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.

kmp

Standard
Uncategorized

The Working Title Is…I’m No Sheryl Sandberg

Not that anyone was confusing the two of us, mind you. Even the mere mention of her name morphs me back to a self-conscious high schooler…admiring from afar all of someone’s strengths that seem to only spotlight my shortcomings.

She’s written books, and I’ve only talked about writing one someday. She worked in India for a year on projects aimed at eradicating AIDS, leprosy and blindness. I worked in Wisconsin for a year and once scooped melon balls for five solid hours in a horse barn for a Milwaukee AIDS Project event. (Granted, it’s not India, but I’ll never forget how many flies there were in that barn. And I’ll never eat another melon ball.)

There are similarities between us. We’re both brunettes. She went to Harvard, and I’ve been to Harvard. Well, not Harvard exactly, but I’ve been to Lizzy’s Ice Cream in Harvard Square. Delish!

And then, of course, there is the fact that we both buried a husband without the opportunity to hear his last words or even say goodbye. We both have been left to raise two fatherless children. Her children were younger, but at 11 and 14, my daughters were equally far too young for their world to be shattered.

Almost two years ago, as I approached the fifth anniversary of our life without Pat, my Facebook feed was filled with people sharing and re-sharing a post written by Sheryl Sandberg following the death of her husband.

Beautifully written, it was ultimately the foundation for her newest book released this week, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy.

She wrote of the profoundly personal experience of grief and credited the “bravery of those who have shared their own experiences” as to what has “helped her pull through.” She’d been taught the three pillars of resilience and shared their role in her growth. And she offered all this incredible insight after the time defined by Jewish tradition as the end of religious mourning for a spouse…thirty days.

Thirty days. Thirty days? All I could think was, “How can this woman write, ‘I am sharing what I’ve learned in hope that it helps someone else’ after only thirty days?”  Thirty days?  I hadn’t “pulled through” anything after just thirty days. In fact, I don’t think I finished clearing the funeral food out of the fridge yet, much less begin clearing my thoughts. I remember staring at her words on my computer until tears blurred the screen.

How had she accomplished in thirty days what I have been working toward for five years? Oh, believe me, in our house, we had been kicking the shit out of Option B since my husband drew his last breath. In fact, that was all we were doing for those first thirty days, and the next thirty and the thirty after that. My tears turned to sobs as I thought about all the people in our lives that had lifted us up for the past five years—lifted us with their love, with their prayers and with their presence and support. I became increasingly aware of the fog I had been living in during those first years without him. I looked back over my calendar and realized how much I had absolutely no, or very little, memory of—things that only existed like blurry snapshots in my mind—not the least of which was Pat’s funeral.

I began a cathartic journey of self-awareness. I thought maybe someday I’d even be able to write a book about it. Well, wouldn’t you know, two years later, that multi-jillionaire/thirty day-wise widow/corporate titan capable of bringing actual change to the world/superwoman beat me to the punch there too!

I pre-ordered her book, and it magically appeared on my Kindle Monday morning. As with anything created by someone of whom I am jealous, I hated the book before I even clicked on the cover art. Which I also wanted to hate. But I couldn’t.

I read the book in one sitting, getting up only once to get coffee. It is very well done and covers not just grief that follows the death of a loved one, but a huge expanse of subject areas including rape, chronic illness, war, incarceration and life after all kinds of disappointment and loss.

The book is thought provoking and insightful. Some parts pertained to me in a very personal way, others I just couldn’t relate to, and some I had a completely opposite experience.

But that is to be expected and is what, in my opinion, should be the opening paragraph of any book or conversation about grief.

Buried almost a third of the way into the text of the book, Sandberg writes, “There’s no one way to grieve and there’s no one way to comfort. What helps one person won’t help another, and even what helps one day might not help the next.”

That is the key message of grief. And it’s one that takes more than thirty days to figure out.

Our reaction to loss and heartbreak are as unique and individual as the relationship we shared with the person who no longer walks beside us. Our “fingerprint” of grief is ours and ours alone. So while Sheryl Sandberg’s book is well worth the read, it can be only one tool in the toolbox of someone who suffers and seeks reprieve.

Reading her book led me to pick up my pen and write and write and write. Emotions flowed on to my paper as I re-read her book, page by page. Realizing how different my experience has been and appreciating the ways we’ve walked the same path. I began writing on themes as broad as joy and hope, as nitpicky as the semantics of death and the liberal use of the word friend, as pivotal as humor and faith and as confusing and daunting as finding love again.

Maybe Someday I’ll Write a Book just as a point/counterpoint to all of Sheryl Sandberg’s books. I haven’t read Lean In yet, but I’ve been leaning in all sorts of directions since the day I was born with scoliosis, so I’m sure I’ll have something to say about that one too.

What I do know is that Sheryl and I were both blessed beyond belief to be married to our very best friends. The way she writes of Dave sounds so very much like Pat. A friend to all, love and laughter always intertwined, even down to the ten college roommates who were like brothers and the fact that both men loved the musical Wicked.

While we own our individual fingerprints of grief, I do believe we have been changed for the better, Sheryl. And because we knew them, we have been changed for good.

kmp

Standard