Thursday, April 29, 2010

Various Updates

So far, I like the new therapist. He's very calm and relaxed, and we've already traded photographs of our cats. I see him for the second time on Tuesday, so we'll see how things go.

School is a crazed blur at the moment, with more piles o' grading and end-of-semester ceremonies (one of which, tomorrow, I'm MCing) than I can keep track of. The chaos is of course compounded by my grieving brain, which would perceive the world as at least somewhat chaotic even if everything else were calm and serene.

The chaos is also compounded by our home-improvement project: The Ducts. (Remember that great line from GalaxyQuest? "Ducts! Why does it always have to be ducts?") The contractor and his crew did most of the work on Monday, replacing all of our ducts, which had collapsed or were nonexistent. (The contractor said, "Your crawl space is really well heated. The spiders love it down there.") The work would have been finished on Monday, too, save for one complication: the contractor had hoped that the main metal duct from the first to second story was intact. When the crew got in there, they discovered that it was neither metal nor intact: it was plastic, and had collapsed.

This means that our ductwork was never up to code, but nothing about the house has ever been up to code, so we shouldn't have been surprised. Every contractor we've ever hired has turned interesting colors, ranging from sheet white to purple, and said some version of, "This is the worst work I've ever seen." The winner so far was the ashen plumber we'd hired to fix our front-yard sprinkler system, who informed us that the system was so far out of code that we risked infecting the entire Truckee Meadows with cholera if there were ever a flood. Our front yard is now covered with tasteful rocks: no sprinkling required.

I can't wait to see what happens when we have our old deck removed.

But I digress. Anyway, no first-to-second-floor duct meant an extra day of work and another $500 dollars, plus holes in the wall because the workers have to pull out sections of sheetrock to install the new duct. Sigh. The good news is that when this is done, we may actually get heat and air-conditioning upstairs! Woo-hoo! The downstairs is already heating much more efficiently, because all the ducts work now. I'm sure the spiders are feeling chilly, but they can relocate to Vegas.

Meanwhile, I've continued having trouble with my BlackBerry, which will only recharge if it's plugged into my laptop (not an outlet), and which isn't holding a charge as well as it used to. The battery's pretty new and worked beautifully before this, so I suspect something funky's up with the phone.

My two-year contract isn't up until September, but I'm due for an early upgrade to a BB 8530, which has a better camera and trackball. The problem is that we're paying Verizon way too much money at the moment, partly because Dad and Fran's phones are still on the account. Gary uses one of them, but he only uses the phone under absolute duress, as in direct order, as in "Be sure to bring your phone so you can call me when your plane lands in Philly." I'd gone to Verizon stores here and in Philly and gotten confusing and conflicting information about what I could do when. Today, I finally called Verizon Customer Service.

I had to talk to three different reps in three different departments, but I think I have it figured out now. If I go to a single line and cut back my number of minutes -- I don't use the phone that much, and could use it less if necessary -- I can keep my all-important Enterprise Server and unlimited data plan and pay about $25 less a month than I'm paying now. Meanwhile, Gary can switch his phone over to a prepaid plan where he's charged ninety-nine cents a day every day he uses the phone, plus ten cents a minute, although calls to other Verizon phones are free. Since in most cases he'd be calling me, and since he normally won't even touch the device, this means we'll probably be paying about a dollar a year for his phone, which is a heckuva lot better than the $120/year we're currently paying to have his phone on my plan.


I wrote all of this down and made the phone reps swear that the store reps will honor the numbers. We'll see if that happens. If not, I can probably nurse this phone along until September, when my contract expires, at which point I might switch to T-Mobile. But I'd rather have a nicer phone now.

Luckily, I remembered to ask about phone charges during our Alaska trip. If I'm on land in Alaska, the same charges apply as always. If I'm on land in Canada, I have to pay the international rate of twenty cents a minute or something, which is a bit much. Cruise ships have their own cell towers, evidently, and when I gave the rep our cruise line and ship name, he looked it up for me and informed me that my roaming charges on board would be $2.49 a minute.

Yowsa! Also, even if I don't make any calls, data's mind-bogglingly expensive too, so using the phone for e-mail access is a bad idea. The moral of this story? Don't even turn the phone on until we're on American soil. I will, however, spring for one of the mega-pricey onboard internet packages; I can't lose all access to e-mail.

I'm really glad I asked. We could have wound up with one heckuva Verizon bill for May!

Elsewhere in the land of "doing our job to support the economy!", today I signed up for a summer course at PSR, as well as a one-day workshop about nonviolence. Right now I'm trying to negotiate with the housing people to get a dorm room like the one I've stayed in the previous two times I've been there: a single room with its own sink but a bathroom down the hall. They're evidently now putting people either in suites or in pricey single apartments. I don't want to pay $100 a night for an apartment, and I don't like suites because there's usually weird social pressure with people in the other bedrooms: do you hang out with them, or not? My room's where I go to be by myself when I don't want to socialize and don't want to be disturbed by other people socializing. Berkeley weeks are semi-retreats for me, so this is important, but if it doesn't work out, it doesn't. They haven't given me a categorical "no" yet, so that's a good sign.

Okay, I think that's it. Time to work on emptying my study closet (a truly terrifying prospect) so the duct guys can cut large holes in it tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Mom's Legacy

Note: I have Gary's permission to tell this story.

In 1992, my second year in grad school, Mom had a stroke. After she got out of the hospital, my sister, uncle, cousins and I descended on her apartment. Gary, whom I'd then been dating for three years, came too, to try to support all of us.

It was a very small apartment with entirely too many people in it. The calmest person in the place was my mother, lying comfortably in bed. The rest of us were basket cases.

When it came time for me to leave, I stood at my mother's bedside and burst into tears. Gary, waiting in the doorway, watched me.

"Gary?" my mother said, gently. "Susan's crying."

"Yeah," Gary said, matter-of-fact. "She does that sometimes." (Everyone who hears the story falls over laughing at this line. What can I say? Gary's a guy. He likes to be able to fix things. He can't fix my being sad.)

"Gary?" my mother said, even more gently. "Give Susan a hug." So he did: a very good hug, too.

This has become one of our favorite family stories, and whenever I'm upset about something now, I say, "Gary? Give Susan a hug."

The other night I had a wave of sadness about Mom right after I went to bed. I always turn in earlier than Gary does. I lay in bed, sniffling, while he worked on the computer in his study. After a few minutes, I heard the bedroom door open, and thought maybe he'd come in for a different pair of glasses. But instead I felt his hand on my shoulder, and when I opened my eyes and looked up at him, he said, "When you're crying, I'm supposed to give you a hug."

Mom lives on.

Another Insight

The other day, thinking about how completely and utterly terrified I was as a kid -- constantly afraid that my parents would die; afraid that I'd get anything lower than an A, which would make me a failure; afraid of parties because I was so awkward socially; afraid to tell anyone I was afraid, because I had to keep my mother from worrying about me more than she already did and because my father needed me to be all right so he'd be all right -- I realize that I had a huge, honking case of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, with some Social Phobia and OCD (I went on a handwashing binge in grade school) and a large dollop of Separation Anxiety thrown in for good measure.

Is that sentence long enough?

Untreated anxiety commonly turns into depression; the two are close siblings anyway. For years now, various professionals of the shrink persuasion have been exhorting me to express my anger, which they've assumed to be at the base of the depression. A few times, I've said, "Y'know, I don't think it was ever anger. It was fear." Nobody picked up on that clue, not even me.

In one sense, this doesn't matter. Treatments for anxiety and depression are very similar, and when I was a kid, nothing much was available for either, anyway. But it blows my mind to realize that there was this huge thing happening that nobody recognized. The week before the funeral, my sister told me that when I was three or four, my mother was afraid I was psychotic because I had such lively conversations with my imaginary friends Stick, Bracelet, and Susie. She had me evaluated by a psychiatrist, who said I was fine and would come out of it. That person didn't even pick up on the fear, although a) he might not have been looking for it and b) I probably wouldn't have admitted it to anyone, even then.

But jeez. Poor little Susan, so scared all the time, and so stubbornly and nobly and ass-backwardsly keeping it a secret to try to protect everybody else! (My parents would certainly have done everything in their power to help me if they'd known.) I just want to go back, give her a hug, and tell her everything will really be all right, you know?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Unexpected Upswing

I've been feeling much better since Tuesday. At some point, I suddenly realized that although I was sad, I wasn't scared or anxious. I'd always thought that after both of my parents died, I'd feel horribly alone. I don't. Instead -- and please don't take this the wrong way, because I loved both Mom and Dad very dearly, and I know they loved me too -- I feel about sixty thousand tons lighter.

I sat down to figure this out. It didn't take long. As long as I can remember, I've dreaded my parents' deaths; furthermore, I was deeply afraid that both of them would have horrible deaths. Mom had cancer twice, remember; Dad's father committed suicide before I was born, and Dad went through his own suicidal stretches, although none recently. Mom was expected to die in 1964 and Dad in 1977. Both of them had plenty of scares after those long-ago dates. I can't remember how many times, during one or another medical crisis, I've geared myself up and thought, "Okay, this is it."

Instead, they both died in their mid-eighties, relatively peacefully, with their pain controlled by hospice and with at least one loved one nearby. I'm not saying that chronic heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are fun ways to go, but they aren't the tragedies I'd always feared.

I don't have to dread their deaths anymore. I only realized what a deep, baseline condition this chronic terror was when it wasn't there anymore.

This change is huge. I'm now wondering how much of my previous depression was really anticipatory mourning for them (or possibly, as my therapist friend Wendy has suggested, complicated grief). I'm not saying I don't have my biochemical issues -- given my genes, it would be a miracle if I didn't -- but I now suspect that there was a lot more situational stuff affecting my moods than anyone ever realized.

And instead of dreading my own aging process, I'm now actively looking forward to it.

Gary and I have long needed new heating ducts in the house, and also a new deck (and then there are the floors and the need for interior paint, but those can wait a bit). We'd already decided to go ahead and have the ducts put in, since we won't have to help pay to have Mom in a nursing home. On Wednesday I decided that before the summer's over, I want us to get the new deck, too.

In September, I'll turn fifty. I want to throw myself a big birthday party out on the deck. I'll hire Charlene, my fiddle teacher, to play for a few hours, and I'll invite everybody I know.

I never do stuff like this. I think the last time I had an actual birthday party was when I was in my twenties, and that was organized by friends. I've never thrown myself one. But since my parents are no longer here to be happy I was born, well, other people can be happy instead.

Just looking forward to this makes me happy. I'm still sad, too, but I know both Mom and Dad would want me to be making plans and looking forward to things.

After a long conversation with Wendy, I've also decided to start getting off meds as soon as possible. I see my psychiatrist next on May 5. Meanwhile, I've made an appointment with a therapist for next week. I found this guy on the web, but his site appeals to me, and I talked to him on the phone for quite a while today. He's very sympathetic to the fact that medication can dampen creativity -- he says he's had a lot of clients with that issue -- and he has an arts background himself, as well as eleven years of counseling experience. He's a fellow progressive who does cool work I admire (therapy groups for women in jail, for instance), and he's also lost his second parent within the last year, so he knows that territory. He's not on my insurance, but nobody I'm interested in seeing is, so I'm just going to bite the bullet and pay full price. Because he's an LCSW rather than a PhD, he's more reasonable than some other folks. I love social workers. Social workers and librarians are the Secret Rulers of the Universe. And if it doesn't work out, well, I'll find somebody else.

So I've achieved movement on several fronts, although I'm still moving far too slowly on work matters. Wendy strongly urged me to get an extension on turning my grades in, but that would only prolong the agony.

Oh, and I went to an aquasize class today. I didn't even hit anyone on the head with my noodle this time, although I wasn't terribly graceful with it, either. At one point the instructor looked at me and said, laughing, "Well, that's not exactly what I was looking for, but you're doing something, so I'll take it."

That's kinda my approach to life right now. Any something is a good thing.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Physical Symptoms

I think Mom's death is hitting me harder physically than Dad's did (or maybe the combination of the two is taking its toll). I have the same inability to concentrate I did after Dad died, but now I have physical restlessness, too. You know how you feel when you have a fever and keep shifting your position because you just can't get comfortable, no matter how you arrange yourself? That's what this is like. I can't get settled in my own skin.

I'm sleeping okay, thank God. And I'm eating, but probably too much: I binged on an entire bag of Quaker Oats Kettle Corn rice snacks tonight (right after dinner, mind you: it was a sort of extended dessert). My weight definitely doesn't need this.

On the plus side, I did swim for forty minutes today. On the minus side, I'm having a lot of trouble getting work done; I squeaked through my classes yesterday, and pray to be a little better prepared tomorrow.

Yesterday I e-mailed my editor and agent to beg for an extension on the book deadline. I feel really awful doing this, given how late I delivered Shelter, but I haven't gotten any writing done since before I left for Philly, and any extra energy I have right now is going into grading.

Actually, that's not quite true: I have been practicing the fiddle, which feels concrete and immediate, but my brain isn't up to narrative at the moment. Narrative feels too abstract: or rather, narrative feels as if it requires me to construct the concrete out of the abstract, building a steam-engine locomotive out of air and water. The fiddle already exists, hanging right there on my wall. No alchemy required.

I'm sure none of that makes any sense. Grief carries well-known cognitive deficits. (My sister and I have taken great comfort in this. When I was back East, whenever one of us had a post-menopausal moment, we'd both chirp, "Cognitive deficits! Cognitive deficits!")

So, anyway, my editor and agent both responded with exasperated notes to the effect of, "Yes, of course you can have an extension! Why are you even worrying about the book? That shouldn't be your top priority right now!" My editor added a follow-up telling me to take care of myself.

They're good people.

I'm trying to take care of myself, but I don't think forty minutes of swimming cancel out an entire bag of Kettle Corn rice snacks. Although I had a sobbing fit while I was doing laps, so maybe that burned some extra calories.

I had the sobbing fit because it hit me that Mother's Day is right around the corner, and then it will be Mom's birthday, and Dad's birthday, and Christmas, and I won't have my parents for any of it.

Does anyone have any handy tricks for getting through the first Mother's Day after your mother has died?

Must go try to grade, so I'll be a little better prepared tomorrow. Does grading burn calories? Does grading burn more calories when you can't do the grading because you keep changing seats and positions every five minutes because you can't get comfortable?

Does whining burn calories?


Sunday, April 18, 2010


We got home around one this morning after a surprisingly pleasant trip. Because I'd booked my flights at the last minute, I'd originally been in a middle seat for the long Philly-San Francisco leg. I went up to a gate agent to make sure I'd be getting frequent-flyer points, since I didn't see my number anywhere on the ticket; when I explained why I'd booked in such haste, he got very quiet for a second and then said, "An aisle seat just opened up. Let me put you there."

Not only was it an aisle seat, but no one was next to me! As a result of all the room -- relatively speaking -- I got more grading done than I'd expected, since I could spread out a little. I'm still very behind, but I'm less behind than I was yesterday afternoon.

We arrived in San Francisco thirty-five minutes early (almost unheard-of for an East-West flight), and then learned that our Reno flight would be on the same plane, although we still had to get off and reboard. But it doesn't get much more convenient than that, and despite the Reno airport's perpetual baggage delays, we even retrieved our suitcases fairly quickly.

The cats are glad to have us home. Sleeping in our own bed again was blissful. Felicity Fiddle sounds about as good as she could after a week of no practice and no one home to fill the humidifier. It's a gorgeous day here: sunny and eighty degrees.

This morning, semi-miraculously, I woke up in time for church. It was nice to be back, but a lot of people didn't know about Mom, so the service felt a little surreal, too. When Dad died, everyone had been following the saga for months -- especially since he lived here -- and some church folks had even met him. At that time, we had a working parish listserv that gave me a way to keep everyone up to date. But Mom was across the country, and the listserv broke a while ago and has deliberately been kept out-of-order by our temporary rector, who felt that it was being used for back-channel conversation people should have been having at parish meetings. The clergy knew Mom had died last weekend, but there was no announcement, even though she was included in the Prayers of the People. I made an announcement today, just so everyone would know, but response was muted. Oh well. I wound up feeling a bit isolated, but I probably would have felt that way anyway, under the circumstances.

There were connections, though. One of the readings this morning was Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus, a text I always associate with Mom because Paul's feast day, January 25, was her AA anniversary. Also, throughout the service I'd been trying to chase down a quotation I vaguely remembered about no one being an orphan because God loves all of us. Lo and behold, our gradual hymn was "Allelujah, Sing to Jesus!" which includes the line, "Alleluia! not as orphans are we left in sorrow now." So that was pretty perfect.

After the service, I skipped out on a church business meeting (that kind of thing, important as it is, makes my teeth itch at the best of times, which this isn't) to go swimming. I'd gotten no exercise in Philly and was worried that my back might be on the verge of going out again. I felt much better after an hour of swimming.

Now I'm back home, staring at piles of grading I have to try to get done before tomorrow. (How much worse that situation would have been without the unexpected space on the plane!) I'll get the most important stuff done, I know. The rest may have to wait a while.

I'm trying to take very good care of myself, which means, among other things, not stressing about work if I can help it. I know people understand; I've gotten kind cards and e-mails from colleagues and students, and I'm grateful for everyone's sympathy. I have to say, though, that I'll be very glad when the semester's over!

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Mom's funeral yesterday went about as well, I think, as it could have gone. Liz, Lloyd, my nephew Owen, his girlfriend Kim and I arrived about an hour early and hung around downtown Englewood for a while. We bought a guest book and flowers for people to leave in the grave, and -- without having planned this -- met up with Mom's brother, two of his sons, and another son's daughter. Then we made our way to the cemetery, where we were joined by Ken, Claire, Gary's mother Doris, my mother's dear longtime friend Doris (who still lives in Englewood), and several other relatives by marriage. My cousin Val and her husband Bruce couldn't come because Val came down wiht a stomch bug.

We were very lucky: it didn't rain during the service, although the day was generally damp.

The priest had gotten there before anyone else. He did a brief, lovely service, and then Liz and I handed out a tulip to each mourner who wanted one, and people had the chance to put their tulip in the grave and say goodbye.

I say "grave," but it was a very small hole, just large enough for the ugly brown plastic temporary urn. The urn looked better covered with tulips -- and Mom wouldn't have wanted us to spend money on a fancy urn (and wouldn't have much cared what we did with her in any case) -- but when I put my flower in, I started sobbing. I got a lot of hugs.

It was very hard for me to walk away from the hole. We'd brought Mom back to her parents and back to the town where she, and we, grew up, but it was hard for me to leave her there. Even though I knew rationally that the contents of the box weren't her, exactly, and that I wasn't abandoning her, I felt like I was.

We all wended our way to a restaurant my uncle had chosen, which we had to ourselves and which had excellent food. Liz and I handed around two photo albums we'd put together the night before (skimming through thousands of family photos to find good ones of Mom), and I gave out the small packets of jewelry I'd put together for the women. I think people appreciated that. I gave one to the priest for his wife, too, and he kept saying, "She'll love this! She loves jewelry! This is a first!"

I hope the men weren't offended that I didn't have anything for them, but as Val put it when I spoke to her on the phone today, "Your mom collected jewelry and cats," and I didn't think the guys would want cats to take home, even if my sister had been willing to part with any of her furry herd. In any case, my attitude was, "I'm one of the chief mourners here and I'm going to do what I want," which may have been selfish but seemed to work out fine.

It was a nice party. I loved seeing everybody, even though I hated the occasion.

After the meal -- truly delicious! -- immediate family went back to my uncle's house. We chatted for a while, and then the Philly van headed south again.

By now it was pouring. Riding home, I realized that my irritability before the funeral, when I was snapping at everyone I talked to, had been replaced by complete exhaustion. I cried some in the van, picturing Mom's tiny grave without anyone there to keep it company. (As you can already tell, my Zen-like equanimity of the previous day or two had definitely evaporated.) When we finally got home to Philly, I had some tea and went to bed fairly early.

Gary and I slept about twelve hours last night. When I went downstairs, Liz was lying on her back in the middle of the living-room floor. I asked her if she was all right, and she said that she was fine, just unable to focus even after three cups of coffee.

I packed. We ate a large lunch. I packed some more. We left for the airport. Liz and I had a long hug goodbye, and she touched my memorial pendant and said, "Take good care of Mom." (Having the necklace slightly eased the pain of walking away from the grave.) I'm now blogging from the departure lounge, where there's free WiFi. Gary and I have a very long trip ahead of us. By some miracle, I was reassigned to an aisle seat, rather than a middle one, for the Philly-San Francisco leg, and I'm going to try to use the time to get some work done, since I have nine-plus papers to grade before Monday.

Time to get back to real life.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Picking Up and Packing Up

Yesterday Liz and I picked up Mom's cremains. She's in a temporary urn -- an ugly brown plastic box -- but the funeral home puts everything in pretty blue-and-white shopping bags.

We picked up my memorial pendant, too. Although I'd been kicking myself about how much it cost, I actually really love it, and I'm glad I got it. It's a lovely piece: very heavy, probably mostly solid silver, a heart-shaped loop with two silver bales (which to me can symbolize either my mother and her two daughters, or me and my two parents). A tiny bit of Mom's ashes are inside, although I can't see them. It makes me feel closer to her. I also now have in my purse four of her pillboxes, three of which I gave her when she had breast cancer in 1988 so she could keep her various chemotherapy meds organized at work (she worked through almost her entire treatment). One of the pillboxes, a small, intricately etched silver cylinder, now has a lock of her hair in it: Liz and I each took a lock after she died. So I'm well-furnished in the reliquary category!

After we picked up the cremains, we picked up Gary at the airport. "Mom's waiting in the trunk of the car," we told him. My family uses black humor during times of stress.

Last night, Liz and I plowed through most of her clothing and handbags: two dressers, three closets and several boxloads. Liz didn't want much clothing, but I took a lot. We collected five large Hefty bags of stuff -- along with a few smaller shopping bags -- and we'll be dropping those at a shipping place today so they can be mailed to Reno. I'm going to pay to have them pack the stuff up for me; some of it's fragile (we found a few boxes of Mom's beloved ceramics and glass, still unpacked from when she moved in with my sister seventeen years ago), and having other people do the work will be less stressful for us. I have no idea where I'm going to put everything in Reno, but I'll figure that out when the time comes. The boxes can live in the garage with a lot of Dad's stuff, if necessary.

I'm using one of Mom's old handbags as a carry-on to hold all the jewelry. Gary arrived with only one carry-on to my two, so he can take an extra one.

Right now, Liz and Lloyd are picking up the rental van for tomorrow. When they get back, Liz and I will drop the bags off at the shipping place. Then we'll come back and start going through photographs. We haven't even touched Mom's extensive art collection yet -- she has a tremendous amount of work from her parents -- but that can wait if it has to.

Gary commented this morning, "You always predicted that you'd be a basket case when your mother died, but you don't seem to be." At the moment, I'm not; I'm feeling pretty peacful and even periodically joyous. My parents are out of pain, and Liz and I can get on with our lives. But I'm sure I'll cycle through many emotions over the coming months.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Slowing Down

Today was relatively relaxed for me. I slept late, ate breakfast, put together jewelry sets for the women who'll be at the funeral and a few who won't be -- great fun! -- and chatted with my nephew Owen, who came over today and will stay here until after the funeral. He only lives a few miles away, but it's still nice to have him in the house. He and I got to comparing laptops, and I was inspired to download the free Kindle app for PCs. I purchased a book by one of my favorite writers, Geoff Ryman, only to learn that the story starts on April 11. Since that's the day Mom died, the coincidence was a little eerie. Kindle for PC isn't an ideal reading experience, but it's better than an ereader for my BlackBerry would be.

I also just finished a pair of socks for a friend's husband; next, I'm going to take a break from gift knitting and make a pair for myself.

Our friend Ken, who introduced me and Gary and who's incredibly good about doing gigantic favors, is going to pick Gary's mother up in Livingston on Friday and drive her up to Englewood for the funeral (and then to the restaurant, and then home). This is a huge relief, because Doris can't drive and was planning to take a taxi for the fifty-minute ride, if she had to. Yikes! My cousin Val and her husband Bruce, the ones I visited in Amherst this summer, are also coming to the funeral, as is my friend Claire. So it will be a lovely reunion on all kinds of levels. Owen's girlfriend of five months wants to come too -- I'll finally get to meet her! -- so Liz and Lloyd are renting a van so they, Gary and I, and Owen and Kimmy will all fit in the same car.

What else? I was pretty calm today until, looking through some of Mom's dresser drawers, I came upon the quviut scarf I knit for her for Christmas 2008. Then I completely lost it and came downstairs, sobbing, until Liz stopped the vacuum cleaner to give me a hug.

Liz cleaned like a maniac all day. There's more to do tomorrow, but she made great progress. I helped a little bit -- namely by de-pilling two newly washed blankets (a bit of a challege, since each blanket sported an especially large, fluffy, and unwilling-to-budge pill in the form of a purring feline) -- but cleaning's not my strong suit, so Owen and I mainly tried to stay out of Liz's way.

Tomorrow: We have to go through photos for the funeral. I hope to fit in a gym visit and/or a haircut before we pick Gary up at 4:00, but that's probably over-ambitious.

And now to start a sock of my very own!

Monday, April 12, 2010


Today my sister and I went through Mom's jewelry (or most of it, anyway). I've mentioned before that shopping for jewelry was a favorite shared activity. Mom had been at it longer than her daughters, and had amassed a huge collection.

She kept the jewelry in many decorative boxes on and in her dresser. We started going box by box, dumping each out on the bed and divvying up the contents before moving to the next. This was a lot of fun; we both imagined Mom watching us and beaming, since she loved showing off her stash and had often told us, "You two can fight over my jewelry when I die." There wasn't any fighting, though. Each of us really wanted a few particular things, which the other happily granted. We spent a lot of the rest of the time trying to convince the other to take one piece or another: "Come on, that looks really good on you, you should take it," or "Mom would want you to have that one," or "You gave that to Mom, so you should have it."

The pieces I really wanted were:

* A sterling pin/pendant, with intricate cut-outs and etching, that I acquired for a song in junior high or high school -- I could afford it on my allowance! -- and gave to Mom for Christmas. I'd noticed it right away in our favorite jewelry store, and I was thrilled and disbelieving when I could actually afford it, and I was even more thrilled when she loved it as much as I did. And after all these years, I still love it.

* A carved-bone cat-head pendant I bought for her on Maui.

* A chunky gold-link bracelet with two charms on it. One is Mom's 90-Day pin from AA; the other is a gold locket with tiny photographs of me and my sister. Mom got sober in 1964, after twenty years of alcoholism, so she wouldn't lose access to us. To me, the bracelet symbolizes the fact that we were her reason for sobering up. Tonight I told Liz, "You know, we saved her life," and Liz allowed as how I was right, although she'd never thought about it that way. I hardly ever wear gold, and this bracelet really isn't my style, but I'm wearing it now, and I cherish it.

So those were my must-have pieces, but Mom had a lot of jewelry, so I also wound up with: a ton of gorgeous earrings in all kinds of styles, my father's gold Coast Guard cufflinks, a large variety of beaded necklaces Mom had strung herself, her own mother's baby bracelet (Mom's mom died when Mom was twelve, so I never knew her), a gorgeous jade bracelet and necklace set we think may have belonged to Mom's grandmother, a sterling art deco necklace, several beautiful and very unusual silver pins and pendants with a variety of stones, and a silver ring she particularly loved. Also all the pretty little boxes she'd kept everything in, because my sister has no patience for pretty little boxes. Also the sagebrush sachet I'd made and sent her for Christmas when we first moved to Reno in 1997: she'd kept it in a drawer, and it still smells great!

Mind you, Liz had at least that much stuff too, and we'd put at least that much again aside as pieces neither of us adored. Mom and her home healthcare aide, Lucille, shared a love of jewelry, so Liz wanted Lucille to be able to pick some things out. We removed our own picks and spread the rest out on the bed so Lucille would be able to see it more easily.

When we were done, I felt bereft. It broke my heart to see Mom's dresser without all the pretty little boxes on it, and to think that she'd never buy herself any more jewelry. "I always thought Mom's jewelry was inexhaustible," I told Liz, "and I thought Mom was, too. But neither of them was."

"That's a good way of putting it," she said.

Lucille came over, admired everything, and carried away a small shopping bag of goodies (along with nine boxes of Depends, which her current client can use). She told us funny stories about looking through clothing catalogs with Mom, amiably arguing about whether something was blue or purple. She told us how particular Mom was about matching her jewelry and clothing, how proud Mom was at the end when she managed to dress and adorn herself without help. She told us how proud Mom was of us, how much she talked about us. "I have two good daughters. They're a blessing to me." She laughed about Mom's directness. "She didn't hold anything back!"

She also told me that near the end, when Mom's dementia was worsening, she had lots of conversations with me when I wasn't actually present. I asked Lucille what these conversations were about, but she didn't know. "She talked to you all the time, though."

I wish I knew what she said! Maybe I'll find out, someday. For years, when Mom was in good health, we spoke on the phone every day. Lately we hadn't done that: my conversations with her were so short and one-sided that I grew to dread calling. Maybe she never had anything to tell me because she thought she'd told me already; maybe the dementia conversations filled in for the actual ones we weren't having.

After Lucille left, we went out for dinner to a place Mom liked, because all of us needed a break from the house. When we got back, Liz and I settled down to divvying up the jewelry Lucille hadn't taken. We got pretty punchy pretty quickly, and wound up each taking a lot of stuff we don't think we'll wear, to give as gifts to friends who will.

Then I noticed a bedside table with a large lower compartment. "I wonder what's in here?" I opened the compartment. "Oh, no! Liz, there's more!"

More pretty little boxes. Cross-eyed by now, we pulled them out and started sorting. They weren't as full as the others, and contained mostly inexpensive costume jewelry Mom hadn't worn any more, which is why they'd been in storage. There were a few good pieces, though.

Underneath all the pretty little boxes was a stack of paper. "What's all this?" I said, lifting it out, and immediately recognized a printout from my college computer center. The stack contained copies of college papers and stories I'd sent Mom, along with some letters, notably a really embarrassing one I sent her about a half-baked date I went on; I can't believe I told my mother that stuff! Poor Mom. Children don't want to hear about their parents' love lives, but I doubt Mom wanted to hear that much about mine, either. She always said with a sigh, whenever she compared me and Liz, "I have one daughter who tells me everything and another who tells me nothing." Guess which one I was?

I was avidly rereading the old letters when Liz announced that she was going to bed. And now, having blogged far too much today, I'll do the same.

Still to come: Clothing. Shoes. Wall decorations.


I think I've mentioned that in the last few hours of my father's life, he repeatedly lifted his hand and made a motion as if he were reaching for and twisting a doorknob. The day before Mom died, she lifted her hand and made a very distinct, deliberate knocking gesture.

When our cat Phoebe died, Harley searched for her all over the house. Periodically, he'd scratch at a closet door, which is what he does when another cat's trapped in there and he wants us to let the other cat out. Gary, watching this behavior, said, "We're sorry, Harley. She's behind a door we can't open."

Mom and Dad are behind a door I can't open, yet. When I cross that threshold, I hope they'll be waiting for me.


Someone just asked if we have a preferred charity for memorial donations.

My mother loved animals above all things (even more than jewelry!). She mourned the loss of her cherished cats at least as much as that of people, and she couldn't hear about hardship or cruelty inflicted on any animal without feeling the pain in her own body. When my cat Bali was sick as a very small kitten and had to go to Animal Emergency in the middle of the night in Reno, Mom cried herself to sleep in Philadelphia, and she hadn't even met Bali yet; she'd only seen his photograph on my blog.

Therefore, Liz and I would be pleased for gifts in loving memory of Helen Palwick to be made to the Humane Society of the United States.

Thank you so much!


Everything's coming together. I made the funeral arrangements this morning: on Friday, Mom's cremains will be buried in Brookside Cemetery in Englewood NJ, the town where she grew up. She'll be with her parents in a family plot. It's a beautiful cemetery, a few blocks from where we lived when I was a kid, with a lot of old trees and a realio trulio babbling brook. My friends and I used to play there; my sister went there sometimes to do homework. So we all have associations with the place.

On Wednesday, Gary will fly in from Reno and my cousin Ken will fly in from Phoenix; Gary and I are on the same flights going home on Saturday, which will be very convenient even though we aren't sitting together. Gary's mother wants to come to the funeral if possible, so I'm working on transportation for her. We'll have the service in the early afternoon and then all go out to a nice restaurant.

One of my tasks, as the only currently religious person in the family, was to line up clergy willing to do a funeral without talking about God, or at least without talking much about God. I called the church in town where my mother went to AA meetings and was referred to a pastoral associate who told me, with what sounded like real regret, that he'd love to do it, but Friday was the one day he couldn't, because he was attending a conference. I told him I'd try other folks: I'd gotten several names from the Pastoral Care Department at Englewood Hospital.

But a few minutes later he called back and said, "You know what? I'd rather do your mother's funeral, so I'm going to cancel the conference."

"But you've never even met us!"

"No, no, it's a clergy conference, and you have no idea how boring those are. I'd much rather do your mother's funeral. It would be a privilege." Turns out he's in AA too; he was tremendously moved by what I shared of my mother's story and asked me all kinds of questions about her and about the family so he can personalize his comments as much as possible. He also promised to be brief! I told him that he was more than welcome at the restaurant afterwards and asked him what he charged.

"Oh, sweetheart, I don't charge anything."

Jeez! We're going to give him something anyway, but I was blown away by how warm and kind and generous he is. If only all clergy were like that! He was also very accepting of the "BCP lite" concept, and laughed heartily when I quoted some of my mother's remarks about religion, like, "How can anyone believe that nonsense?"

"Oh," he said cheerfully, "she might fit right into the Episcopal Church!"

It felt good to be able to make myself useful by getting all that set up. Meanwhile, my sister found some places to donate Mom's medical equipment and supplies. We're still looking for a place in Philly that will take partially used meds, as the homeless outreach clinic in Reno does. If anyone has any leads on that, please let us know.

I'm wearing some of Mom's clothes today. I know she'd be happy to see me in them.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Day Mom Died

Mom died at 7:20 Eastern Daylight Time this morning. Last night, I wound up sleeping for hours on a couch in one of the family lounges; Liz catnapped in the recliner next to Mom's bed, and was with her all night. If anything, she seemed better first thing this morning than she had last night: her extremities were warmer, and she looked like she was sleeping peacefully. We consulted with the nurses, who thought Mom still had more time left and said it would be fine for us to go down to the cafeteria for breakfast; they'd call us if her condition changed.

We went downstairs and pigged out on lukewarm steamtable eggs and sausage. As we were coming back upstairs at 7:20, Liz's cell rang. I heard her say, "Yes, we're coming back upstairs now," and then -- her eyes widened, her voice disbelieving -- "she passed?" Mom's nurse had gone in to check on her at the end of the shift; she was still the same. For some reason, just a few minutes later the nurse decided to look in on her again before going home, and in that brief interval, she'd died.

One of the last times I visited Philly -- I don't remember if it was at Christmas or during the previous summer -- Mom and I were talking about death, and I asked her if she felt like she was dying. She said she didn't. I asked her to let me know if she ever thought she was, and she said she would.

Yesterday, when she could barely speak at all and when we were never sure we'd heard her correctly, both Liz and I thought we heard her say, "Susan, I'm going to die." A few minutes later, she said, much more distinctly, "Tomorrow!" At the time, I interpreted this as her meaning that she was going to die today; Liz wasn't sure.

Now I think I was right, and I think she was keeping the promise she made all those months ago. And if she died without anyone in the room, not even a nurse, well, I have to believe that's how she wanted it.

So, anyway, Liz and I cried, and all the nurses hugged us, and the doctor who'd treated Mom on the medical floor, before she was admitted to hospice, stopped by and hugged us and told us he'd phoned her primary-care doc, who'd been taking care of her for years. Then the funeral home came to get her and we said goodbye, since she'll be cremated, and we watched them wheel Mummy Mommy out of the room.

We came home to the house, sobbed some more, had lunch, and went to the funeral home, where I used too much of the estate's money (although I did offer to pay for it myself) to purchase a memorial pendant containing a smidgen of her ashes. Morbid, I know, but my sister and BIL were very kind about it. Now I'm kicking myself, since I'll have a lot of Mom's own jewelry, pieces intensely meaningful to both of us and prettier than this thing. Maybe I'll put it on a keyring or something.

Anyway, everybody's been really nice all day, although I find myself equally impatient with long-winded condolences and perfunctory ones. The nurses, last night and this morning, sang our praises as supportive and accepting family members. One of them said she told Mom, "You're lucky to have such great daughters." I've gotten some lovely e-mail notes from friends, which are about all I can handle right now. I'm not fit to be in human company.

So now we're going back and forth about the service. There's a family plot up in Englewood NJ, where Mom grew up and lived for years after Dad divorced her. We want to bury her cremains there. Nobody wants a memorial service in a church or funeral home, so we want to do something simple at the graveside. I suggested that everyone just say a few words, but Liz's husband said that Mom had liked a very brief, simple, non-religious Episcopal service we had for her father ("BCP lite for atheists," as I call it), so I need to call the Episcopal Church in Englewood and see if they have someone willing to do a funeral without mentioning God, since I'm the only religious person in the family at this point. I told Liz I could do BCP lite myself, if we could find a prayer book, but she said someone else should do it so I can concentrate on being the daughter, which makes sense.

So we'll do graveside BCP lite followed by a meal somewhere. I don't know if any of my friends would come from NYC or not; I'd like them to if they want to, but Liz kind of wants just family. We still have to hash that out. And I want Gary there, but feel guilty asking him to fly out for BCP lite in a graveyard, even though we've had a long-standing understanding that he'd travel for my mother's funeral, as I did for his father's.

So I'm all muddled right now, and generally snappish. Oh, and my BlackBerry's power outlet is loose, or something, so it won't recharge reliably, but it's no longer under warranty and the upgrade phones aren't equipped for an extended battery. I probably shouldn't have tried to deal with that annoyance today, but Liz and Lloyd had to pick up their taxes and the Verizon place was right there.

One of L&L's cats is dying; in fact, they expected him to predecease Mom by a good bit. He's lying on my lap now, raggedy and a bit smelly, but warm and purring. I think he's trying to comfort me, or else he misses Mom and wants me to comfort him. Or else he's just the same slut for affection he's always been.

Anyway, I trust I'll be more coherent tomorrow. Oh, the photo at the top of the page is my favorite picture of Mom when she was young -- before I was born -- and it's how I'd like to imagine her wherever she ended up. And here's a photo of her back in 2007, the last time she came out to visit us in Reno.

I miss you, Mom. I hope you know how much I love you. I hope you know how much you mean to me.

The one grace is that it's a gorgeous spring day here, warm and sunny with abundant blossoms. Mom would be delighted.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Blogging from the Hospital

I had a lovely long sleep last night, followed by a lovely large breakfast my brother-in-law cooked for me, followed by a lovely long hot shower.

The rest of the day was less tired than yesterday, but more teary. Liz and I showed up at the hospital to find Mom pretty unresponsive. I sat next to her, holding her hand and stroking her hair and weeping, while I told her over and over how much I love her and talked about various childhood moments I remembered: trips we took, my first day of kindergarten (a half day starting in the afternoon) when she held me on her lap all morning as I asked every thirty seconds, "Is it time to go to school yet?"

Liz sat in the family room during a lot of that. Around noon, Mom became a bit more responsive -- also more restless -- and we both talked to her and touched her and tried to make her more comfortable, a task at which Liz seemed much better than I. (Well, Liz has been living with her for seventeen years now.)

At some point the hospice doc showed up, examined Mom very briefly and gently, and said that her guess would be that Mom had about half a day left.

I was still really teary when my uncle and cousin and nephew and BIL showed up. My uncle took us out for a lovely sushi lunch, and then we went back to the hospital. (Before lunch, I'd had a crying jag on Liz's shoulder, and Liz and her son and I cried together too.)

Everyone but Liz and I said bye to Mom and left; the two of us resumed talking-and-touching duty. At one point Mom became very agitated; we tried various things to calm her, with mixed success, and she wound up bellowing at me, but not Liz, to get out of the room. I fled into the hall, where Mom's nurse gave me a pep talk. "Don't take it personally!" Later, I went back in and she seemed fine with my being there.

In the meantime, the nurse had called the doctor and gotten Mom's morphine dosage upped (to every hour instead of every two) because of the agitation.

Liz and I decided to spend the night at the hospital. We went downstairs for a quick cafeteria dinner, and then her husband brought us our meds and toothbrushes.

Liz is lying down on the couch in the family room. I'm stretched out on the recliner in Mom's room, trying to rest my back, which has had a hard day of it being twisted into pretzel-like positions at Mom's bedside. (I also took some Advil.). Mom's asleep, and seems peaceful.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Tired and Teary

I took another pretty picture of Liz's garden, but Blogger keeps eating it. Who knows?

Anyway, I arrived on time this morning after a smooth trip; I even managed to doze a bit, although I was in a middle seat. Liz and I went straight to the hospital. Last night, Mom was unresponsive and had been given forty-eight hours to live; this morning, she seemed to be much better, awake and oriented and alert, cracking jokes, much more her old self.

As the day progressed, though, she got worse again. She ate a little breakfast but no lunch, although she's still drinking water. Although she had some moments of lucidity, she spent most of the time sleeping and engaged in a lot of what palliative-care folks call "terminal restlessness:" throwing off the bedclothes, jerking her head or hands spasmodically, picking at her hospital gown, reptitively reaching up to wipe her lips, hair and face. Twice while I was there -- from about seven in the morning to four in the afternoon -- the nurses gave her morphine to calm her down. She was sleeping soundly when I left.

Liz and I met the palliative-care doctor, who feels that Mom's absolutely in the right place, and who -- when I followed her into the hallway to ask about possible timeframes, a question she'd clearly been expecting -- said, "My gut sense is a couple of days, a week at the outside. But I've been wrong before."

Her gut sense matches mine and Liz's; Liz and I wouldn't be surprised, in fact, if Mom died in the next twenty-four hours. Mom was looking and acting very, very much like Dad in the day or two before he died. Even Liz noticed the similarity between photos of Dad I'd sent her during that time and how Mom looked today.

So we think this is it. If it's not, Mom can stay in this inpatient hospice unit for up to six months with insurance coverage. Yay! The unit itself is quite lovely: there are homey touches in each room, like curtains on the windows and real bedside lamps and brightly colored lap afghans crocheted by volunteers. There are several lounges with couches where friends or family can sleep; there's also a recliner next to each bedside, and I spent quite a while napping in that today while Mom was napping in her bed. There's a kitchen with several microwaves and a fridge where families can keep special things for patients or themselves. Loved ones have 24/7 access to the unit -- no limitations on visiting hours -- and there are interesting programs like an art-therapy gruop for people who've been bereaved and a movie discussion group for the same population. We met an art-therapy intern who stopped by to introduce herself.

So I give the place high marks. My only quibble is that Mom has a roommate. I spent some time talking to this lady, who was lonely and had been crying out for her children (a daughter had visited earlier in the day, but had to leave to go to work), and I told the nurse when she asked for cranberry juice. While I'm glad I could help her, I also don't think it's fair for her to have to listen to Mom's dying process or for Mom to have to listen to hers, or for either family not to be guaranteed privacy with their loved one.

But we don't live in a perfect world. Space is limited all over, and this unit is already so much nicer than most of the places Mom could have wound up that my main feeling -- and my sister's -- is sheer gratitude that it exists.

I told Mom over and over today that I loved her and what a wonderful mother she is. When Liz went home to take care of some other family business, I stayed, and gave Mom permission to leave if she needs to. I promised her that while we'll always miss and love her, we'll be okay, because she's given the ultimate motherly gift of equipping her children to survive without her.

At the time, I wondered if I should have waited for Liz to be there before I said any of that, but when I told Liz later, she was glad I'd said it, because she'd wanted to and hadn't been able to.

Liz and I left around five -- we're both exhausted -- to come home for a very nice dinner her husband had fixed for us. After dinner, Liz gave me some things from my stepmother's apartment, and then we went upstairs and lay on Mom's bed and cried about how much we'll miss her, and what in the world are we going to do with all her shoes and pictures and figurines and . . . it's impossible to look anywhere in the house without seeing something she made, something that was originally hers, something she gave us or we gave her.

Then we dried our tears, and Liz went downstairs to relax a bit before bed, and I came into the guestroom to blog. Both of us have outfits laid out next to our beds, so that if the hospital calls in the middle of the night and says that Mom's going downhill quickly, we can get dressed right away and get over there.

I really hope that doesn't happen.

Tomorrow my uncle, Mom's brother, and one of my cousins will drive down from northern Jeresey to see Mom and us. Another cousin may fly in from Phoenix; he hasn't decided yet. Gary's standing by in case he needs to fly here out for a funeral. Liz and I talked a little today about researching funeral homes and about cremation versus embalming, but we haven't decided anything yet. It feels like a betrayal even to think about this stuff, although we both know it's necessary; we're both hoping for the "miraculous recovery" even the palliative-care doctor acknowledged to be possible.

I just hope I can get a full night's sleep tonight.

Liz's Garden 1

As you can see, it's Spring here in Philadelphia!

Liz's Garden 2

Thursday, April 08, 2010

"Come Now"

My sister signed a DNR for Mom amd got her enrolled in an in-hospital hospice. The palliative-care doc says I should "come now." I'm catching a flight to San Fransisco at 5:30 this afternoon, and from there taking a red-eye that will get me into Philadelphia at 6:05 tomorrow morning.

Gotta go pack.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Here We Go Again

My mother's back in the hospital after what may have been a seizure. My sister hasn't had time to give me the full details -- the first time we spoke, I only had a few minutes, and the second time we spoke, she'd just gotten back from the ER and was exhausted -- but I gather that Mom's been going downhill and that her medical condition is very complex. The hospital will keep her for at least three days so she can be released to a nursing home, where, according to my sister, "She's likely to stay."

My sister and brother-in-law have been doing a heroic job caring for her. If they can no longer do that, I completely understand. In the meantime, please pray for her and them and me.

She wasn't entirely coherent in the ER, but when I said, "I love you," she said, "I love you, too."

I think that will be the last thing to go.


Monday, April 05, 2010

Rethinking Neediness

My latest Hope and Healing column is up. Coincidentally (or not) my friend Wendy Smith, a Seattle therapist who specializes in working with people coming to terms with disability or illness, just posted an essay that comes to very similar conclusions.

Great minds think alike!

Easter Monday

The homily went fine; I don't think other people enjoyed it quite as much as I did, but they seemed generally cheerful and appreciative.

Easter morning I slept in -- until afternoon, actually -- and got in some fiddle practice and writing before we went to our friend Katharine's house for Easter dinner. That was a lovely time followed by a lovely viola recital (by a masters student whose committee I'm on).

Last night I slept terribly, probably because I'd had a cup of coffee pretty late at Katharine's, but I got up around seven and, once again, practiced and wrote before finishing my class prep for today. We'd gotten snow overnight, so the world was white when I woke up!

When I got home from work I edited the chapter I finished this morning -- I now have 180 of 300 manuscript pages, although they'll all need revision -- and printed it out so Gary can read it after I go to bed tonight. When he's approved it, I'll show it to my friends Jim and Sharon.

In fiddle news, the violin sounds so much better in damper climates (Honolulu, Philadelphia . . . anywhere's damper than Reno!) that I invested in a humidifier for my study, where I keep the fiddle. It's already sounding a little better. I also bought a Dampit for inside the violin; I'd expected that to arrive today, but it didn't. Tomorrow, I guess. But I'm already enjoying practicing more, because the tone's better. And I'm finally making progress on the new bowing Charlene gave me for the jig I've been working on since Christmas. Yay!

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Preaching as Performance Art

In a sudden burst of inspiration after posting the homily this morning, I decided to dress up as a fisherman to be in role. I'm going to wear rubber boots -- acquired, after several hours of searching, at WalMart, where otherwise I never shop -- a fishing vest, a windbreaker, and a hat. At the dollar store, I bought a toy butterfly net in which I'll tote a large, brightly colored stuffed trout, a dog toy acquired at PetSmart.

I'm bringing a small table and a frying pan. Before I give the homily, I'll pretend to clean the fish and start frying it on the "fire". After the homily, I'll wish everyone a Happy Easter and offer them fish, removing the toy fish and the paper towel under it to reveal Swedish Fish and Pretzel Goldfish, depending on whether folks want their fish sweet or salty.

What fun! I wasted far too much time today planning all this and shopping for it, but hey: it's my own personal Easter celebration!

I'll let you know how it goes. In a lot of parishes, I'd be thrown out on my ear for doing something like this, but I think my congregation's sufficiently zany to enjoy it.

And best of all, this means I don't need to iron anything to wear for Easter. Woo-hoo!

The Gospel According to Peter

Here's my homily for the Great Vigil of Easter tonight. I love this service, the oldest liturgy in the church, and I've preached it four times now. This is the second time I've used the time-honored tradition of midrash, telling a story to answer a question raised by the text, Luke 24:1-12 (NRSV):
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
In my homily, I tried to answer the question, "Why was Peter the only one of the men who went to the tomb?"

This was great fun to write; I composed the draft in about three hours after our Good Friday service last night (anemic, I have to say: I prefer the midday three-hour immersion approach), and revised it this morning. I hope you enjoy it.

May you and yours have a blessed Eastertide!


So, you want to hear the story from Peter himself. You want me to tell you what really happened. I’m not sure I can. Everybody who was there has a different story, you know. Even right after the women got back from the tomb, none of them said the same thing. Mary, Jesus’ mother, kept babbling, “He’s alive, he’s alive!” and the other Mary told anyone who’d listen, “We saw angels, two of them, they lit up the tomb,” and Joanna was crying so hard she couldn’t talk, and the others, well, a lot of them were just terrified. Some of the women thought the Romans had stolen the body to deface it, and most of us men thought the soldiers would come after us next.

I don’t think any two people had the same story about what happened, because no two of us had the same relationship with Jesus. So the only story I can tell you is my own.

We’d all scattered after the arrest. We men didn’t even go to the execution, because we were afraid of the soldiers. We stayed near town, though, to see what happened. The women, they went to Golgotha -- the soldiers wouldn’t arrest women -- and afterwards they came back, weeping. We were camped outside town, all huddled together like the sheep he’d so often called us. Mary, pale but steady, said, “My son is dead. All of you were his closest friends. Stay and mourn with us. We don’t have him anymore. We only have each other. Please don’t leave.”

It broke our hearts. How she could even stand upright, after what she’d seen? Of course we stayed, and the women took care of us and of each other, and when the time came, they took the spices to the tomb to make sure he was buried proper-like.

I was still asleep when the women ran back to camp. We were lying together in a heap for warmth and comfort. I’d fallen asleep mourning my Lord, curled around the worst pain I’d ever felt, and the next thing I knew, Mary was shaking me and yelling, “Peter, Peter, you have to wake up! The most wonderful thing has happened! He’s alive! My son’s alive!”

Well, they ran around shaking all of us -– although Matthew told me later he’d startled awake all on his own, convinced the Romans had come –- and as groggy and heavy as we were, we couldn’t make out what they meant. You know how you feel when you’ve been crying for hours, your heart shattered stone? It takes a while for anything to sink in, even about something simple like breakfast, let alone anything as outlandish as what the women were saying.

We finally pieced it together: Angels. An empty tomb. Jesus’ foretelling that he’d rise again after three days. “He’s alive!” Mary sang, over and over. “He isn’t dead! He’s risen!”

John crawled over a pile of blankets to reach me and whispered, “Of course she wants to believe he’s alive. He’s her son. She’s hysterical, seeing things.” The others were muttering about idle tales, women’s gossip, and I found myself getting furious with all of them.

“He did say he’d rise again!” I told them. “Everything else has come true! Everything else he ever said! We’ve all seen more miracles than we can count. Why not this?”

Why was I the only one who believed the women? I’ve thought about that a lot. I think the others were too scared to hope, to let themselves believe. If they believed, if they allowed themselves that much joy, they’d only have their hearts ripped out again if it turned out not to be true. Watching the arrest, hearing about the crucifixion –- I can’t put that pain into words. If you’ve ever felt anything like it, you know what I’m talking about. Who’d ask for that again?

I was different, though. The angels had told the women to remember Jesus’ prophecy that he’d come back. I remembered, all too vividly, a more recent one. He’d told me that I’d deny him three times, and I had. It was the last thing I’d ever thought I’d do. I thought I loved him more than my own life, that I’d never turn my back on him. But when the Romans cracked down -– well, I cracked, too. To this day, I’m ashamed whenever I hear a cock crow.

So I was entirely ready to believe anything else he’d said, especially if it meant he’d come back. I needed him alive. Oh, we all needed him alive, but I needed him to forgive me for deserting him like that. I needed him to forgive me in person. I needed to tell him I loved him. I needed to say it to his face, not just cast the words up to heaven.

So I ran to the tomb just as fast as I could, ready to see the bright light in that dark place, the glowing angels the women had talked about. I didn’t see angels, or any light at all; the messengers had left by then. Instead I saw linen cloths, just lying there in a heap, the way my blankets were lying back at camp. I stared at those strips of linen and worked the thing through in my mind. If somebody had stolen the body, would they have taken the time to take off the winding cloths right there in the tomb? I didn’t think so. I thought thieves would have grabbed what they were after and run away from that tomb as quickly as I’d run towards it.

Where had I seen cloths like that before? Lazarus, that was it! Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, and he’d told the crowd to help Lazarus by unwinding the funeral linens. But the man –- excuse me, the Son of God –- who’d raised Lazarus didn’t need any help from anybody getting his own funeral linens off. He’d done it all by himself.

That’s when I believed.

I didn’t say anything to the others, though, not right then. I’d seen Jesus’ funeral linens, but I hadn’t seen him. As happy as I was, I was still sick over what I’d done. Would he abandon me because I’d abandoned him? Was I even worthy to talk to the others? I believed in Jesus all right, but I didn’t believe in myself anymore. I didn’t think I ever would again.

Of course, the women hadn’t seen him either –- that was what started the ruckus -– and later I remembered that the angels had said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Well, sure. The Son of God wasn’t going to hang around in a tomb. He wasn’t going to wait to talk to the guy who’d deserted him. He had better things to do. He was probably hob-hobbing with all the prophets, the way I’d seen him do on that mountaintop, except that now he could talk to them without having me ask stupid questions about building houses so we could stay there. Jesus didn’t need me, even if I needed him. Of course he didn’t. I’d only gotten in his way.

I had myself completely convinced that he hated me by the time I did see him again. He didn’t show up in a blaze of glory. He showed up in simple things: breaking bread, cooking fish. He made breakfast for us -– for me. Me, of all people! He cooked me fish, and he asked three times if I loved him, and three times I told him with all my heart that I did, to erase the three times when I’d acted like I didn’t. And each time he smiled and said, “Feed my sheep.”

Jesus loved me after all. And he needed me. That was the most amazing thing. The Son of God who’d risen from the dead needed me to do his work. Not because he couldn’t have fed his sheep -– how many people had he fed by then? –- but so we’d be more like him, so there’d be more love in the world. That was what he wanted, always: more love. He trusted me, me, to love his sheep, even though I hadn’t done a very good job of loving him when things got bad.

So that’s my story. Oh, a lot of people still scoff at the resurrection. Some of them tell me to my face I’m a liar, tell me I have to be simple in the head to believe something like that. They’ve never seen Christ, they say. And I’m sure they haven’t, not yet: but that’s because they’re looking in the wrong places. They’re looking among the dead, not the living, looking in fancy stone buildings or up into the empty air.

I can see Jesus now anytime I want, and so can you. Just look for somebody doing something simple to help someone else. Cooking breakfast, say, or bathing a child, or quietly telling the bosses that they don’t have the right to step on other people. Look for a group of people, and then find the one who’s helping or healing -– without any fuss, like it’s not a big deal at all –- and you’ve found him.

What happened taught me something else, too. When you feel like you’ve done something awful, like you’ve abandoned God and yourself -- when you feel like the worst person who’s ever lived -- that’s when you’ll see him, if you look. That’s when he knows you need him, when you don’t believe in yourself anymore. He believes in you. Maybe you don’t think he can; I sure didn’t think he could. But just listen: he’ll ask you to do God’s work, to feed his sheep, and he wouldn’t give that job to anyone he didn’t trust.

So yes, he’s risen, all right. And if you don’t believe it, well, just go ahead and do the work anyway. You’ll never go wrong making somebody breakfast.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Deja VA

Tonight was our monthly Literature & Medicine discussion group at the VA. I've been to the VA a bunch of times since Dad died, and it's never bothered me. But tonight I got sideswiped by vivid memories of riding with him in those elevators, of pushing his wheelchair along those hallways. A passing cart of meal trays triggered memories of feeding him the pureed food he hated. The smell of the hospital brought back in a rush the many hours, some surprisingly happy, I'd spent there with him.

Needless to say, I was teary-eyed by the time I got to the conference room where the Lit&Med group meets. Someone gave me a hug, which helped, and once we got into the discussion I was fine.

A friend of mine who's a therapist told me that she thinks the second year after a death is harder than the first. I hope not! I've been rereading The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion's memoir of the year after her husband's death; I'm teaching it in my grad seminar next week. She talks about "the vortex," riptides of memory sweeping her from seemingly innocuous associations to hauntingly painful ones. Reading about her vortices may have primed me for mine. Also, in honor of April Fool's Day, it snowed off and on all day here, and I've been chilly since this morning, which may have made me more emotionally vulnerable.

Or it might just have happened anyway.

The VA discussion was lively and fascinating, as usual. Afterwards, I rushed to Maundy Thursday services at church and got there in time to have my feet washed. This year I found the stripping of the altar especially stark and powerful, well suited to my mood.

We won't be having our usual noon-3 Good Friday service this year. Not many people ever come, and the clergy are tired. So instead we're doing a joint evening service with the Lutheran congregation across the street. I'm curious to see how that turns out. I loved our traditional Good Friday service, but I hope the later time will encourage more people to show up.