Tag Archives: grief

A Most Welcomed Surprise

Friday, a child who isn’t mine hugged me as if she were.  When I let my arms fall away from the bear hug around her lanky 10-year-old frame, hers remained so tightly wound across my rib cage and back that I couldn’t move if I wanted to without taking her with me.  A blue sash level student of mine who’s leaving for six weeks of summer camp out of state isn’t just going to miss Kung Fu; she’s specifically going to miss me.  I didn’t expect it and don’t know if I deserve it, but it was a most welcomed surprise.

“I miss,” are two words I find myself saying more often than I’d like.  The most recent family funeral three weeks ago was a goodbye to the last of the four women – two aunts, a grandmother and my mother – most responsible for my character and my better childhood memories.  But it isn’t just the dead I miss.  It’s also the remarkable young man I raised who no longer lives in my house, and the eccentric, now-teenaged girl who stopped dancing in the car years ago.  I miss the former colleagues who only kept in touch when my departure from the office was new.  And I miss remembering with ease where I left my glasses – or simply what day it is.

There is nothing new, of course, about middle aged people bemoaning the passage of time and the unwanted changes it brings.  There’s nothing new about melancholy accompanying loss.  And perhaps the most familiar remedy of life for ridding me of any hint of self-pity is the embrace of a family member.  So there’s nothing new in the comfort of a hug either.

But there was something new in having a child who isn’t mine hug me as if she were.  It gave “I miss” a happy meaning for the first time in recent memory.

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Remembrance

            I can’t believe it was only a month ago that she was standing tall, dressed in a navy blue pants ensemble with a cream-colored silk blouse, looking as elegant as always as she sent me off to the airport to return home.  “We’ll see each other again,” she told me, with her gold Nephritides necklace hanging from her neck, as it had most days of her life for more than a decade.

            Her matching navy blue sandals had a two-inch heel that restored her height to the stature I remembered her having when I was a child.  I wondered: had she begun shrinking through the normal aging process, or was it the illness that had shortened her?  Perhaps she was no shorter at all; she simply seemed that way to a daughter moving up the ladder of mortality.

            Her make-up was flawless, I remember, and conservative: a light application of base to even out the pecan complexion that was just slightly darker under her eyes, and a wine shaded lipstick that left its imprint on my cheek.  Her signature headwear completed the picture imprinted on my mind. 

            That day she chose a beret – cream-colored to match her blouse.  It was her favorite kind of hat, the one she wore most often if she could get away with it.  It was fitting that a beret was the last hat I saw her in. 

            There is no hat now.  There’s barely hair since Tony came in and cut off the soft, shiny, wavy curls of her mixed African- and Native-American heritage.   I miss the curls as I stare at her, remembering her look of dismay two weeks earlier when I said her hair looked good grown out.  It had been long and enviable throughout my life until the Florida heat inspired her to crop it close to her scalp. 

            I run my hand across the fresh-cut, hoping she can feel my touch.  My other hand is wrapped around her own, squeezing, willing her to open her eyes.


Film on My Car

Summer sucks.  I know I’m in the minority in this feeling, and I’m fully prepared for public protestations.  But I have reasons that should make sense to even the most profound lovers of the season.  Summer is too hot for this winter-born, Connecticut Yankee woman – an immovable fact of my entire existence, but certainly not the sole source of my summer doldrums.

This is also the time of year when most academicians are off from work and most politicians are, too.   This leaves all journalists but the White House press corps looking for news to cover and inevitably giving up, in favor of working on a long feature article or book – usually from their cabin or beach house, where the cell phone doesn’t get reception.  In short, from the July 4th holiday to Labor Day, Washington feels almost empty.  And that makes my job of producing a weekly television show with authors, politicians, journalists and professors extremely hard to do!

Most of all, the last time my late mother was lucid enough to talk to me with clear head and voice, it was July 4th weekend.  She died a week later.  Those last eight days of her life were sandwiched in between my first and second knee surgeries, and those surgeries suspended my martial arts life for more than a year.  More than that, the first operation required I be kept overnight at the hospital because I wouldn’t come out of the general anesthesia.  My doctor was afraid I’d die in my sleep if he sent me home.  I can’t begin to describe how terrified I was of having to be put under again a month later.

For the last seven years, sweltering summer days are a revival of full-blown grief, a reminder of the most physically devastating time of my life and a reunion with the inevitability of mortality.  The ghost of the depression that stayed with me for almost two years afterward comes floating back in like clouds of pollen in spring that I don’t even know are there, until I see the yellow film on my car.

I regularly miss my mother – especially when one of my children does something great, and I can’t tell her.  I also miss the knee I had before the injuries that required its virtual reconstruction – especially when I’m doing a form where I need to jump high or far.  Those realities are with me year round, mitigating the impact of the season over the years.  Still, there’s something about anniversaries that’s unavoidable.  And having bad times during beautiful days simply sucks.


Almost Nothing

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This was my mother’s house.  I was there today for the first time in almost seven years, visiting a stepfather to whom I was never close.

To my surprise, almost nothing has changed.  The furniture is the same and in the same place.  The pictures, both on the walls and side tables, are unchanged as well.  None of the rooms have been painted a different color.  None of the drapes have been replaced for more stylish patterns.  The only thing that’s different is the woman walking through the front door, using her own key.

 


The Now

Next week I take my soon-to-be-teenage daughter for a week-long program at a Florida university that will hopefully feed her love of science and technology.  At the very least, it should make use of her aptitude for the two.  It could be the beginning of an ongoing relationship with a college that has multiple summer programs for middle and high school students who may be a good fit to eventually attend the university.  But the closer we get to departure, the more my mind wanders away from the matter at hand.

This will be my second trip to Florida this year; the first was for the kung fu tournament in Fort Lauderdale back in February that I celebrated at length in this past post.  It will also be the second since the trip to clean out my mother’s closet back in November of 2007, four months after she died.

We will be about twenty-five minutes from her old house, in a city where I spent a fair amount of time with mother before my daughter was born.  The last time the whole family was there together, my girl was barely four years old.  For her, this trip is mostly about the now.  For me, it may be as much about memories as anything else.

I’ve entertained doing my best to stay in the now by having a good time with my girl when camp lets out for the day and auditing a local kung fu class while she’s occupied in the lab.  But a good time with her would have to include trips to the beaches and piers she remembers almost as well as I do.  It will require a little frolic in the past.  And frankly, I’m a bit scared.

I’d rather not be reduced to a puddle by nostalgia.  That would be incompatible with the well-honed image and attitude of rock-solid Mama Bear that my daughter sees in me – as I saw in my mother.  Mom lost hers only days before the coma.  I’ll be grateful to have mine hold up through the week.


Not Enough

A meeting is set for next week to finalize plans for the children’s kung fu class at the gym.  My excitement grows as the days pass.  But joy is a bit muted today on this Good Friday, because I miss my mother.

Mom was raised a Fundamentalist Baptist, but by the time she died, she’d probably attended a service of every Christian denomination in North America.   Though she wasn’t loyal to the Fundamentalists (I can’t help but be a bit grateful for that), she was a church-going woman who consciously strove to be a good Christian until the day they wheeled her into the hospice center for the final day of her life.  So, from as far back as I can remember, Easter was a big deal in our household.  And though I’m not a church-going woman, it’s still a big deal to me today.

Ironically, the part of the holiday that makes me wistful for my mother’s presence is the pagan ritual.  Easter egg hunts in her yard are some of the fondest memories I have of the extended family.  And her final Easter, three months before her death, was the last time my children saw her still looking like herself, still acting like Nana.

I wish I could personally thank her for the many wonderful Easter weekends of my life – before and after my children came along.  I did so while she was living, but not nearly enough.

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In My Living Room

I’m angry, sad and touched with self-pity.  None of these emotions were invited over, but the only way I know how to kick them out is to acknowledge their presence in my living room and shake hands with each.  It just doesn’t work for me to ignore them.  So here goes.

I keep waiting for the joy to return, now that Sifu has declared a restart to our relationship.  But I’m realizing that the joy I used to feel upon merely walking into the building is conditional.  It was based on love and freedom.  I currently lack both.

I don’t have the warmth and affection from my students anymore, because they’re no longer mine.  Aside from the ones who were promoted at testing last week, I haven’t even seen them.  I miss being around them.  The earnestness and energy of little kids trying not to fall down or look goofy while working hard to perfect a move – to say nothing of their happiness at a job well done – can keep my heart warm for days on end.  For now, that’s gone.

So is freedom.  Not just to practice any form when and where there’s space to do it, but the freedom to just be, without walking on eggshells, without worrying that any gesture or lack thereof will be considered disrespectful.

This too shall pass, I know.  But in the meantime, I’m a bit chafed about what’s been lost, what feels taken.

I’ve been sure to be quiet about this in the guan.  I’ve only let the feelings hang around in the safety of my living room.

So, that’s that.  Handshakes given.  Now, I can send them on their way.


Warmth, Peace & Pleasure

I spent the day enjoying congratulations for the win at Saturday’s tournament, with memories of my mother interceding at intervals.  Much to my amazement, there hasn’t been a single moment of anger or sadness over the inability to call and share the good news with her.  I didn’t even have to fight off daydreams, while in Fort Lauderdale, of having her drive down I-95 to actually watch me compete.  I just had one wave of nostalgia for the family vacations that used to be.  I felt it Friday on the long drive from the airport to the hotel, while passing one pastel-colored cement building after another and feeling a hazy humidity only rivaled in my experience by Houston and New Orleans.

There’s a distinct feel to being in Florida for me.  An aura of warmth, peace and pleasure that comes complete with a flood of almost exclusively happy memories – years of Easters, summer weeks and Christmases filled with watching my mother and formerly small children have fun together.

“I just realized that I didn’t give any thought to how it would feel to be back in Florida,” I told my better half on the phone, once I reached the hotel.

“I know.”  There was a hint of surprise in her voice.

I had a quick cry then for what was and for all that’s happened in our lives that Mom hasn’t been here to see.  And that was that.  On to the competition the next morning.

It’s been more than six years since my mother’s death.  Before this tournament weekend, it had been more than six years since my last trip to Florida.  I’d wanted to go back, to revisit the places I’d enjoyed with Mom and my children and make new memories.  But at the same time, I hadn’t been able to imagine setting foot in the state again without being able to see her.

It took kung fu to get me back in the state.  I didn’t even think twice about the venue when planning to go.

Though a mental health professional would probably have a field day with these facts, something about it all seems right.  Something about it feels like the powers of the universe doing for me what I could not do for myself.


Shot in the Back

I’m sitting in the waiting room of a surgical suite, awaiting a cortisone shot to relieve the bulging discs in my lower back.  I’m preemptively antsy that the doctor is going to keep me waiting again.

I got this from my mother, this impatient sense of entitlement that I be treated according to the rules.  Whatever those are.  She survived life in a one-horse town of the Deep South during the 1940s and 50s, and when she came north to a New York City suburb, fresh out of high school, she came with an attitude: Don’t tread on me.  Through osmosis, she passed that ‘tude on to me.

Relax, I tell myself.  Doctors keep everybody waiting; it’s not personal.

But I’m anxious anyway.  I’m getting a shot in the back.  My last shot to the back was the epidural when I had my daughter twelve years ago, and that was a disaster!  It gave me a headache so piercing, I had trouble nursing her the first day of her life.  And the day I came home, I couldn’t move my legs without severe pain for several hours.  That’s not a good history with shots in the back.

Mom likely would’ve told me to pass on this option.  She would’ve looked up every herbal concoction known to man that would relieve lower back pain and sciatica and shipped it to me in cases, like the care packages she sent me in college.  She would have lectured me on quitting kung fu back when the tornado kicks began screwing up my back as a green sash.

She already thought martial arts was more trouble than it was worth, after I tore my meniscus in tae kwon do.  That first knee operation almost kept me from being at her side when she took her last breath, her decline came so quickly after it.

I wonder what she would have thought about me starting up again, pushing through three more serious injuries to make it to teacher status.  I think she would have been just like me when watching her grandchildren spar, hit the floor, sometimes even bleed.  She would have winced – albeit through the phone, eight hundred miles away – then found a smile to put into her voice to encourage me to get back up and do what I needed to do.  She would have told me to be careful, to take care of myself…to succeed.  And she would have been in a front row seat the day I earned my black sash and again, nine months later, when her grandson earned his.

She would have hated me getting this shot today and told me to call her the moment I was home.  Then, she would have asked me when I was entering my next tournament.