Just Keep Swimming

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A while ago one of my friends asked me, “how do you do it? How do you deal with your mom’s death? I can hardly do it.”

To answer her question of how do I do it I tried to convey to her how I have been feeling. I have been in and out of a state of disbelief and acceptance ever since my mom’s heart stopped suddenly in May. She died the next day, my first Mother’s Day, when we followed her wishes and turned off her life support. I knew the moment I saw her lying there that she was gone and I was suddenly facing the fear I’d been so scared of for so long. I had been so furious about her possibly leaving me. I knew that the odds were against us and in those final moments at the hospital I felt the likelihood that she would not be with us anymore. I had been so afraid of her death but I was not prepared for it.

I cried a lot at first, I went through denial. I stared at the ceiling and let memories and questions flood through my brain. I laughed with friends and cried, too. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I pretended to be ok for my dad and my daughter and stepson and for everyone. I kept going because I had to. I drove my daughter to her doctor appointment 5 hours away a week after it happened. I still don’t know how.

I am dealing with it and at times is seems very unreal. But I read my mom’s writing and I think about how she wrote me a letter in case she died. She said that I should work at being happy. That she would be happy seeing me laugh. I feel like she sends me joy and jokes and I know that she is with me. Too many weird things have happened for it to be purely coincidence.

Most of all I feel that she has prepared me to keep going through the hard parts my whole life. Just put one foot in front of the other. Take my Prozac and my vitamins. Be honest. Ask for help. Get hugs. Take care of others. Find things inappropriate and hilarious. Stay busy with the things that matter, ignore the things that don’t.

I am struggling but I refuse to give up. I try to remember she was where I was so many years ago with a young daughter and a mom that left too soon. I try to think about how she would act, what she would say. I pet her sweater in the closet. I think about her fly away hair. I lick the fork and stick it back in the pickle jar just to get even with her for leaving. I walk to the stoplight and back. I just keep on swimming, Dear Heart, and you should, too.

Mary’s Multiplication Tables

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     I still think of church every time I blow a candle out. The smells of candle smoke drifting across a room or old carpet; the sound of a piano, light through colored glass, podiums of oak…I took to spirituality like it was my own special magic. This was in part because it was never forced upon me the way it was so many of my friends. My parents, progressive hippies that they were, let me choose our church. It took me nearly a week.

I liked the Easter service at the Episcopal Church but I was pretty sure that was just because I got to dress up and wear white gloves. People made a fuss over me and afterward I got to eat chocolate.

I liked the kneelers at the Catholic Church and the wet sponges and candles but I didn’t understand a word the priest was saying. All that up and down was like calisthenics. It was hard not to laugh at the altar boys, our family friends, in white robes, acting holy.

The Baptist Church was out of the question. When I asked about the little building on the hill with an old van parked in front of it that read,

“Jesus is the Reason!” in bright blue my mom and dad gave each other worried glances and then muttered something about people handling snakes. My dad leaned over and said, “it’s a far drive out there, honey, and I don’t think you know any kids that go to that church. It doesn’t look like fun to me.” When I said, “ ok,” both of my parents breathed a sigh of relief.

The Presbyterian Church had an after school program that the new minister was starting called Terrific Tuesdays. At my parents newspaper, The All Alcona Almanac, I overheard the staff reporter, Dennis, saying that he thought that the new minister (a lady!) was going to be black and liberal. He found this very funny. But in my nine-year-old brain it was revolutionary. A black lady minister! Now that’s my kind of entertainment. You see, our tiny town had about five people of color, and I can tell you all of their names. I thought meeting someone who was different would be beyond amazing.

I wanted to be the first kid in line to meet this black lady minister and try out her crazy liberal after school program. Much to my disappointment, Rev. Jan did not turn out to be black, although she was a lady. The first day of our Terrific Tuesday meetings she greeted us, emptied a big sack of sports balls out onto the field behind the church and let us all go at them. We kicked and threw and volleyed all of those until we fell in the grass, laughing. Afterward we listened to some songs, said a prayer and ate cookies. That was how I came to have a church.

Jan became the first not-black lady that I ever idolized.

This new not-black lady minister loved to play games and the guitar. She did have a black Labrador, named Caleb, and an amazing affinity for sweets. This made visiting old sick people a real joy for me. I’ve always been afraid of elderly people. My grandparents died when I was very young so the elderly struck me as made of bone China, too delicate too touch, too hard to appreciate. They were as foreign as giraffes standing on our lakeshore. This was a surmountable terror, though, since the old ladies loved to bake. Jan would talk to an old lady for nearly an hour while I was buried deep in the best pumpkin pie I’ve ever had. (I still dream of that pie.) In fact, I think Jan was really in it for the deserts, too. She’s still the only person I know that can put down a pound cake in one sitting.

Rev. Jan (like it said on her license plate) had what I considered in those days to be an enormous house with six whole rooms all to herself. I remember thinking that this house was the ultimate in sophistication with built-in bookshelves and plastic fake brick wallpaper. Sometimes Jan would let me come over and spend the night. The curiosities never ended. She slept with the windows open, the breeze floating down the hallway to the guestroom. When it was snowing I’d awaken to see my breath forming a cloud above my nose and squint at the Big Bird alarm clock on the nightstand. A familiar sound echoed down the hallway. It was late Saturday night so naturally Jan was typing her sermon for the next morning.

Sometimes, as cool as I thought Jan was, I just couldn’t concentrate during the sermon. My young mind would wander and that’s how I found the eye. I was staring up at the vaulted ceiling of the Presbyterian Church in pure boredom when I first saw a dark watermark in the center of the white drywall. It was oblong and curved toward points at each end and at the age of 9 I was convinced that this was God’s peephole into our church. I would often worry that he could see me not paying attention and I would talk to him in my head. “Please don’t pick me to be the next virgin mother. Please, please, please. I’ll pay attention I really will. See, I heard what she said-‘turn your hymnals to page 374,’ I’m singing. I’m singing.”

It was amazing that even as a little kid with awful teeth and a frizzy crimped mullet tied back with Christmas ribbon that I thought I was special enough to be chosen by God, like the mother Mary. I had no lack of confidence that if there were another Jesus born I would certainly be the vessel that would carry Him into this world. AND NOONE WOULD BELIEVE ME. They would all be like, “oh, sure, we saw you looking at that cute boy in math class.”

Soon this frightening scenario became my distraction during sermons that ran long. There I would be with some guy in a Volvo rushing me to the hospital, my nearly 10-year-old belly hanging between my thighs and he’d be saying, “Really, Katrina, you can tell me who you slept with. I won’t even be mad” and I’d insist, “I’m telling you, Calvin, it was God. This is God’s baby.”

Now this is the kind of thought that you don’t relay much when you speak of religion to strangers but as soon as I voiced my fear to my parents it became a household joke for decades. My mom would lean across Dad’s breakfast of crumb cake and warily point a finger at my math paper. “It seems the virgin can’t cross multiply, dear.”

Thunder would erupt and lightning streak the sky and my Aunt would retort, “better hide, dear.”

The Christmas play would be in full swing when Dad would chuckle and say, “ready for act two?”

Although their teasing at the time annoyed me, I now have the best go-to religion story for cocktail parties. So, when I blow out a candle and it takes me to that nostalgic place, those stained-glass memories on 2nd Street. The place where I met a lifelong friend, tasted the best pumpkin pie ever made, learned to knit, and got over my fear of the elderly I get down on my knees to pray and thank God for the reprieve. And I can almost hear Him chuckle.

P.S. I married a Baptist and he’s never held a snake.

Letting Go of Your Balloon

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“What color would my balloon have been, if it would have been a balloon?” asked Eeyore, eyeing his popped treasure. “Red,” says Pooh.

One of the small miracles I have experienced since losing my mom this May is unexpected moments of joy. Before it happened if I imagined what it would be like when my mother died I thought I would be depressed for a long, long time. I pictured myself lying in bed, listless or crazy with grief. It has been almost four months and I am still grieving. The heaviness has receded a bit. This weekend we went to the Hale Hot Air Balloon Festival and they had the coolest thing. You could get a free balloon to send up into the sky to honor a loved one. We lined up: AJ, Kaiden and I with Phee in her stroller and got our balloons. We decided to write on AJ’s red balloon from Kaiden’s perspective, “For Nana, We love you.” Kaiden got his favorite color, orange and I ended up with a sunny yellow balloon. We walked up the hill to join the others with their balloons. The field was full of people and balloons. We waited patiently for the last few people, waiting to release them. Although I tried to encourage Kaiden by telling him that when his orange balloon got to heaven Nana would see it and smile, as he let it go he started to cry. “I wanted to keep it,” he whined. I know just how he feels.

I didn’t want to let go of my mother. I wanted to hold on to her forever and ever. I wanted to tell Kaiden that sometimes you have to let go of the beautiful things in your life because they can’t stay forever. I wanted him to know that we have to be brave. That sometimes life doesn’t make sense. That letting go will serve him far more than holding on. But at 5, he doesn’t understand and he probably shouldn’t understand. I want his heart to remain unbroken for as long as possible. So, I went over to the souvenir stand and I bought him a hot air balloon shaped punching bag. When he came out of the bounce house I presented him with the brightly colored present and he grinned. 

I leaned down and unbuckled Phee from her stroller. We walked over to the petting farm area and I showed her the bunnies and the sheep. As she squealed and pointed, I thought of the most important lesson my mother ever taught me. Just put one foot in front of the other. Keep going.