when they tell me I am no longer bringing my A-game, and I need help. And because I know the effect ebullient flattery has on me, the letter will ooze self-congratulations for being such a good mom who has raised capable and intelligent daughters who love me and only want for me to be safe and happy. It will encourage me to reflect on the many things I did for them over their lifetimes and persuade me to reap the benefit of that investment by letting them take charge of some critical decisions. I will remind myself that the most selfless way to show love is to accept help. I will beg my future self to remember the sincerity and clarity of thought with which this letter was written when I was a spring chicken of just 50.

And it’s not that I will seal that letter up and store it away in a safety deposit box for decades. Oh no, I will review it annually. And if one of my smart, capable, focused, kind, loving, compassionate, level-headed girls inexplicably ends up with some dumbass who has her falling into a brainless trance of bad decision making, I will edit the letter.

But if we keep our communication as open, honest and respectful as it has been, no rewrite will be necessary.

I have planned for the worst, which I think, will help me live confidently in 2018 and beyond. Far beyond, hopefully.

I just purchased a Long Term Health Care insurance policy to ensure that my daughters will not have to worry about my care should the day come where living independently is no longer feasible. In retrospect, this was the greatest decision my Dad ever made following my Mom’s death. This wise investment not only protected many of his assets, but it subtly provided context clues toward acceptance of a potential future plan of care.

I also purchased an insurance policy to fund a special needs trust to ensure proper care for my brother should I get hit by the beer truck. Knowing this gave him great peace of mind and knowing that the responsibility will not fall on the shoulders of my children or extended family members brings that same peace of mind to me.

And, to further cement for you my year-end reputation as “Buzzkill Katie” you’ll be happy to know that I also updated my advance directives and my will.

As a result, I thought I would sleep soundly tonight. Knowing that I have documents in place is one thing. Knowing my adult children now know how I feel about topics often considered taboo is even better.

But as I sit here surrounded by my toolbox of items to keep me from kicking the bucket before my time (eight hours of sleep, foods with omega-3 fatty acids, cabernet, lots of water, leafy greens, cabernet, green tea, whole grain cereal, legumes, lean protein and cabernet), I realized I must immediately prepare an ancillary document with important details that are not covered in this Giant Redwood pile of papers I just signed.


Addendum A – Additional Instructions for My Children Should I Fall into a Coma:

The Long Term Health Care insurance will kick in and provide for my care. You just have to find a facility that smells nice and has kind people working there like the one Grandpa lived in. Check on me when you can, but please have no guilt about not being able to visit as long you ensure the following:

  1. Instruct an aide to daily pluck those damn chin hairs that started showing up unannounced. If I wake up out of this coma as the bearded lady, there will be hell to pay.
  2. TV channels should be rotated between news channels of various political viewpoints to keep my subconscious mind open to all versions of the truth. Limit news viewing to one hour a day. During the rest of the day, background noise should be calming music, binge listening to the latest Netflix series or any Blue Bloods episode.
  3. Aides should rotate reading to me from People and Us Magazine and provide very detailed descriptions of the “Stars They’re Just Like Us” photos.
  4. Let my hair go grey. These roots are coming in a bright white. What better time to test and see if it is pretty? When I start to stir out of the coma, have the nursing home call both of you immediately followed by Maggie my hairstylist just in case I hate it.

And should my time on this earth come to an end, please know it will be ok. I hope my friends and loved ones will smile thinking of me reunited with so many people I love and have desperately missed.

I have often shared my belief that God allows those in heaven to communicate messages of hope to us through a multitude of couriers. Look for my messages.

However, unlike Dad who seems to have a real thing going with those hawks, I would advise against limiting my potential mode of communication to my spirit animal, the cow. Perhaps pay special attention to all things cow related: any situation that includes a dairy product especially cheese, a fabulously prepared medium-rare steak or any number of fine leather goods. I promise you I will find a way to get my message across. I am an Irish Catholic/Type A/Gemini/Control Freak…not even death can silence my voice, of that I am certain.

Addendum B: Additional Instructions for My Children Upon My Death

Following my death, identify a skilled document forger to create an autopsy report that would indicate “the body was found to be without muscles of the abdominal wall, including the transverse and rectus abdominis and the internal and external obliques.”

After my funeral, please gather my college roommates and show them report saying, “See, she wasn’t lying. She was born without stomach muscles!” (And if Carrie pulls out her magnifying glass to inspect the document, snatch it out of her hands immediately and run away crying.)


As we bask in the twilight glow of another year and are filled with anticipation over the untold promise and potential of 2018, I invite everyone to consider setting the stage for the things no one wants to face.

There is a simple game plan for having the tough conversations, asking the difficult questions and coming to complicated conclusions.

Surround yourself with the love of family and friends. Embrace humor wherever you can…even where it seems impossible. And always live a life of empathy.

So if you choose to pull a DeNiro and have a trial run conversation with your reflection, first wrap yourself in empathy and try to understand, appreciate and share the feelings, fears and perspective of the other person.

And, yeah, I am talking to you.