Gone But Not Forgotten

Today is the anniversary of the death of a very dear friend. We became friends in 2004, right after my daughter turned one, and her son (her first child) was about six months old. Our lives were intertwined for years. Dynamics changed as our kids got older. My friend took a job. She moved to the west coast. She and her husband divorced. They moved again to the east coast…New England. But we always remained friends. Was our friendship always perfect? No. She was hurt when she took her job and our playgroup didn’t envelope her kids the way we should have. We didn’t always agree with each other’s decisions. But we were friends. We were the kind of friends who would have always been friends…and then she died.

And here’s what I always hear…”Life goes on.” But what exactly does that mean? Her life didn’t go on, but the lives of her children, family, and friends have gone on. Because she had moved away years ago and never answered her phone, she wasn’t a part of our daily lives in Charlotte anymore. But she was a part of my life…and she was a part of the lives of others. I’m not going to say all that sappy stuff like “she lit up a room”…or “she was always good.” People were drawn to her, and I was flattered that she picked me as her friend. But she wasn’t perfect, just like I’m not. But dang it…she was my friend. And she was the mother to two children…now aged 13 and 15. She was the daughter of two wonderful parents who loved her beyond measure, and her sister and brother….well, they adored her too. She loved her family more than anything, and they were always active in her life. But her life stopped on June 4, 2018. Gone too soon. She was just 46, even though the priest at her funeral kept saying she was 47…that actually made me chuckle during the service, thinking of what her response would have been, “Are you kidding me?! Don’t make me older than I am!”

She was active. She exercised all the time and ate really well most of the time…even though we did love eating Doritos together late at night when we vacationed in Maine. She loved red licorice, Zotz candy, and Spree candy. Those were her weaknesses…her guilty pleasures. She didn’t eat them all the time, but she sure enjoyed them when she had them! There was a candy store in Kennebunkport, Maine, that sold the perfect red licorice for her, and we were regulars there. Once, she was going to another store, so I went to stock up on candy. I had forgotten my wallet, so she gave me her credit card and her drivers license. I laughed, saying, “Ummm…if they ask for ID for the credit card, there is no way they are going to believe this!” She was tall, dark, and Irish/Italian. I’m short, fair, and Anglo. She said, “Just take it!” Luckily, they didn’t ask for ID, so I was able to stock up on licorice, Zotz, Spree, and good old-fashioned candy cigarettes for us. Go ahead. Grimace. We didn’t care. Candy cigarettes were old school, and we liked them.

My friend had suffered since she was a teenager with various types of cancer. Lymphoma, breast cancer, leukemia…life wasn’t easy for her, but she kept living it…till she didn’t. I think I always believed she would continue to beat cancer…till she didn’t.

Her children, a boy and a girl, are being raised by their very capable dad. He’s a good dad, exposing them to the world while also making sure their souls are nourished. They go to camp with other children who have lost parents to cancer. They have loving grandparents, and they have aunts and uncles who love them too. But they don’t have their mother. She’s not there every day to encourage them to finish homework. She’s not there to hug them when they need it. She’s not there to guide them, listen to them, help them, parent them.

So yes, life goes on…but it goes on without my friend. For her children, life goes on without their mother. For her parents…without their daughter.

Things happen all the time that make me think of her. Every time I go to Dunkin’ Donuts and order an iced coffee with extra cream, I think of her. Every time I drive past her old house in Charlotte…at least twice a week (I do it intentionally)…I think of her. Every time I think of summer on the beach in Maine…I think of her. Or summers at the pool…all our friends had memberships at different clubs, so we would alternate the pools we visited during the summer. Every time I eat Spree or Zotz, I think of her. I even saw a Santander Bank in Cancun and thought of her…she had worked for them at one time. I was talking with someone last week about Mike’s Pastries in Boston…thought of my friend; she introduced my daughter to cannolis at Mike’s Pastries. Every time someone mentions the Virginia Creeper bike trail, I think of her and the time we took our children…it turned into a comedy of errors, but we survived. Every time I pass the hospital, I think of her, because we actually spent quality time there together, when she was having chemo. Mention California Pizza Kitchen, and I think of the time she almost died from an anaphylactic reaction when we were having lunch there. When I think of my daddy’s cancer diagnosis, I think of her too, because I was on my way to dinner with her when I found out Daddy had pancreatic cancer. And every time I hear about a young person who has cancer, I think of her and how long she fought.

My friend hasn’t been forgotten. She is still a part of our lives and our regular conversations. She taught us a lot about friendship.¬†Tonight, our playgroup friends will gather for dinner, sans kids, to drink a toast to our friend who is no longer with us…one year gone. Life goes on…but it goes on differently.

 

 

 

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What I Learned in 2018

Every year, I’m glad to see the old year go and ring in a new one. This one is no exception. There are lots of great things that happened in 2018, but there were some not-so-great things too. No matter what happened, I learned a few things along the way (these are things I’m trying to apply to my own life…not preaching to you, per se):

  • Celebrate every year. I don’t mean blow horns and throw confetti at midnight tonight. I mean celebrate every year. Sure, we’re all getting older, but turning 50 or 60 or 70 is a gift. Celebrate your life by living it! As my parents would say, “Life is not a dress rehearsal.” It’s not, folks. Is work important? Yes! But should your entire life be about work? No. Do the things you have always wanted to do. Want to go skydiving? Do it! Want to write a novel? Do it! Want to drive cross-country? Do it! And for the record…only one of those things is something I want to do.
  • Spend money on experiences instead of things.¬†I actually learned this a long time ago, but I stop and think about it regularly. Do you remember most of the things you’ve purchased this year? Probably not. But you likely remember most of the experiences you’ve had. I bought a lot of things this year, and I remember some of them, but I have memories from every experience.
  • Don’t sleep your life away.¬†This is one of those things my parents used to say. This year, I slept through the month of January, after my mother died at the end of December, because that was how I grieved. At the end of that month, though, I knew my mother would be disappointed if I didn’t “pull myself up by my bootstraps.” Sleep used to be one of my hobbies, but every minute you sleep is a minute of your life ticking away. You can’t get it back. Live it, people. Sure, we need sleep, but too much of it is just laziness, unless you have some health issues. And if your napping or frequent sleeping is affecting others by delaying get-togethers or slowing folks down, rethink it. Do you really need that rest? Or it is just laziness? Or selfishness? Don’t be a Lazy Daisy.
  • Be coachable.¬†Nobody knows everything about anything. I certainly have a lot to learn about life, in general. This is one of those things I heard retired Alabama football coach, Gene Stallings, say…be coachable. Listen to others, and actually hear what they say. He talked about how the best players had good attitudes and were good listeners…the ones who did what he, as the coach,¬†wanted them to do, instead of what they wanted to do. Were they always the best ones on the team? Not necessarily, but sometimes, they got to ride the travel bus just because they were coachable. He also said that, as a coach at a high level, he needed to be coachable too. Sometimes, he had to listen to others to learn…and he certainly had to be “coachable” at home. Be coachable in life. Stay in your airplane seat when the seatbelt sign is on. Don’t pass on the double yellow line. All of those “rules” (or laws) are in place for a reason. Someone before us knew we would need to know. Be coachable.
  • Give grieving people a break.¬†If you haven’t lost a loved one, you don’t understand what grieving people are experiencing. Even if you have lost a loved one, you don’t know what someone else is feeling. We all grieve differently. In grief, I lost my mind. Generally speaking, I have a good memory, but not in 2018, after losing my mother in December 2017. And I lost a dear friend six months later. As scary as it sounds, many times I didn’t even know what month it was. I have been angry. I have been sad. I have been hateful.¬†Maybe someone was complaining about something I considered trivial. In grief, I would think, “Really? Who gives a flying fig! My mother just died!”¬†Every emotion I’ve had this year has been amplified tenfold. And I have been forgetful. I have thought on several occasions I might have dementia, but then I realize it is grief. I have been crazy. I have tried to fake it till I make it. I have tried to hold it together for family. But I’m still grieving, and I know that, because when my brother calls to tell me he loves me, I cry. If I forgot something important to you, or if I was unkind, some of it (not all of it) might have been grief. If you have never lost a parent, I hope that if you do, I can help. I will remind you¬†grief makes you crazy. In fact, I’ve wanted to go back and apologize to people I know who experienced it before me…because I didn’t get it. You can laugh or say I’m making excuses if you want, but we all grieve differently, and obviously, mine manifests itself in crazy.¬†A friend texted me yesterday, “Grief sucks.” And she’s right. I like to think I acquired some coping skills after Daddy died, but I’m not sure. You can read all the self-help books about grief, and you still don’t know about another person’s grief, so don’t throw that mumbo jumbo out there. It’s insulting. You might have some understanding, but every person is different. I have a friend who lost both parents a month apart¬†earlier this year, and even though I lost both parents twelve years apart, I cannot even imagine what she must feel. Cut your grieving friends a break, because you do not understand. Grieving people keep putting one foot in front of the other,¬†because we have to, and sometimes, we think we are OK, but then something happens, and we know we are not. Maybe we’re putting on a brave face. And if you think grief ends after one month or six months, you need to know now it does not. I have been more sad the month of December than I was any other month of the past year.¬†I¬†don’t need people to understand¬†that, and frankly, you¬†don’t have to cut me a break, but I will forever cut grieving people a break.¬†
  • Fake it till you make it.¬†I mentioned this above in my rant about grief. I still believe “fake it till you make it” is good. I still believe you start to feel happier if you act happier. I still believe you might be able to do something if you convince yourself you can. Just trust me on this one. Fake it till you make it.
  • Let it go.¬†The new year is the perfect time to let go of excess baggage. I’m not one of those people who carries anger and resentment, but a lot of folks do. Get over it. It’s hurting you. Someone was snarky to you? Who gives a damn?!?! Move on. That doesn’t even begin to compare to real problems…like losing a loved one. Let it go!

And with that, I bid you a Happy 2019. My daughter and I are meeting friends in Los Angeles on New Year’s Day to celebrate new beginnings. We hope to have fun and laugh and celebrate, because that’s what I want to do this year. I’m kicking 2018 to the curb. I wish I could say I’m kicking grief to the curb too, but only time will help with that.

 

 

 

 

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Purple Is My Color: Pancreatic Cancer Awareness

Purple is my color…in November. Well, except on the Saturday of the Alabama-LSU game (which was this past Saturday). Other than that day, purple is my color in November, because the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network has adopted purple as the color for Pancreatic Cancer Awareness, and November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month.

My daddy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February of 2006. He died less than seven months after his diagnosis, on October 2. Our hearts broke when he was diagnosed, continued breaking for seven months, and shattered on October 2. But he was finally at peace, after a lot of suffering.

I remember exactly where I was when my parents told me Daddy had pancreatic cancer. I was driving up Colony Road, near the intersection at Carmel Road, in Charlotte, going to meet my friend, Wendy, for dinner with her, her husband, their son, and my daughter, the night before Wendy was scheduled for a C-section to have her daughter, Madison. I was devastated at the news from my parents, but I didn’t want to ruin the night for Wendy, so I dried up my tears and put on a brave face. Apparently, I was a better actress than I had ever realized, because they suspected nothing over dinner. We celebrated the upcoming birth of Madison (though she didn’t have a name yet, at that point).

I knew the prognosis for pancreatic cancer patients was not good. I knew my time with my daddy was limited, so we tried to make the best of it. We were fortunate to have a condo near my parents’ house in Alabama, so we moved down there for the last couple of months before he died. My brother came down as often as he could, and even though it was bittersweet, we had a lot of quality time together. We made the most of it, but we knew we were losing our daddy.

Daddy was brave. He even maintained his sense of humor. He worried about what would become of us after he was gone. He was sad he wouldn’t see his beloved grandchildren grow up. He encouraged us to stick together. And he often said, “I’ve lived a full life, and now, I’m spending lots of quality time with y’all.” ¬†He was finding the silver lining till the end. Throughout life, he looked for the good. And in his final days, the good was that he had a family who loved him and loved each other. He knew it. We laughed. We cried. And then we laughed some more to keep from crying.

And here’s the thing. In the 12 years since we lost Daddy, not much has changed for pancreatic cancer patients. Most patients don’t survive one year after diagnosis, and very few survive five years…roughly 95 percent of those diagnosed die from it. It’s very difficult to diagnose, and it’s usually too late when it is diagnosed. It is considered by many to be the deadliest cancer, based on the general prognosis, but it gets very little press. Every time a friend calls me and tells me someone they know has been diagnosed, I don’t know what to say. The only thing I can do is offer prayer and refer them to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, also known as PanCan.org. We need more awareness, more funding for research, and we need more trials, and PanCan raises money for those things. They also raise awareness and on behalf of patients and families, contacting Congressmen and Senators, encouraging them to support bills that offer funding for research.

So, every year, since 2006, I wear purple in November. It might be just a purple handbag, purple pendant, or purple earrings, but I try to wear a little piece of purple every day…except the day Bama plays LSU…Daddy would understand.

***If you would like to donate to PanCan.org, please go to the website here. Call or write your Congressmen and Senators, encouraging them to increase funding for pancreatic cancer research.***

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Photo: pancan.org

Daddy’s 80th Birthday

My daddy died a couple of weeks after his 68th birthday, in 2006. Pancreatic cancer. Today is his 80th birthday. It makes me sad to think he has been gone so long and to think about what he has missed, but it makes me happy to think how happy he would be that my brother and I have remained close. He would be happy to know my brother and I have great relationships with our extended family, and he would love that I have come to know our cousin, Ardrue, over the last couple of years.

Daddy worked hard to make sure we had the things we needed and most of what we wanted…within reason. He was practical, but some indulgences were allowed. According to Aunt Katie (Daddy’s younger sister), Daddy was a quiet young man…and serious, making it interesting to me that he made a living in sales and was good at it. He had to step outside his comfort zone (quiet) and talk…convincing companies to purchase his product. I don’t remember him as quiet. At home, he was jovial. He loved telling stories about his childhood. He loved goofy jokes, and he loved wordplay. He mellowed with age, so I can only imagine what fun he’d have been if he had made it to 80.

My nephews were crazy about daddy, whom they called Big Ken (he was tall). My daughter was almost three when he died, so she doesn’t remember him, but she loved him. I think being a granddaddy was his greatest joy. After he retired, he had time to spend with them, and he laughed and smiled when they were around. When they were infants/toddlers, he spent a lot of time holding them in his lap, reading to them or talking to them. As my nephews got older, he played baseball with them, had Easter egg hunts, and let them pretend to be waiters at Cock of the Walk (a fried catfish restaurant) while he sat out on the back porch, repeatedly placing his pretend orders for hushpuppies and fried catfish.

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My 2-yr-old daughter enjoyed Easter egg hunts with Big Ken too…all year. Other times, he would take spoons outside for her to dig in the dirt. He had built a bridge across the Civil War mound in their front yard, so my daughter spent a lot of time running back and forth across the bridge. Daddy was amazed that she¬†never stopped running.

Today, he’d be proud of his grandsons…one working hard in college and the other making his way as a writer. He would enjoy watching my daughter play sports.

When we were growing up, he enjoyed watching sports on TV…there was always a baseball or basketball game on. If sports weren’t on, he was likely watching¬†Sanford and Son, Cheers, All in the Family, or¬†The Jeffersons. He loved to laugh, and those shows made him laugh, without fail. As for dramas, he loved Lonesome Dove, and one of his favorite movies was Cool Hand Luke.

He peppered his language with things we called “Bascom-isms,” named after a place he lived as a little boy, Bascom, Florida. I wish I had written them down over the years, because they’re difficult to remember. I was reminded of them recently, when I posted on Facebook a picture of the sun shining while it was raining, and captioned it, “The devil’s beating his wife.” It was something Daddy said, and lots of people from the south say it. We learned it as, “The devil’s beating his wife with a frying pan,” while others apparently said, “The devil’s beating his wife behind the door.”

Here are some things Daddy used to say:

Ned in the first reader.¬†Daddy said this all the time. I called Aunt Katie to confirm the meaning. In our family, Ned in the first reader¬†means someone who is poor at what he/she is doing. It means Ned never advanced beyond the first reading level, meaning he wasn’t good at reading or he wasn’t very smart. For example, let’s say Suzy and Jane are doing the same job, and Suzy gets three times as much done as Jane in the same amount of time. Daddy would say, “Suzy makes Jane look like Ned in the first reader.” Or if someone is trying to learn to sew but can’t even thread the needle, we might say, “Bless her heart. She’s like Ned in the first reader.”

“Don’t care” has neither home nor master.¬†This is something Daddy would say if we answered, “I don’t care.” I think it means that if you “don’t care” about something, then you stand for nothing. You should always care. Daddy’s mother used to say it to him when he was growing up. She was right. We should never say we “don’t care.” Maya Angelou once said, “Can’t Do is like Don’t Care. Neither of them have a home.” The meaning is the same…you should never say you can’t do something, and you shouldn’t say you don’t care about something.

You can make three days (or any time reference) standing on your head.¬†This was Daddy’s way of saying “you got this.” If we had three more days of exams, it’s something he would say to remind us something was do-able.

I hope my brother will call me and remind me of some of Daddy’s sayings, because I feel like we keep his memory alive, in part, by keeping these sayings alive.

If Daddy were here to celebrate his 80th birthday today, I would call him and sing the birthday song from The Little Rascals. The episode is called Feed ‘Em and Weep,¬†and it’s about Darla’s friends bringing gifts to her dad on his birthday…when all he wanted was a quiet evening with family.¬†Daddy thought Alfalfa and Spanky were hilarious, and he looked forward to my singing every year…and we would laugh. To see the clip of the song, click here.

Today we celebrate his birth 80 years ago. He loved sunflowers, just like Mother did, so we will use some from our yard as our centerpiece for the day, and I’ll have a tomato sandwich. Maybe I’ll make the Sour Cream Pound Cake his mother used to make. Our cousin, Ardrue, gave me the recipe last year, and it is delicious.

If Only I Could Call Them

When Daddy was dying, it seemed the thing he hated most about dying was thinking about what he was going to miss. He said he wasn’t afraid of what would happen to him, but he was sad he would miss his family, and he would miss some of the big moments.

I think, we, the ones left behind, often feel the same thing. There are lots of times I think, “I wish Daddy were here to see this.” And since December, I often think, “I wish I could call Mother and tell her about this.”

In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself wishing they were here more than usual. I always miss them, but situations arise that I would love to share with them, and that’s when I really wish they were here.

In May, I wrote a piece titled Behind That White Picket Fence (click here to see it)¬†about how we never know what’s going on in someone’s private life. A friend from college commented on my post, making me think of Mother and something that happened twenty years ago.

When I was about 30, a friend was diagnosed with colon cancer. Her name is Susan, and I think she was 28 or 29 at the time. She was/is married (in fact, I introduced her to her husband) and while her husband was supportive, her parents jumped right in to help. Her husband needed to work and couldn’t be there all the time, so her parents took turns spending the night at the hospital with her and stayed during the day, as well. She had ¬†complications after surgery, but they were there to advocate for her. If I remember correctly, she was in the hospital for months.

During this time, my maternal grandmother and a friend of hers were breezing through Mobile on a trip and stopped in to visit Mother. We will call the friend Gladys. Mother had never met Gladys and frankly, found her to be rather harsh. They were there for a few hours, so Mother didn’t jump to that conclusion quickly.

While they were there, insurance became the topic of conversation. Gladys, at some point, complained about her insurance agent, saying he had not been responsive over recent months. When she mentioned his name, Mother knew she had to say something. She responded, “Well, I’m sure you don’t know, but his young daughter has colon cancer. She’s had surgery and complications, and he has been spending days and nights at the hospital with her. If he hasn’t been responsive, that’s a good reason. God bless him.”

That evening, Mother called me to tell me what had happened, and she was a little hot under the collar. Of course, I reminded her Gladys probably had no idea, and while Mother realized that, she was miffed Gladys wasn’t giving Susan’s dad, her insurance agent for 30 years, the benefit of the doubt.

So, after Susan commented on Behind That Picket Fence,¬†I sent her a message telling her about the exchange. She responded by telling me she was happy to hear my mother had interceded. She reminded me her daddy had stayed with her in the hospital and had even devised a way to wash her hair, simply because he knew it was something he could do that would make her feel a little better. He made some sort of “contraption” that made it possible for him to wash her hair while she was lying in bed. The nurses didn’t want him to do it, but he did, and Susan immediately felt better. Afterward, the nurses started started using the same contraption and method to wash the hair of other patients.

That exchange with my friend was one of those moments I wish Mother were here. I wanted to call and tell her I had shared the story with Susan, and in response, she told me what great things her daddy did for her. In fact, Susan told me her daddy was retired by the time she was diagnosed, so no wonder he wasn’t responsive! He was no longer the agent!

But I couldn’t call Mother. She would have loved that story.

There are also things I’d love to share with my daddy. Just this week, I had lunch with my cousin, Ardrue, who lives in Cherryville, North Carolina, about an hour away. Ardrue and I started getting together over the past couple of years. We had never met until early 2016, but I had heard about Ardrue my entire life. She is my daddy’s first cousin. Their mothers were sisters.

When I say I’d heard about Ardrue my entire life, I mean it. I remember, as a little girl, hearing Daddy and Aunt Katie talk about Ardrue. I don’t remember the stories, but who can forget a name like Ardrue? I’ve told her this, so it’s OK…I remember asking daddy, “What kind of name is Ardrue?” I remember seeing pictures of a little girl/teenage Ardrue when I would go through old pictures. Her name appeared on the backs of several pictures. ¬†In fact, I can hardly wait to get back to Alabama to go through pictures and find some to bring back to show her.

Ardrue has told me stories about my daddy as a young man, and she has shared stories about the family, as well. When we are talking, I love when she mentions a familiar name in one of her stories. Sometimes she is even surprised I recognize a name. Most of the times, I recognize the names from stories Daddy used to tell…he was a good storyteller. She is a charming lady with a great sense of humor. I’ll have to ask her if a sense of humor runs in the family. It’s hard to tell, because in all the old pictures of my grandparents and great-grandparents, they all look so serious.

And this is one of those times I wish Daddy were here. He would be thrilled Ardrue and I ¬†get together. Not only that, but we enjoy each other’s company! He would want to sit right there with us, laughing and talking. The two of them would be able to reminisce and remind each other of things that happened when they were children.

But I can’t call Daddy. He can’t join us for lunch. He would have loved spending time with Ardrue.

And recently, when our daughter was away for two weeks on a group trip to Iceland and not allowed to use her phone to call home, Mother and Daddy would have commiserated with me. They likely would have been calling me three times a day to ask if there had been any email updates from the group leaders.

While it’s painful immediately following the loss of a parent, there are other times that are difficult too. Interestingly, for me, it’s usually the happy times that I miss them. I wish they could see my daughter play lacrosse and field hockey. Daddy would have loved watching her play basketball too. I used to always call Mother from my car after I dropped off my daughter somewhere, and I would call her after any of my daughter’s games and give her the post-game wrap-up. That was a habit that was hard to break after Mother passed. ¬†I wish I could just pick up the phone and call both of them to tell them funny stories, talk about trivial stuff, and brag about my daughter. They would love knowing my brother and I talk almost every day, and we still call each other to get answers to trivial questions. And they would be so happy to know we have been vacationing together.

But I can’t call them.

If only I could call them…