Better Days Ahead

It has been 23 days since Mom passed, left us, died.

There is no way to say it that sounds acceptable or normal or kind. She is gone, and her absence is felt. Her big presence lasted all the way to the end.

I miss her.

It has been 15 days since we put Mom in the ground. That was harder for me than being with her when she breathed her last. So much remains to process about funeral weekend, about the past eight months. There is time.

That time is not today.

It’s good to have you here, my husband says to me last Saturday. I don’t notice it is the first weekend I have been around my own house for weeks, but he does.

My presence is missed when I am away.

It’s good to be home.

I look up at a sticker on one of the geometric cork shapes above my home office desk. It is wedged behind a succulent push-pin, carefully held up without peeling off the backing or making a hole in it.

It is the one I offered to my daughter when she asked if I had any stickers she could put on her new laptop. Mom! I gave you that!

She did. She gave it to me at Christmas, and I anchored it up onto my bulletin board, not really believing it and not ready to stick it anywhere.

Today I take it down and peel off the backing, ready to commit. I don’t know exactly what they look like, but I believe.

Strange, Surreal Space

It’s the weird in-between, the now and not-yet. It’s a familiar space, one inhabited daily over these past 32 weeks.

This journey of losing Mom started with the fateful text Can you come over? It’s not good. and ended with a sigh, because that is what life is. A breath.

So brief.

I sit in a strange, surreal space, waiting for the weekend events that will honor Mom’s life before laying her to rest. In a way it feels no different than the weeks and months before, except that there is not a need for me to be present with care.

I am back home in my own space. Caring, once again, for my people. I spent the afternoon working on a poetry project with my seventh grader. The dedication page read, To Grandma Kozel who loved birds and cats. It was followed by five poems of various styles written about our pets. It included pictures.

It felt normal to be helping a child with schoolwork.

Nothing has been normal since July 27.

I was away from home for 16 nights in February. It was The longest, shortest month, according to one of my siblings. When hospice gave Mom two weeks and said February was likely the month she would go, I imagine she thought, Wanna bet?

In a way she left us in February. Her mind slipped away, playfully, at first, then brutally. Her body fought to hang on. We just loved her and stayed close. I held loosely the idea of being with her at the end. Each day we wondered Is this it?

Life went on, yet it froze.

Days, again, rolled into weeks and into another month.

March came.

Out-of-town siblings returned home as a new week began. One sister had been here a month, another several weeks, my local and out-of town brothers also were here for weeks. My local brother, his wife, and I, resumed supportive care, taking shifts and days.

Thursday was my usual coffee day with Mom and Dad, and Dad and I sat with Mom in their room talking, remembering, drinking coffee. The day moved on, I stayed close reading and writing a little. I took a client call upstairs, as always, wondering if Mom would still be here when I returned downstairs.

She was still here.

Dad and I ate dinner together, and the evening hours began. My sister FaceTimed Mom and played and sang an hour’s worth of music, a set list from the many visits. There was always music, and Mom wanted to be sung home. My husband stopped in for a visit and sat with us.

I decided to spend the night. Ever-flexible, Steve agreed it was a good idea. He left to go home, and my brother and I fixed bowls of ice cream and sat in the living room watching tv.

Heading up to my room, I asked my brother to get me if he needed help or if Mom passed in the night. I went to bed.

When I woke it was 7:00. Medicine time. I went downstairs to help Dad with the morning routine. My brother was fast asleep on the couch. I was glad to be there to listen to morning prayers and watch Dad play a video from my aunt and just to sit and be close.

My youngest sister video-called with a new song she had written. She sang it for Mom and told her all about trying to learn how to go live on FaceBook. We hung up and my brother, his wife, Dad, and I sat around Mom’s bed watching and listening.

I picked up my phone at 9:10 and noticed that my sister had gone live at 9:00. Thinking she had sung her new song, I said, Mom, Stephanie went Live! Let’s see if she figured it out.

I played the video, holding the phone so Mom could see as Stephanie began to talk about her day and her season and one of the songs that marked this time. She played The Scientist by Coldplay, one of the songs on our set list that we enjoy singing together.

As she sang and played, I noticed Mom starting to leave us. Something shifted in her and in the room. When the video was over and I turned off my phone, Mom slipped away from us and was gone.

And I was with her, along with Dad, Nick, and Deanna. And Stephanie sang her home.

Becoming Grandma in the Time of Covid

I prepare to meet my granddaughter two weeks before she is born. That is when I say goodbye to my mom after a ten-day visit and return home to begin quarantining. I go to my daughter’s house the day before her scheduled c-section and stay for a week.

Early Monday morning, Martin Luther King Day, my son-in-law drives my girl to the hospital where together they will meet their precious daughter and learn to be a family in the time of Covid.

I take care of grandpets, Wren the dog and Bunga the cat. They are priorities until hospital discharge. I do not go anywhere except on walks with the dog. I avoid the hospital and will meet my precious grandbaby face to face when her parents bring her home.

Such is becoming Grandma in the time of Covid. There is much planning and preparing to keep fragile bodies safe, and it seems I am surrounded by fragility of life at both ends. Choosing to focus on becoming grandma means laying aside my daughter role and leaving the tending of Mom to capable siblings.

It means receiving and sending pictures of that precious new little one instead of visiting and holding her right away. It is FaceTiming to see that squishy little face and waiting for her parents to make public posts announcing her.

It is meeting her, finally, on her fourth day of life and snuggling and loving and rocking her. It is washing dishes and preparing food and tidying up. It is soaking up three days together before returning home, unsure of when I will see her next.

I return home with the understanding that I do not know when I will see sweet granddaughter in person again. My focus returns to Mom as my daughter learns to be Mom. She keeps little one safe and secure and isolated from the outside world, feeding, diapering, sleeping, and sending pictures.

Becoming Grandma in the time of Covid is my story. It is the feeling of joy and delight in seeing my daughter becoming a mom, and an amazing one at that. It is seeing my son-in-law as a wonderful daddy and seeing the best of them both in a tiny squish.

Making Room to Live

Siblings gather over the Christmas holiday. I stay at my parents’ house with sisters who have come from out-of-town, pretending that I, too, am an out-of-town sister. It is a sacred time of togetherness, one we will never get back in the same way, again.

Mom pulls each of her children aside to pass the jewelry she has selected for them. Her jewels and gems are thoughtfully divided. Costume jewelry is left to be sorted through, pieces that are meaningful selected by those who care to have them.

Daughters help sort through purses and drawers, clipping hair barrettes to their hair and stringing necklaces around their necks. Each day is a grand day to play dress-up. I wonder if Mom notices I am wearing something from her closet.

She notices.

I apologize for not asking first. It is understood that there is no need to apologize. We have Mom’s undivided attention, and she laughs and plays with us, and it is so bittersweet.

We bring papers and objects and articles of clothing to her, and she tells us what to do with them. The sorting, organizing, and purging is a collective effort. We notice and name how each of is both similar to and different from Mom and Dad. We bless and honor our unique blends of each.

It is mostly a giant Memory game ~ putting like with like, moving things around, asking questions. Remembering.

We write down pearls of wisdom Mom speaks and remind her it is not time for her to leave us until she has done the very last thing on the list. We laugh deeply and cry until no more tears come and love fiercely. This good woman, our mother, our human mother lives each day with us to the fullest.

We sing, voices blending as only sibling voices do, and Mom notes the depth, richness, and beauty of our sound. Your voices are growing stronger.

The week goes too fast, precious time never to return, and from the depths of my soul I am grateful for a mom who, even as she is dying, is making room to live.

Embody Joy

2021 is here, and the wall calendar in my home office still reads 2020. Written in dry-erase marker are events and intents that came to an abrupt halt on March 20. No day retreats, art journaling in-person events, or word of the year in-studio workshops happened. I did not travel to training or business events and instead logged many hours with Zoom.

Steady, my word-of-the-year for 2020, became a daily mantra. Like a child learning to ride a bike, I kept my eyes in front of me and hands on the handlebars. I wobbled a bit but I didn’t fall.

I sat in my studio New Year’s Eve with a few family members preparing to ring in the new year. Much different from years past was the subdued nature of the event. No raucous activities downtown, performances to attend, crowds to get lost in. Just me, two sisters, a niece, and three small nephews cutting and gluing and pondering our intentions for 2021.

I did not reveal my word at the stroke of midnight as in years past. I share it with you now as a reminder that it is never too late to sit down and set that intention.

I knew in October that embody was my word. By December I knew it was a phrase.

Embody Joy

This is the art journal page created New Year’s Eve. It hangs in a frame in my studio to remind me of my intention for 2021. Can you find the word Joy hidden in it?

Maybe the shock of all that happened last year makes setting an intention for this one feel daunting. I look at my planner, already a week behind, and wonder the point of everything. Not an encouraging mindset for someone inviting others to more of themselves!

May I encourage you to try? Take that next gentle step forward. Just as I opened my laptop today and spent 30 minutes writing to you, however imperfectly, spend 30 minutes considering where you might want to go in your story this year. Reach out to be seen and heard with kindness and intention.

Let’s step gently into 2021 ready to embrace all of the gifts and the griefs fully, as only humans can. Let’s do it together.

Happy New Year!

What I Need

Black coffee sits to my left, bitter as the bitterness I feel in this season. My mother, weary, not herself, steadily declines as we watch.

How did this happen? Her days running out. Sands slipping faster through the glass. Dying as we continue to live.

Can I help?

I text this question to my sister-in-law one morning before another wave of family arrives and immediately receive an affirmative response and a list.

I try to learn from this.

What do you need is met with a busy signal in my head. I don’t know what I need.

What do I need?

I need my mom to not have cancer. I need big space that I don’t have. I need time, energy, and loads upon loads of grace.

I need to peel back all the extraneous and dive down to the core and then stay there with no expectations.

I need coffee, black and bitter, the drink I have shared with Mom from the beginning.

I need showers, hot and long. Time to meditate as the water pounds my skin.

I need to show up as I am and be seen and heard and understood.

I need engagement and rest and energy and breaks and a house that stays clean and litter pans that sift.

I need to love and teach my kids and care well for them.

I need to cry, wail, grieve, write, teach, cook, clean, work, rest, laugh, talk, sit, stand.

I need understanding that I’m not really sure what I need.

Winning 2020

We win 2020. It brings a horrific diagnosis, but it does not take Mom from us.

Not wanting to miss a moment with her or my siblings who are all coming in from out of town, I clear my calendar to be an out of town kid with my sisters for the last week of 2020. We stay in our parents home together, gathering gradually until there are four of us.

The week is full of reframing stories, having positive corrective experiences, processing embodied trauma, and decluttering Mom’s things with her.

We joke that she has created a giant Memory game for us to play as we find the bottom of a cute little decorative box with her jewelry and its lid in a dresser drawer in the guest room. We help her sort and put like things together and get rid of what no longer serves.

We do her nails, she passes out jewelry, we wear her clothes, we put on fashion shows. We laugh and cry and stay up late working on puzzles. We sing and do skits and welcome her brother, our Uncle Roy, who comes to visit.

We don’t want to miss a moment. We don’t know how many more we have.

Childhood floods over me like a tidal wave. Long-forgotten feelings surface as the sisters stay up late into the night remembering together. I wake sobbing in the wee hours one morning, and a sister crawls out of her bed and onto my air mattress. She holds and soothes me while decades of tears and pain release from my body.

We gather for family meals at my brother’s house. His wife loves us all well with her hospitality. A friend prepares chicken barbecue and buys chicken salad and croissants for us. We do countless puzzles.

We rearrange furniture and rooms and claim mementoes. Mom sits with each of her children one by one and gives them treasures she has chosen to pass on to them. The grandkids who visit pour over the jewelry tray, choosing something that reminds them of her.

My eyes land on a pair of earrings that immediately brings tears, then sobs, and I add them to my pile to be curious about later.

Days begin with coffee and soft-boiled eggs on toast, which I learn how to prepare in the special waterless cooking pan. They end with gathering around the puzzle table or the keyboard or a bit of both. There is much singing and laughter and copious tears.

And we end 2020 with Mom still here.

The clock strikes midnight on December 31, and I sing the Doxology standing between my mom and uncle. This is a family New Year’s Eve tradition. Mom joins us. Our eyes fill with tears. We hold every moment holy, glad to still be together to sing.

January 1 arrives and no Word of the Year post publishes, though I have a phrase chosen. I plan to write more soon, but for now I am taking time to live in the moment and savor the time and cry over goodbyes with my siblings as we anticipate the hardest goodbye to come.

Happy New Year, Friends!

Christmas Lights

We have exterior illumination adorning our Wolfe Street porch! After almost 29 years of intending and hoping and one years, the time is finally here. It is a reminder that there are still tree of life moments in the midst of looming death.

I love your lights! I can see them from my kitchen window while doing the dishes, and it’s so cozy!

Our little girl loves walking past your house and looking at the Christmas lights.

The comments come from neighbors and bring my heart joy. I laugh that we have a slow turn-around time with our house projects and intentions and tell them that to think of us on the days when discouragement sets in that things will never change. I want them to think of and remembers us in ten years when the days are hard and hope for change feels far-off.

One day the light will come.

This is the year of another phase of extensive electrical work in our big old house. External outlets made the list. Every year during the post-Christmas review we say next year we will hang outdoor lights. Time passes, other things take precedence, and it remains dark.

Steve and Roo hung the Christmas lights.

We hold on to hope in dark places. This year we see and celebrate the playful, colored light in the midst of it.

It is the last day of 2020, and I sit in the early-morning hours in my parents’ living room. Though I am the local daughter, I am here for the week like my sisters from out-of-town.

We spend time doing daily life together, living with both parents like we did so many years ago in so many houses in so many cities in so many states. Our uncle visits bringing with him a rush of childhood memories.

My young self is so close, the one who hung a strand of colored lights around the window in her tiny room on Nicholson Street. She has much to tell me, and her big feelings come in waves, in sobs.

She is comforted by sisters, mother, father, uncle in ways that are new. She sits as part of the pack when she can and wanders off to far-away corners of the house when she can no longer. She laughs and cries and feels all of her feelings and is neither a sick cow nor crazy person.

She is a human .being with permission to feel all of the things and to talk about whatever she wants to talk about and to be quiet when there are no words to say.

I ride with my parents and uncle to the family dinner at my brother’s, the other local sibling. Sitting in the back seat of the Odyssey, I help Mom with her seat belt, and we ride side-by-side like sisters. One sits behind her dad, the other behind her brother.

We ride, admiring the twilight and clouds and full moon. We realize that we almost have made it through 2020 and then sit quietly, enjoying just being together.

On the way home, Dad suggests a drive to look at Christmas lights. Mom loves to look at lights and has been hoping to do so. She wants to see my house at night, but the timing has been off.

Tonight is on. Her brother is in the car with us, and it is fun to show him her town and neighborhood.

Dad knows exactly where he will drive, mostly, and turns left onto Dogwood. Mom and I hold hands in the back seat.

This is where we used to go for walks when I could go for walks.

Dad turns down streets and side streets and crosses over to my side of town so Mom can admire my porch. She loves it and tells me so. We continue the drive around my block and back home, noticing the different types and colors and scenes and winter wonderlands and just enjoying being together. That is the theme of our days and times.

Just being together.

Winning Christmas

We won Christmas.

Waking early to stack presents under the tree, then rush back to bed for a few more minutes of sleep, it is the first year Steve and I are awake before our kids. Mom is still here and celebrating with Dad low-key across town, as we open presents at home. Snow falls. Her final Christmas is white.

I open thoughtful, fun gifts from my kids. We do not eat our traditional Christmas breakfast until after 10:30. I guess that makes it brunch. Everyone is growing up.

The day is relaxing and slow. We give Mom and Dad space together to exchange their gifts and time to visit with other family members. Family begins to gather to spend the week between Christmas and New Years. It is a time that works for us all, and we seize it.

I pretend to be an out of town kid and pack a bag to stay at my parents’ house for the week. I have a grandbaby coming in mid-January and need to quarantine soon in preparation. I savor every moment with mom and family as we embrace the bittersweet, sacred space.

We won Christmastide with mom. The days led to weeks and to over five months and here we are on the fifth day of Christmas. Still together. Still living and laughing and loving until the end.

Watching and Waiting Days

The watching and waiting days of Advent lead to the longest night ~ one where Mom’s sister is here visiting her. I walk across town to visit with them and feel my young heart remember.

These waiting days bring more Thursday mornings with Mom and Dad ~ more working on puzzles and drinking coffee than sharing stories. They bring the gifting of Mom’s teenage charm bracelet to me one week. They bring abundant laughter and copious tears.

I don’t want you to leave.

More moments happen with me, head on Mom’s shoulder, arm linked through hers, hands clasped, fingers entwined, sobbing. All the times my little girl, teenage girl, adult young woman, midlife woman, older woman self wanted, wants, will want her mom come flooding over and out and around us in heaving sobs.

We won Christmas.

Christmas Eve is a Thursday. I sit with my parents at the dining room table. We finish the birthday kitten puzzle, eight kitten faces, eight pairs of kitten eyes popping out of gift boxes with balloons and streamers surrounding them. The missing green piece is found under the table.

We thought it was missing!

We are all getting really good at puzzles.

I plan to leave at 10:00 to shop downtown. Mom and Dad ask to join me, so we make an outing of it. Driving to the Water Street parking deck in the rain, I sit in the back seat of the Odyssey ~ the only child riding behind her parents.

It’s a positive-corrective team-building experience as I carry the umbrella, holding it above all of us to shield from the rain. I joke that I can now check make a Christmas memory with Mom and Dad off of my bucket list.

Agora Market is the perfect choice. There is a coffee shop where Mom and Dad order a latte and chai. A former preschool student recognizes them and says hello. I walk away as they talk, my eyes, the only part of my face showing, filling and spilling over with tears. The 90’s feel like an eyeblink ago.

Mom and I agree that she will select gifts for Dad, and I will take them discreetly to the counter. The cashier stows them to the side until all are gathered. I pay for them at the end.

She sees a black dress hanging. She knows it will be perfect because of the way it falls when she fans out the fabric of the skirt. I think of Jerry Seinfeld’s sketch on the difference between men and women when trying on clothes.

She also grabs a cozy sweater and chunky earrings. All are so beautiful and so her.

We return home, and I help Mom wrap gifts. She tries on her new outfit, and I leave to run some errands alone.

The smell of bacon fills the house when I return. Mom and Dad putter side by side fixing BLT’s for lunch. Mom wears a vintage apron sewn by her mother, my grandmother, years ago. My grandmother still lives with her husband in Michigan.

I won’t know what it is like to lose my mom.

My mom says this to me during a conversation. She won’t know loss. Not like this.

I can’t think too hard on that now. The pain runs deep. She and her mother are all I know of a mother ~ daughter relationship in the future. We were working hard on ours.

I thought I had at least 20 more years with her.

I hope I get 20 more days.

Mom peels and cuts a large naval orange into chunks, filling a bowl with them. She opens and pours out a small bag of Rt. 11 chips into another ~ not the Yukon Gold ones of early to mid fall ~ but regular.

I pour glasses of milk and Dad pours a Yuengling, and we all sit down. Just three of us. A Christmas record plays on a new record player that stands on the vintage record cabinet that Deanna and I helped Dad find the Saturday before.

Mom’s Christmas gift.

December was a month of gifts for Mom. We started Hallmark movies in October. That’s when the red Hallmark Christmas Movie watching blanket and the Merry pillow arrived.

It’s a delicious lunch followed by a rest for Mom and shopping trip to the co-op for Dad and me. We buy groceries and a few stocking stuffers.

Returning home, Dad disappears to his third-floor hideaway. Mom and I hunker to rest and watch a movie. This slow day ends with Steve picking me up for re-entry into my local life. I walk downstairs from the third floor with Dad to find Steve sipping coffee on the couch across from Mom ~ coffee she helped make for him.

We say our goodbyes and exit the front door. Stepping onto the porch, surrounded by the brightness of the colored LED lights and the darkness of a December evening, my heart relaxes and releases all it has held and pondered this day, and the tears begin to fall.