I am so proud to be up on The Manifest Station today with a piece that is near and dear to my heart. It’s been rejected four times by other sites. Yep, four times. But I loved it. It’s about my dad. It’s about one of the most absurd situations I have ever dealt with as an adult. It was literally writing my heart. And although I wanted to throw in the towel and just shelf the essay, I just kept sending it in.
My dad still teaches me life lessons from the grave.
A Choice of Wood
“I can’t do it. I can’t go into the room with all the caskets. I can’t do it again,” she told me.
“It’s okay, Mom. I’ll take care of everything,” I stated easily, as I knew that my father wanted to be cremated, which reduced the decision-making burden. Although I was the youngest in my family, the responsibility would be mine. My brother and sister had their children to manage, and I was the most involved when it came to my dad’s care.
“Just do what you think is right. I just need you to take care of it.”
My mom wasn’t much older than I was when she buried her own mother, along with three teenage siblings. They died in a fire started from bad electrical wiring in their dilapidated Ohio farm house. As the oldest of eight, she managed the burial arrangements, and selected the caskets for her teenage brothers and sister. The act of selecting small coffins for young people yet to reach their prime crushed her to the core. It was a weight she carried around with her each day.
She was the strongest woman I knew, but even she had her limits.
To read more, please click here.
“Alright, Dad. Let’s do this,” I muttered under my breath as I gingerly placed the heavy cardboard box in my carry-on bag.
I quickly checked underneath my childhood bed for anything I may have left behind, and then completed my standard mental checklist before departing for the airport.
Eyeglasses and wallet, check.
Cell phone and computer, check.
My father’s cremains, check.
Seven days passed since I received the phone call on New Year’s Day. “Dad died,” my brother’s said in a cracked voice. It was not a surprise, but hearing the words sent a shock through my body.
“Leave it to Dad to delay dying until the first of the year just to get that last tax break,” I responded, deflecting the pain I felt in my heart. My father spent the last three weeks in Hospice care, and finally succumbed to the grapefruit-sized tumor that infiltrated his nicotine-filled lungs.
The next week was a whirlwind of funeral arrangements, paperwork, and purging. My mother believed the best way to get through a difficult time was to stay busy, so she attacked the clutter accumulated after three years of tending to my cancer-stricken dad with the same determination she used caring for him. The days passed quickly planning for funeral services and visitors, returning hospital equipment, clearing out closets and wrapping up his estate.
In between, we reminisced and divvied up special items my dad held dear to his heart. My sister took the vintage records, my brother staked claim to the monster movie collection, and I scored the broken pinball machine. We met with the probate attorney and sold his car, a gigantic 1984 Grand Marquis that my mom couldn’t back out of the driveway. We accomplished so much each day that there was never a second alone, so there was never a moment to shed a tear.
My last task was to bring my father back to Connecticut to spread his ashes near the property of our childhood home. According to him, it was the place where he had the happiest memories. Although we had not lived there for 15 years, I promised my dad that I would make it happen, despite fearing the new owners would call the police thinking I was spreading Anthrax.
Before zipping my carry on, I placed a copy of my dad’s death certificate alongside the Taylor & Sons Funeral Home box. “Just show them this letter before you pass through security,” the funeral director solemnly told me. “You’ll need to run it through the X-ray and they may do special testing on it for security purposes. They’ll know what to do.”
“Well, we are in Florida. I imagine this happens all the time,” I joked as I thought again about the irony. A man who smoked for fifty years literally reduced to ashes.
I drove alone to the airport and for the first time felt the soggy weight of my heart as I tried to distract myself by creating a to-do list for the week’s work I missed. Stepping into the long security line, I struggled controlling the anxiety that suddenly crept into my body, causing my hands to tremble. “Deep breaths,” I chanted to myself as I watched the slew of elderly grandparents patiently wait for loved ones to walk through the Arrivals gate.
My heart beat in my ears as I stepped up to the conveyor belt. I kicked off my leather sandals and placed them in the gray bin. I lifted my laptop out, and then my quart sized Ziploc filled with trial-sized toothpaste, makeup, and eye drops.
The only thing remaining was the carton holding my dad. A man larger than life reduced to six pounds of dust.
I felt the panic rising in my chest as I stared into the depth of my luggage. A flood of memories rushed my brain, as I tried to wrap my head around a world without my father in it. There would be no more letters in the mail with a $10 bill and a newspaper clipping of a salmon recipe. No more phone calls filled with off-color jokes or political debates. No more advice about insurance premiums, fights with my husband or job decisions.
I jumped when a businessman placed his hand on my shoulder to let me know it was my turn.
As my denial went into over-drive, I deliberately closed my bag, placed it on the moving black belt and walked through the metal detector without a beep. As I hastily grabbed my items from the tray, I could see the security screener out of the corner of my eye staring at what must be my father in the X-ray machine.
The sweat was beading on my forehead when a large man in a royal blue shirt approached me. I envisioned him interrogating me about the dangerous materials in my Vera Bradley luggage, placing my name on the FBI’s “Watch List” of criminals no longer allowed to travel by plane. I briefly considered running out of the airport, anything to get away from discussing what was in that box.
“Miss, can you step over here please,” he said with his arm stretched out to the right. My face turned hot as I gathered up my things and followed him barefoot to behind the screening area. He leaned in and whispered, “Are these cremains in the box?”
I hung my head down and for the first time since hearing those dreaded words, I wept. Somehow I landed on a hard plastic chair, and a wad of kleenex magically appeared in my hand as the tears stained my face. “Yes,” I told him in between heavy heaves. “Yes, my dad. My dad is gone.”
“I am going to take it right over there and test for any flammable materials per TSA regulations. You may watch from here as you catch your breath,” he said, ending with a close-lipped smile. It clearly was not his first time seeing someone ugly cry in the middle of the airport.
A few moments later, I tried to sniffle back the emotion that comes with losing a parent. As he handed my dad back to me, I met his eyes and said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I just couldn’t get the words out.”
“It will get easier,” he said as he touched a gloved hand to my arm.
I knew he wasn’t talking about getting through airport security.
The other night I was up late trying to finish a few blog posts and felt pretty defeated. I was disappointed with my drafts and basically just uninspired.
I then tried to work on the young adult novel I wanted to pen, and instead I sat staring at a computer screen with 32 words on it. And they sucked. Every one of them.
As I often do, I contemplated why I gave up a career that paid me quite well and worked around my schedule. Sure, I didn’t really enjoy it, but the money was good and the focus on my insecurities was a lot less. I thought about the emails I received from my old clients encouraging me to come back, the offer from my former boss saying there was always a job for me.
My demons were talking, and they were sounding smarter by the minute.
I decided to throw in the towel for the night and checked my Playdates on Fridays Facebook page one more time before I went to bed.
That’s when I saw it on the left hand side of my screen.
“Invite your friend Ali to like Playdates on Fridays.”
My friend Ali died of non-smoking related lung cancer two years ago, and I swear she just spoke to me from the grave.
Ali and I were born just a few months apart and shared a lot of pizza together in college. We reconnected on Facebook years back and re-formed our friendship. Although she had not yet started her own family, she was always sending me notes about my girls and how blessed I was. I told her how envious I was about the concerts she attended and the life she had built for herself. We got together a few times in DC but we were pervasively connected through social media.
Ali was a huge supporter of my writing. “You should totally start a blog,” she once told me. “You would be great at it.”
And I responded with a standard self-deprecating remark like: “Sure, you and my mom could start my fan club!”
Then she got lung cancer. And it changed my life.
Although Ali’s only blood relative lived thousands of miles away, her friends stepped up to the plate — in a huge way. I have never been so inspired — these people with jobs and families and responsibilities were there for this beautiful woman up until the moment she passed. They put their lives on hold so she could enjoy what remained of hers.
For those of us who couldn’t be there physically for Ali, we tried to do what we could. We raised funds both for her care and for Free to Breathe, an organization dedicated to raising awareness and research for lung cancer. During this time I wrote an article for our national sorority magazine, The Key, that talked about how Ali’s illness had brought us all together again. After reviewing the piece, Ali sent me a note:
You really have such a gift for writing and expressing feelings and things in such a touching and inspiring way. Thank you for taking such care with the story.
Ali gave me such a gift. The piece was my first published under my own byline, but her opinion meant even more. She is a major reason why I started my blog and began writing a book. Ali was robbed of her opportunity to chase her dreams; what an insult to her if I quit chasing mine.
But I had forgotten this. I let my daily life get in the way of what I love. Again.
Until Ali popped up telling me that she wanted to like my page. Because she wouldn’t have just liked it. She would have shared it and sent me messages and told me that I should keep going.
I know what you are thinking. It would be easy to write this off as some coincidence, some well-funded Zuckerithm developed to make me even more attached to Facebook.
But it’s not.
Right before she got really sick, I sent Ali a card with some funny cats on it. She was a true animal lover, and I knew she’d get a kick out of it. She sent me a note that said this:
Thanks for always having such encouraging and beautiful words to say…..whether to me or in general.
Ali’s Facebook page has remained active even after her death. It connects all the people who came together from so many different facets of her life. I believe — with all my heart — that Ali knew I needed to hear from her, that I needed someone to encourage me, to “like” me.
So I could do that for someone else — through my writing.
Because when your friend talks to you from the grave on Facebook, you listen.
I believe the true measure of a person is determined by how she acts when faced with adversity. I am constantly amazed by my friends and family who have handled seemingly insurmountable obstacles with such incredible grace and compassion — both in their lives, and in the worst of times, when there is death.
And when I see these people, these people who are composed, who are lovely, who are kind in the most dire of circumstances, it makes me wonder, did their grief change them, or did they change their grief? Were they this strong before facing adversity, or did they find this strength only because they needed it?
I am in awe of the people I know who can still see the light in the midst of a tragedy. A mom who has shown so much compassion and gratitude as her young son faces leukemia. A friend who lost her battle with lung cancer, yet fought courageously even to the end. A young dad who creates a beautiful life for his daughters despite losing his wife in a freak medical incident. And a young girl who digs deep to win her war with addiction.
I often wonder, could I be that strong if faced with such an issue? Could I see beyond myself? Would I be paralyzed with the unfairness of it all…could I bear the unbearable? I’m not so sure, so I try to see life through the lens of my friends, to find my gratitude in the every day knowing that today it was not me, not my family, not my life that was shattered. I will be thankful, because I feel it is insulting to those facing such pain, such grief, such sorrow if I am not.
I discussed this once with a friend who has been dealt a lot of bad cards in her life. Of course making it all about me, I remarked that I often struggled with enjoying my own life when so many close to me were struggling with their own. She said something like this: “Life is truly seasonal. Some of us will never know that we are in a beautiful spring until faced with the harshness of winter. Some of us know that the seasons change quickly. And some of us never know because we’re too busy looking up at the dark clouds. Regardless, it’s up to each of us to know when the sun is shining.”
True dat. We must know when our sun is shining.
This past Saturday morning I woke up early. With nothing on the schedule and my three girls lazily watching cartoons downstairs, I rolled over to grab my phone to check some e-mails and Facebook. The very first post I read was from my friend Anne, a tall, beautiful woman with a California tan and an equally sunny disposition. She was the girl in my sorority I admired from afar, although she always gave me a warm smile when she saw me in the year I was a lowly pledge and she a supremely confident senior. Flash forward twenty years and she is equally gorgeous and tan, but now has a beautiful family, recently started a successful business, and lives a full life. Seemingly perfect.
And then she shared this:
In a continued effort to make my Facebook page as authentic and purposeful as possible, I am gathering up my courage and sharing this post. Here goes..
Six years ago today we lost our daughter, Brooke, when I went into labor at 21 weeks into my pregnancy. I never felt brave enough to openly talk about it on Facebook, but something compelled me today to share this very personal post.
Every year on this date, in the days and weeks leading up, I find myself quietly and painfully remembering her loss. We always mark the day by going to our special beach where we scattered her ashes, and we bring rose petals to toss in the ocean. But this year, it was not until well into the morning that I suddenly realized what day it was.
My husband had already left for work and I was packing the kids lunches, when it hit me. Of course I felt incredibly guilty that I had forgotten and not planned my day accordingly. And then all at once an incredible sense of gratitude and calm washed over me as I realized it was OK. It was OK that I did not feel the pain and the grief. I carry Brooke in my heart everyday and am constantly finding her beautiful little spirit in so many areas of my life.
But today for the first time in six years I allowed myself to let go of the painful part of her loss and simply celebrate her birth and her precious, brief, little life with us. So, instead of bringing roses to the beach tonight, I took our beautiful daughter, her sister, who was born two years later, to the beach instead. We played in the surf, made seagrass bracelets, and afterward we had dinosaur chicken nuggets and clam chowder, and toasted our blessed life with milk and Sauvignon Blanc at The Boathouse.
And now we are home and taking baths and my heart is just so full. Six years ago I could never have imagined feeling such joy. I really debated sharing this tonight. But despite my trepidation, I hope that maybe this post will serve as a little light of hope for anyone struggling with grief. In a huge display of irony I received a call today from a dear friend asking for advice on how to support a friend who experienced a very similar loss. As I shared with her all of the wonderful ways my own good friends “showed up” for me, it reminded me how fortunate I am to have such compassionate and loyal friends. Without them, I surely could not have reached this place of healing. So, thank you. You know who you are, and your friendship has made all the difference.
It took me until the end to realize that tears were streaming down my face. I have always thought of Anne as larger than life, but reading this, reading how her grief changed her, and then how she changed her grief…well, it was something special. Glennon from Momastery calls it living “brutiful”, where everything beautiful in our life now comes from the pain and grief we faced in our past.
And while some of our pain and grief and sadness is because of awful things like sickness and death and addictions, sometimes it is the small things, like insecurities or betrayals or cruelty from others that limits our happiness, our joy, our gratitude. Sometimes a lot of these small things can cloud our sunshine, make us miss our season of spring.
But by sharing these stories, sharing our pain — the pain we all have in some form or another — we can learn from it. We can help each other find our sunshine again, as Anne’s close friends and family helped find hers. While yes, grief changes us; but that does not mean we cannot change our grief. Moving on does not mean forgetting our loved ones, our experiences, our loss. With time and support, we can change our grief into gratitude.
At the end of the day, I am so thankful for the bravery of people like Anne and others in my life that share their struggles, and decide to share them with the world. We all face pain and grief and heartbreaking, unbearable loss, and we all face a multitude of issues that weigh us down– and in the face of this, we must decide if we want to see the sun again. By sharing our stories, we also give hope to those that may follow.
In the movie The Fault in Our Stars, there is a line that says: “Grief does not change you Hazel. It reveals you.”
May we all reveal our true selves, our best selves in the harshest of winters. May we all find the sunshine after our pain, after our sorrow. May we all find our spring day at the beach, that day when our grief turns to gratitude.