Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
I tend to ruminate, mull and ponder. Subject matter can be almost anything, but I think I spend the bulk of my time examining relationships and emotions. I wonder about my part in them and am always trying to get to their real truth, whatever that means. During the winter holiday season, which I’ve always abhorred, I tend to go deeper into myself. After Thanksgiving, which is at least gift and religion neutral for the most part, we enter that period where the pressure really builds on people. This time of year is particularly difficult for those who aren’t leading the lifestyles portrayed to us by virtually all media outlets and the retailers who affirm them with the excessive Christmas decorations that appear earlier and earlier every year. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, daily specials, all beckoning us to buy that magic something which will be the perfect thing for the perfect people we love in our perfect worlds. Everyone has someone. Everyone is in a relationship. Everyone is having a great time. When you don’t have what you’re made to believe everyone else does, life can feel very oppressive.
My personal life is very far from perfect and has always been flawed, even at its best. I suspect that most people feel similarly and that except for rare occasions, they feel more like imposters than genuine individuals, trying to stay balanced while navigating these commonly held societal traditions. I’ve been trying to demystify some of these iconic days and look at each one as precisely that – a day. I started working on this when Michael and I were living within minutes and hours after his diagnosis. Such a challenging way to be even after practicing really hard.
But practicing helps so I was mentally better at this second Thanksgiving without Michael than I was last year. I guess I’m emotionally healthy enough to adapt to what I have to accept, as long as I’m alive and cognizant. I realized some other things as I thought my way through the beginning of what is a holiday slog for me. There are demarcation points in my life, points at which what were the secure, repetitive, homey traditions changed.
As a young kid, my life revolved around my family of origin. My family had complex problems, as do so many, but there was a stability about holiday events, when comfort foods were cooked and everyone came together with the group members being the same for a very long time. Some relatives lived far away but there was a central group which was intensely bonded. Eventually, a few people moved to different parts of the country. But I had parents and grandparents, siblings, an uncle and aunt and some cousins with whom we shared the holidays for quite a long time. One year, my brother had a terrible argument with my parents and they cancelled Thanksgiving. I was hurt and angry and felt frustrated and inconsolable. My approach to that situation was taking over the holiday myself. I was thirty, a new mother and I realized that I could carry on the good traditions, while eliminating the random, unpleasant choices that other family members could thrust on me. I essentially assumed the role of matriarch. I hosted my parents and different siblings along with their kids. We added cousins and their families, and friends as well, especially those who were sorely missing a place to feel included and part of a festive time. For thirty-five years, that tradition held. I let it go when Michael died and that is ok.
I contributed to both last year’s and this year’s meals. It felt mostly normal. I thought about my mom, who, almost without exception, would announce every year that she loved Thanksgiving and wished that she could still prepare the meal. I don’t want to be that person.
Although I have an occasional urge to throw a big party, it was getting harder every year and now lacks that special luster that glowed out of Michael and me. I want to be present, in my current place and not wishing for what is past.
As I looked around this year’s dinner, I realized how much smaller these family events have gotten over time. My dinners were usually for 20-25 people. Once I think we squeezed 27 into the dining room. But this year, we were 12 family members and an extra friend. I realized that my children’s generation, at least those who are geographically close to me, have only produced 2 kids. Maybe there’ll be more or maybe not. I am now the elder. And there are more absences around the table. I don’t feel like the oldest person in many ways, but the numbers don’t lie.
I found myself thinking about my mother and grandmother, both of whom outlived their husbands. My grandma lasted 12 years without my grandfather but he was older than Michael or my dad when they died. My mom lasted 25 years without my dad. The thought of all that time is daunting and depressing to me. Being without Michael for that long seems impossible, even though it’s only slightly more than half the time we were together. My mom always talked about the things my dad missed that she got to experience. Many grandchildren and great-grandchildren and all their special events and activities. I’m already mourning Michael’s having been unable to attend my grandson’s first piano recital and missing his first soccer goal. The losses could grow like a huge mountain.
My dad was only 67 when he died, the same age as Michael. I was in my 30’s then and I can remember thinking that although it was sad, he’d lived a good life. He had a long happy marriage, kids, grandkids and eventually a decent job. He had years of retirement with my mom and enjoyed a simple life. I thought theirs was a bit too limited and my mom did too. But he seemed okay with it. Now 67, my current age seems so much younger than how it felt when my dad died. I feel robbed of all these years I was supposed to have ahead with Michael. His dad died at 98 and his mother is still alive at 96. My own mom died just short of 92. The truth is, I know that the average life expectancy in the US is well below all of them. I have no idea how to imagine how many years are ahead of me. I’m still in the day to day mode and expect I always will be.
All this pondering brought me back to thinking about my dad. He was a quiet man. He certainly had no trouble expressing an opinion but he didn’t share a lot of personal information. He was not like my mother, who over-shared and never met a boundary she couldn’t cross. She’d sometimes complain that she would go to her grave not knowing so many things about dad. I suppose she did. I think she inadvertently did so much talking that she elbowed him out of the conversation. Dad was kind of mysterious. His father died when he was only 8 and he assumed the man of the house mantle as the oldest boy. He started working when he was little, selling apples from a wagon. He felt responsible for his mother, sister and brother. I know he resented family members on both his parents’ sides who weren’t very helpful to his mother and fell into what seemed an inexorable slide into poverty. I know he only made it through his second year of high school and held a variety of jobs for many years. Factory worker, salesman, insurance broker, credit manager. Married to my mom at 19, the two of them lived with my maternal grandparents, setting up a lifelong hostility between his mother and my mom who took away the person my paternal grandmother relied on most in the world.
My parents were two children who had difficult childhoods. They loved each other madly but the truth is, while they weathered what life tossed at them, neither one was able to really help the other expand personally and grow their great potential. My dad bounced around workplaces until he was in his 40’s when he landed a job as a cashier at the First National Bank of Chicago. He was street smart and somehow understood banking, and within a few years, he was promoted several times until he was finally an assistant vice president in the bond department, buying and selling money. I never got the system he worked in, but it was a pressure cooker and reminiscent of the madness you see on the floor of a commodities or stock exchange. I know it was a job suited for younger people because it was intense all the time. High strung and nervous, he wound up with heart problems and an early retirement which kept my parents and especially my mom, comfortably financially for many years longer than his actual employment. That was in the days of real pensions.
Dad talked to me about politics and morals and principles. I feel that the roots of my life ideologies were profoundly influenced by his input. But he didn’t tell many stories about himself. I learned that despite a wise guy bravado, he was actually afraid a lot. I can’t imagine what it’s like to feel such a heavy yoke of responsibility as a little child. That type of experience leaves a peBesides politics and financial markets, I had no idea what his interests were, nor did he have any obvious hobbies. He read newspapers and magazines. He wasn’t big on nature. My mom said he drove her crazy by saying, “if you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all.” He was smart and perceptive and very loving in his own way. But because he was never parented, he was partially a little kid who teased and gave all four of us kids awful nicknames. He loved babies but when the little ones got bigger, he worried constantly about them getting hurt and would yell and be very limiting about what they were allowed to do. When my daughter went from adorable baby girl to daredevil he would run after her, yelling at her to stop. Stop everything.
He tried to control all of us by setting up unreasonable limits which were so enticing to break. He would look in my eyes with a mixture of pride and skepticism. His nickname for me was weasel when I was young. He poked around in my purse to see if I had money. When he found my birth control pills, he came into my room, brandishing the container and saying, “you’d better remember to take these.”
I was as close to him as I could be. When he was diagnosed with cancer he told me when he was going to quit treatment. He asked me to plan his funeral. He cried and told me he wished my son would have been able to see him when he was bigger so they could talk, so my kid would remember him. I thought I knew him, as well as anyone could.
But the truth is, he remains a shadowy person. Before my mother died, she gave me some things that belonged to him. I was incredibly busy and preoccupied at the time. Michael was sick. My brother had died, although I kept that from her. She’d always said that the one thing she couldn’t handle would be having a child of hers die before she did. So I gave his small pile of memorabilia a cursory look and put it aside.
As I thought of all the empty spaces at Thanksgiving, I decided to pull out dad’s things to have a look. To my surprise, I found he had a hobby. He was a bit of a philatelist, a stamp collector. I have no idea how long he was at it. He seemed interested in collecting stamps from all over the world. In addition he would receive first edition releases which appear to be from the US Postal Service.
He kept all of his business cards which document his promotions over time. He saved all of his cardiac reports and the medical bills from his surgeries. And then there were the sentimental cards and photos of his family that stretched back to his early childhood and the beginnings of he and my mom.
I remember his beautiful singing voice and how unabashed he was about crooning away with us at all the holidays. We sang You Are My Sunshine and Tell Me Why at all our gatherings. I know my daughter still sings to her children but we’ve switched over to popular music after our dinners these days. I realize that my generation will be the last to remember my dad and his seriousness about celebrating everything just so, while my mom made faces behind his back and made all the kids laugh. I feel compelled to get some of this ephemeral past life written down so that as my road narrows, it won’t all be forgotten.
There is so much I’ll never know. Out of all the cogitation I’ve done about holidays, expectations and trying to keep afloat in the overwhelming rush of life, I’m left with the need to pass forward what really was authentic once, what counted, what lasted in my memory. Passing it down the line, hoping it doesn’t sink into oblivion.