Wednesday, January 30, 2013

making sense of loss

They say bad news comes in threes.  I hope that means we're done.  January has been one for the record books.  I'm trying to process it, to make sense of the senseless, and to find lessons in it all.  I wrote about confronting loss back in the summer, after standing with MM as his father passed.  I wrote then about the meaning in final moments, and those thoughts are running rampant again.


The bad news started with a cousin MM hadn't seen since childhood, whom he recently found was also a friend of his closest friend.  He'd been ill with pancreatic cancer for some time.  He passed away at the same time that people were gathering for a benefit for his care.  He was in his early thirties.

I didn't know this young man, so my thoughts are a bit more general and may be wholly irrelevant.  But, I've long heard, including from Dr Dad, that patients who pass away after a long illness know when it is okay to go.  Some will wait for family to arrive, others wait till a member who couldn't handle the moment is out of the room.  I wonder if this young man felt a certain type of peace drawn from the knowledge that he was loved by many.  And if he also wanted to know people were together and safe.  There's a beauty in all that.  In wanting peace and to feel loved in the last moments.  And wanting your loved ones to feel the same.  They are moments we should seek out before our last.


A brother-in-law, at times truly a brother, of MM's.  He was actually the first person MM introduced me to (I got a "you did good" review in a text).  His death was unexpected.  He was in his mid-40s.  He left behind three children and one step-daughter, ranging in age from mid-twenties to merely nine.

I don't think I'll ever lose the image of the nine year old girl running barefoot from her door, jumping into MM's arms, in tears, and saying "I miss my Daddy."  That moment is part of what I'll take away from this loss.  MM hadn't seen the niece in some time but there was an immediate connection.  That sense of connecting, and reconnecting, permeated the days spent with the family and friends.  It reminded me that death can bring people together.  And that we shouldn't wait for a sad event to make those connections. 

In a similar but distinct vein, this loss served as an image of how I think such times should go.  There was a lot to do in the days proceeding the funeral, the wrapping up that needs to be done when a loss is unexpected.  The memorial was a time for mourning and sadness, a noting of the passing.  When we returned to the family home, they played the same slide-show that had been at the memorial for a while.  I missed the moment when the change was made, but at some point that switched and a Just Dance game was flipped on.  I got a medical excuse but most others played, including people who hadn't connected in many years.  People laughed and had fun, both playing and watching.  This felt so right to me.  The loved ones mourned.  And then they lived on.  They reconnected and celebrated togetherness.  I'd want that one day.  To be remembered but also to have everyone live and smile and laugh.  Funerals are about loss but, in my mind at least, they can also be about life.


This one was from my side.  My uncle was into vitamins and fitness before the days of GNC Vita-Packs and before everyone's key rings were adorned with gym membership cards.  He had a seizure one day and, although they weren't sure there was a direct link, it led to the scans that revealed brain cancer.  It was a vicious form, one people didn't tend to live with for long.  He fought an impressive three and a half years, including walking his daughter down the aisle in November and making sure his son was able to fly home from Arizona to say goodbye.  He'd gone downhill in the past year but never stopped fighting.  A final surgery in late November marked the shift towards the end.  He was in his mid-60s.

I'd grown up seeing this branch of my family about four or five times a year.  My Uncle was always all smiles.  At the service, we heard again and again how he'd touched people.  He'd always praised everyone, from his family to the staff at the cancer center.  And they all came to say goodbye. His son's childhood friends commented that my Uncle often seemed more interested in their lives as young people than their own fathers.   He found a way to pull out a positive trait and compliment each person in a very personal manner rather than a more superficial way.  He was a teacher and a therapist by trade and carried similar traits beyond the office.

I've been thinking about all that in recent days.  He lived for connection and dedicated himself to making people feel seen and appreciated.  Hearing people speak reminded me of how important that is and how real and meaningful it is to touch people in small moments.  I've always said I didn't need to be remembered in history books and have concrete proof of my days, that I only need to know my life touched other lives and that I gave something to even one person.  This loss made that belief even clearer.  I can only hope to be remembered as well as my Uncle was, as well as he is. 

My cousin said to me that he was tired of people saying they were sorry for the loss or how he was too young.  He said he preferred to hear how the people had been touched by his father, the difference his life had made.  That's the insight I'll finish on, the need to remember and celebrate lives and connections and the many ways in which we love and are loved in return.

P.S.  Perhaps it isn't right to add, but we also lost a fish last night, one of the first group we'd bought.  Thanks for living with us and bringing us smiles, Fork. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Review: The Death of Bees (O'Donnell)

January has not been a good month.  And I have plenty of thoughts rolling through my head, but I'm also exhausted.  So, I'll catch up on a review instead:

The book (provided by the publisher) opens with fifteen year-old Marnie and her younger sister, Nellie, burying their parents.  This is a difficult task, but not a particularly sad one since the parents varied between being neglectful and abusive.  The novel follows the girls as they try to stay under the radar until Marnie turns sixteen, the age at which she can legally be her sister's caretaker in their native Scotland.  Marnie has worked with (and had sex with) a known drug dealer and would be easily labelled a delinquent except for the fact that she's never struggled to be a strong student. Nellie is undiagnosed but likely has some form of learning difference.  She also speaks in some variant of "the Queen's English."  The girls both narrate in turns, along with a concerned neighbor (known on the tough block for having solicited a teen boy in a park) who becomes a surrogate caretaker. 

This was a quick read, although it can't really be called an "easy" book.  There are many topics that might turn-off some readers including drugs and sex, both involving young teens.  There is also a constant sense of love and loyalty, between the sisters and within Marnie's crew of friends.  I think that is really the true theme of the book, love in unexpected places and with atypical faces.

Some authors attempt the multiple narrator concept only to have the voices blend, that never happens here and O'Donnell does a great job of crafting distinct voices.  I loved reading Nellie's voice, but it would definitely have been too much as a sole narrator.  The voices are definitely the book's strength.  At times, I felt like it got too gritty...not in the sense that it was offensive (it WAS disturbing, but it is meant to be) but it felt like the author just kept adding more for the sake of more.  There are also moments intended as comic relief that didn't really mesh for me, like the dog tearing up pieces of the parents' graves. 

Three and a half to four stars, depending on where my mind is focusing at that moment.  Clear writing talent and recommended just for watching the voices work.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

I feel like this review has been on my to do list for a while.  I'm still reading slower than I'd like, but hopefully that will change soon and I'll catch up on my reviews too.

  • A Quick Shout-Out
I need to throw a Thank You out before I get to the review itself.  I've been a fan of Kate Morton's for a while and was psyched to see a new book from her.  I seem to favor books by authors who only write one or two, so it is nice to have an author to watch.  However, I just couldn't justify buying a first-run book when I have courtesy copies on my stand. 

I entered a few giveaways with no luck.  In a long-shot move, I tracked down a name and sent an email.  I mentioned that I read for Harper and also have posted reviews of many other books over recent years on my blog as well as Goodreads and Amazon.  I also briefly mentioned the health issues that make it impossible to work a job beyond the bit of writing I do. 

I didn't hear back and wrote it off as having been worth a shot.  Then a package showed up at my door.  It made my day...and the many days to come when I got to read it.  I sent a note of thanks but wanted to include the same here.  I don't want to include a name here and have the person get too many emails and regret the kindness.  So it'll be kind of a reverse anonymous expression of gratitude.  Of course, this is still my honest review.

I've become a fan of literary mysteries in recent years, novels that happen to include mystery rather than books that are a "whodunit" first and a novel second.  Morton is a leader in this genre and her books always promise character and writing, with a mystery that often involves a character trying to unravel her past and her family's history. 

In The Secret Keeper, Laurel and her siblings are gathering during their mother's final days.  The time pulls Laurel back to a memory she never quite resolved, when she was sixteen and observed her mother stab and kill a man during an otherwise typical family celebration in 1961.  The only other witness was her toddler-age brother.  Laurel works to uncover the story behind this aberration in her otherwise fairly idyllic family life and tries to figure out who Dorothy was before she became devoted to her husband and children.  Laurel's chapters are interspersed with chapters focused on World War Two London as Dorothy comes of age during the terrifying and confusing years of the Blitz.

This isn't my favorite Morton book, but I still very much enjoyed it and it gets a solid four stars.  As in her prior works, the mystery is about characters, the secrets that they hold, and the way they come to be who they are.  It is also about how our family's past informs our own present.  I love Morton's language and her ability to create a sense of a time and a place.  I could feel 1940s London and definitely favored those chapters over Laurel's modern day plot (although I was drawn to the character of her only brother).  I didn't always like every character, but that never prevented me from being interested in them.  I had some inklings about the novel's secrets, but some of the twists did catch me by surprise (something I value). 

Recommended for people for like well-crafted characters and settings.  These elements drive the book and make the reader invest in the novel's mysteries.

P.S.  As I finished this book, I learned it was chosen for the book club hosted by Julie at Peanut Butter Fingers.  I'll try to remember to link to her review when it runs (which also links to a number of other blogger reviews).

a whirlwind of grief and other emotions

It has been a long year.  Already.  Or maybe it is still November.  I'm not quite sure.  This won't rank among the most interesting of rambles for folks who don't know me well, but I feel a need to record this period of time.

Life has been a bit of a blur since my cousin's wedding in mid-November.  That was the first time in a while I'd seen my uncle and he'd definitely gone downhill healthwise.  He fought to walk her down the aisle and the father/daughter dance caused a mix of tears. 

Thanksgiving (with the same family branch) was not long after, followed by my trip to a new surgeon....still facing delays in getting the tests I need to move ahead on that front.  Once again, I was reminded that being interesting and unique is not a positive in the world of spine surgery. 

At the same time I was seeing the doc, MM had seen his mom and found her struggling healthwise.  On the heels of that visit, she had a cardiac test that led to the immediate scheduling of a triple bypass in mid-December.  MM left from her house for a week-long work trip and came home for only a day or so before we headed back out to his mom's.   The surgery had shifted our holiday plans from her coming to visit to us staying at her house and checking her out of a rehab hospital (a hard place to visit, let alone stay) for day visits.  She's done very well, beating all the doctor's expectations, but is was a tough fight for her and hard for her son to watch.  Amid the holiday visit, my lacking immune system showed its face again and the trip out there also included a short but nasty virus...I am so glad I didn't share that with MM's mom (I was really worried since she was at risk for infections and other problems). 

We came home to a snow-filled driveway and we passed into 2013 with more winter weather.  In the early days of the year, MM heard from a friend en route to a cancer benefit that, in a "small world" moment, turned out to be for a cousin MM hadn't seen since childhood.  The cousin passed away while people gathered for a benefit for his care.  Then came the call that MM's brother-in-law had died suddenly.  We packed quickly and hit the road.  We stayed at my mom's for several days (it is in the same area as the relevant family members) while MM helped his sister with both emotional and practical issues, including preparing to close out the man's landscaping business which was in need of a lot of attention.  I just focused on being there for MM since he'd lost someone very important to him and pitching in where I could.  We both kept watchful eyes on the grieving children (a nine year-old, two college aged, and a step-daughter in her mid-twenties). 

Amidst this all, my uncle has fallen sicker.  He's been batting brain cancer for three years and there has been a downhill turn in the past months.  It has been tough on my mom (and, of course, my aunt and cousins, including the newlyweds),  At one point, it looked like we might have to extend our visit to include another funeral (MM had gone to the cousin's on Friday since we were in town, we both went to the brother-in-law's on Monday evening).  We debated having me stay and MM come back home until I called with news (the four-hour trip is tough for me), but they extended the projection a bit and we decided we couldn't stay in static waiting mode.  We both came home last night (Tues).  We know the next call will come soon and we'll both go back to help my mom and then see the rest of my family in New Jersey (the NYC suburbs). 

The recent weeks have taken a toll on both of us.  I feel like it has been a lifetime since November....I heard strangers extend New Years wishes over the weekend and was totally thrown to realize that was still appropriate.  I'm a physical mess (and still waiting on the insurance company to approve my CAT scan).  The emotional toll's been more on MM's side and I've been in the support role, but that's shifting.  I'm glad I've been able to be there for him and that I have him there for me.  Being an Us is helpful in these times. 

I'm trying to rest up during this lull and hold on to a period of normalcy.  I think we'll need to reboot 2013 once we get through the next few weeks. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

retiring one gimmick, keeping another...

I confess....I'm retiring the "I confess" gimmick. I've been tired of it for eons but I'm beyond change averse. However, I know that's just plain silly and it's been annoying me rather than amusing me for way too long...

Of course, I am NOT retiring my love for bullet points:

  • Still waiting on my CAT scan. I called a few days before X-mas to check on it and found out they mis-dated the order. The nurse seemed baffled by how it got dated March 2011, she swore it COULDN'T get backdated, but it meant it expired and never even went to the insurance company. They'd initially said to expect 2-3 weeks for approval so I checked back yesterday but have yet to get a return call.
  • This one merits the confession label: Four Weddings has gone from treadmill fodder to the DVR's "record all new episodes" list (we recently got one for free for a few months as part of a new package...I'm telling myself I'll have no problem giving it up). The only other shows on the list are Once Upon a Time and How I Met Your Mother...the former since it's my fav and I don't want to deal with the On Demand hiccups and the latter because it's the only show I watch first-run that isn't offered On Demand.
  • I really want to kick back up my reading. I've actually got a decent "to read" pile..not a bad thing on its own, but I want to catch up with my advance reader's reviews and feel a bit guilty being behind.  The pain is definitely a factor's been pretty awful and interferes with my ability to focus as well as I'd like (and is also why I haven't kept my promise to myself to blog more, especially about things other than pain).
  • Welcome to January where the holiday ads end and the ads for weight-loss, smoking cessation, and tax services begin. At least I haven't seen an ad for Valentine's Day yet....though the stores switched over on Dec 26.
  • Speaking of V-Day -- I got Teddy MM (which sounds less odd when I actually use MM's name instead of his moniker) for V-Day in 2011. We'd only been dating about six weeks. I actually opened the package a few days early since I was visiting when the box showed up and it had the company name pretty prominently so it was clear it was a stuffed animal. The kinda corny, kinda sweet part: I don't think I've slept a single night without it since.
  • Okay, I just realized that's not 100% true....there were a couple nights where Real MM and I'm an oddball and don't want items from someone around when I'm really upset. I may have also thrown both Teddy and Elly MM (an elephant from a crane machine) on the floor as a sign of my angry mood.
  • We recently tried out an ice cream maker we got while holiday shopping (funny how things end up in one's cart that aren't actually gifts).  MM tried a dairy-free batch first and we weren't fans but we did a regular ice cream for the second batch and it ended up quite yummy.  We did, however, have to put it in the freezer to get it a better consistency since it wasn't nearly frozen enough when we first made it despite having the bowl in the freezer for more than the needed twelve hours.  Any suggestions?  It's just a small machine...the batch we made was only two servings and the included recipes seem to be between two and four servings each. 
  • I've mentioned it before, but the Roomba is among the best choices we've made (I asked for it as a gift from my Mom for both of us and suggested it could count for my b-day too since it was pricey).  I can't help much with household chores and it saves MM from having to work more than full-time and come home to too many chores.  It is also more amusing than it should be to watch "the puppy" run about. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Taking the Lead

I confess...I don't "do" resolutions.  I've grumbled on that before and feel no need to elaborate,  This isn't a true resolution, but it is a goal.  It is a goal I'd love to meet in 2013 but that might take a bit longer.  So, what is this goal (or maybe "hope" is a better word)?

Initially I had a long-winded ramble here about the past month and a half, but it isn't necessary.  In truth, it has been a stretch of "busy for me" weeks that might seem normal to someone else.  Some of the days might even qualify as simple, with the major tasks being a trip to the store and a couple hours of cookie baking.  I've lived a normal life, but not the life I'm currently able to lead.  And I'm hurting.  More than the normal hurting.  It is abundantly clear that I cannot live that life.  My life, for now, means spending most days in bed, conserving energy in order to have a decent dinner date with MM, and saying no to trips I'd like to (and should) make.

I've come to realize that the entire experience has one underlying theme (NB: I struggled b/w theme and mantra) -- My body takes the lead. 

When I consider an invitation, I start by considering my body and whether it could handle the plan.  This doesn't reject ALL plans that it can't handle, but those have to have a strong reason like a wedding or a serious health incident.  Even then, my body influences how I go about the event, planning rest and medication schedules.  I also need to plan a rest period (even beyond my normal rest mode) after the event ends -- it's typically a one-to-one ratio with one total rest day for each day I lived a semi-normal life. 

My goal? For my body to follow, to support, to permit.  I aspire to one day let my mind, my soul, my spirit, my true "Me" take the lead.  I hope to be me-driven, not body-driven.  It'll take time, probably another round of surgery followed by both TLC (a challenge in itself) and a lot of work.  But I WILL get there.