Tag Archives: death

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.

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.

A Sister-in-Law’s Goodbye

My sister-in-law died in Wisconsin last Saturday. Today we buried her in the cemetery within walking distance of my home in Virginia.

Husband returns to the family from quarantine tomorrow. He drove to an assisted living home in Wisconsin the day before Thanksgiving to be with his sister for ten minutes to say goodbye, fully protected in PPE. We knew this would mean no Thanksgiving together and days of self-quarantined separation following.

She died of Covid-19.

Steve held her hand and stroked her forehead. He spoke words that only a protective brother has for a beloved sister at the end of life.

Stories are complex, and theirs is not mine to tell. But I can tell mine.

I met Kris in June, 1987. I was barely sixteen and had my first real boyfriend. He was cute and funny and had the best eyes and smile. He was also shy and blushed easily. I knew he liked me for who I was, and that was important. I was a treasure, not a conquest, and I felt that from him.

Newly allowed to date boys, this was the boy I chose. We dated on Wednesdays and then once on the weekend. This was our weekend time together.

He picked me up in his blue Chevette for a drive around Northern Virginia to whatever adventure we had planned. Maybe the mall, a park, or a subway ride down to Washington, DC. Anything was an adventure as long as we were together with music playing and the windows rolled down.

This was the fun, new, getting to know you more stage of our relationship, and I loved it.

I knew he had two older brothers, but on this particular day he shared about his sister.

I have an older sister, too. She is six years older than me.

Cool!

She has Down Syndrome.

Oh.

In this 1987, pre-internet, pre-inclusiveness, pre-awareness of anything different from normal, I had no frame of reference for this disclosure of his, only that my response felt important. I played it cool and listened further.

She lives in a group home in Wisconsin with other kids like her.

Big exhale. Ok. Now I had space to process this foreign, important data. My new, hope to be long-term, boyfriend had thrown me a curveball, but there was time for me to maneuver and get into place to catch it. His sister was far away, hundreds of miles away, and I did not have to engage with her right now.

Wow. That’s awesome.

Would you want to meet her sometime?

This question felt big. Heavy. Loaded. Important. Inside the thought terrified me. But there was time. She was far away in Wisconsin, and I would cross that bridge when it came. I was speeding toward the bridge and had no idea.

Sure! That would be great!

I smiled confidently, eager to see what fun thing we were about to do.

She’s home for summer break now. Do you want to drive over to my house and meet her?

Right now?

Panic inside. Wait, what? Now? My confidence melted, enthusiasm waned. I knew this was an important moment. I really liked this boy, and he wanted me to meet someone special to him. I had just masked my fear with over-enthusiasm, and to back out would be disingenuous. A quick check of the internal scales brought my continued enthusiastic response.

Sure!

I hoped the insecurity I felt inside wasn’t registering on my face. I literally had no idea of what to expect. What was a person with Down Syndrome like? How do I act and respond to her?

We entered his suburban, split level house, and I saw his sister, Kris. Jet black hair, bracelets on her wrists, and a grin from ear to ear as Steve introduced me.

Kris, this is Julie.

Hi, Julie! What’s the time?

It’s 11:00.

Two weeks?

Steve informed me that this is what she said about going back to school, since her break was two weeks long. It meant she was going back to school in two weeks.

Yes, two weeks. You get to go back to school in two weeks.

I like you, Julie. You’re cute.

You’re cute, too, Kris. I like you.

What’s the time?

It’s 11:05.

I soon learned that What’s the time? was one of her standard questions, though she didn’t have an orientation to time and just lived in the present moment. Any fears I had quickly dispelled as I engaged with this delightful young adult woman who eventually became my sister-in-law.

Tears fill my eyes as I write this. Unexpectedly I am caught off guard by a wave of emotion as I remember younger Julie and younger Kris meeting each other for the first time, not knowing what was ahead for them. I feel their innocence and hope.

My heart aches for all three of the young people in that room.

That’s my brother! You’re cute, Steve. I like you, Julie.

The look on Steve’s face spoke it all. Kris liked me, I liked her, and whatever came next, we had this moment.

Goodbye, Dear Kris. Thank you for introducing me to the beauty of the different in such a gentle, playful way, and for loving your brother so well so that he could love me and our family better. You are so very missed.

Meet Kris here and be sure to read through the memories and comments for the most complete picture of the delight that was Kristin Lynne McClay.

A Granddaughter’s Goodbye

Outside is gray and wind blows more of the crunchy, faded leaves from the tree of friendship. It has grown from sapling and is now tall enough to be seen outside of my second-story office window. I watch the remaining leaves cling fiercely, not ready to end their season of holding space this fall. I want them to remain there as long as possible. I do not want any more time to pass.

I remember the beginning of this week. I don’t want to forget.

Monday I went to bed with plans to visit Grammy at 10:00 Tuesday morning. The last time Steve and I saw her, she was in bed. There was life in her eyes and a smile on her lips. She recognized us, commented on Steve’s long hair (Ok, put your hat back on!), and beamed over the news of my firstborn’s pregnancy. (Another baby!)

Large tears fell from my eyes and onto her covers as I remembered our pre-Covid days at Brookdale ~ when we could walk to breakfast or lunch together using her walker, when I would push her in her wheelchair, when we could no longer visit until it was the end. We are here. It’s close to the end.

Steve opens the blinds so we can look out the window at fall colors. Birds fly to the feeder. The sky is late October gray, as the sun begins its early descent. Grief catches me off guard. I hold it in.

Ok, you can go now.

It’s a familiar goodbye, and one I am not sure is for her or for us. Which of us needs permission? I hang on a little longer, unsure if this is the last time we will be together in person. (it is) I don’t want to overstay, so I lean over the bed, hug her close, whisper goodbyes and I love yous, and exit the room with tears rolling down my face.

So now it’s bedtime Monday evening, November 9, 2020, and I wonder if Grammy will be there in the morning. Should I have gone over and stayed? Each night I wonder if it will be the one. The wait is truly the hardest part. I pray rest for her. I will go over tomorrow and stay.

I startle awake in the early morning hours, Grammy on my mind. This feeling is different than my usual insomnia. I feel a strange calm unlike any other night-time wake in this season and wonder Is this it? Is Grammy passing?

There is no urgency to get out of bed ~ only to bear witness to the moment in my spirit. O Sacred Head Now Wounded plays in my mind, every verse I have ever heard, including Be near me, Lord, when dying. . . especially that one. I hear the tune, the singers, the words. I pray it for her. If it is her time. Be near.

It is followed by Sandra McCracken’s Love Will Bring You Home. I pray again that if it is time, the passage is smooth and kind. I pray she is brought home by love.

I am so present, which is unusual for middle-of-the-night stirrings. I fall back into a restful sleep without any of the usual back-to-sleep aids like reading, journaling, or hot tea. I wake Tuesday morning to a text from Dad.

Grammy died last night. The hospice nurse pronounced her passing at 2:30am . . . Please let your siblings know.

The end of her story at age 97. A long life well-lived. Over. It is Tuesday, November 10, 2020.

I scroll in my phone to find our last picture together, taken in February before Covid shut everything down.

I feel sad and glad and weary and begin making phone calls to my people.