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Last night I came into bed late, as I often do, and my early- to- bed husband was chuckling, mumbling something to me about dreaming about his best friend Tommy who passed away in 2005. He told me the entire dream from start to finish and I will remember it. My husband was trying to help Tommy get home from the “hospital on the lake in the woods”and his friend kept hiding or getting stuckin a big hollow tree that had fallen down. This friend always had a wry smile on his face and it wasn’t clear to my husband if he was fooling around, being playful like when they were kids, or if Tommy was in some type of danger. Somehow he got stuck in this tree and was all covered with twigs and dirt. My husband was chuckling as he talked about it, for his friend was like a big hairy woodland creature,and I thought of how we process grief in different ways.
My husband is not a talker, and I am. I have talked and written about my grief of losing a number of loved ones, talked about it in therapy grief groups, written about it in my blog, written poems about it. Grief is an ever present companion for me, and I do verbalize it. I sometimes cry, I often talk to my grief.
My husband is very different in that respect. He’s never mentioned his mother, his dear friend, his brother, or any other loved ones who have passed. Not even his father who passed away not too long ago.
Do I dream about any of my loved ones or friends who have left? Rarely. Most of my dreams are still about trying to find a classroom or trying to find my teaching materials or about trying to find time to use the bathroom. (The teaching baggage is left over, even into retirement.). I wonder if other teachers dream about the bathroom!
I’m very touched by my husband’s dream of trying to help his friend in that big log. I’m glad he was able to chuckle about it. His friend did remind me of a big bear in many ways, and I could just see him in a big downed tree covered with leaves and dirt. I can hear his deep voice always making jokes. Tommy was the eldest in a huge family, and was the boss, the elder brother and always had what my husband called a shit-eating grin on his face.
And I wonder how our dreams will be changed by our shelter in place/quarantine of the 2020 pandemic? In the future, will we have many more dreams of hiding, being caught in tight places, of suffocation?
I continue to talk, write, sometimes even cry. My dear husband, the person I love most in this world, dreams about departed friends in big hollow logs covered with leaves, twigs and mud, and chuckling.
Thank you for reading.
(Image from the Siberian Times, public domain)
I am trying to remember to appreciate. To wonder. To see beauty.
I’ve begun to read again write poetry. Submit poetry.
All the best wishes to you all.
Perhaps it was his apology to his children, after all, his gentleness with and joyful love for his grandchildren.
Or perhaps it was the lessening of pressures due to not having a direct responsibility for the lives of little ones.
Whatever the reason, it helped his children and hurt them at the same time to see what might have been, what they longed for but did not have. While they did not want the grandchildren to have a lesser life with their grandfather, they felt openings, more holes in their own lives witnessing what might have been.
Some holes became filled with bad habits and some remained unfilled like Langston’s open sore, weeping then crusting over, and sometimes exploding. A breakdown. A prayer. An addiction. A hesitance. More holes.
And sometimes, poems.
Image in the public domain, The Favorite – Grandfather and Grandson, by Georgios Jakobides (1890)
UPDATE: It’s been sixteen years now. The following thoughts and feelings about my father still hold true. My sister has since died (recently). I still mourn my mother and have very complicated grief issues about my sister.
* * *
Six years ago, my father celebrated his 80th birthday. We went out to dinner with him, and he was in a very jovial mood, flirting with the waitresses, asking for extra water, ice, anything to get the attractive young ladies to come back to the table as often as possible.
At that time, my mother was in hospice, and we all knew she would not be coming home again, ever. My father had decided to stop visiting her, since my mother didn’t recognize him by name at times, and called him “that man,” argued with him, and could “do nothing for him.” Narcissistic? I think so. Her role was to take care of him, and he was angry and disgusted that she was losing herself to Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Why visit someone who could do nothing for you? As my sister, his other daughter, was quite ill herself and his sons lived out of state, I would be the one visiting my mother. I assured him that she did want to see him.
After dinner, my father announced that he was no longer going to take any of his medicines. He was sick of the side effects, he said, and he didn’t trust doctors anyway. He was simply not going to put up with the doctor’s “incompetence.” He also announced that he was angry my mother would not be there for him for the heart valve surgery he was scheduled to have, so he was not going to have the surgery at all.
A few days later, I was speaking to my father on the phone late one night, and he said he felt strange. We took him to the emergency room, where we learned he had a minor stroke.
At the hospital, we asked him if he’d like anything. He said something I cannot really write about here, but it had to do with wanting a special visit from the very well-endowed waitress that served him his birthday dinner.
After a few more days, he began to feel better and agreed to the heart valve surgery. I was speaking to him over the phone when he said…I’m feeling weird again… and as I spoke to him, he was having a major stroke from which he could not and would not recover.
By the time we got to the hospital, my father was hooked up to life support machines. His body was nearly convulsing on the bed, up and down, up and down, up and down. It was hideous. My niece was very pregnant at the time and was there, as was my nephew and sister, who was herself sick. My dear husband was there with me, knowing I was terrified; I am terribly phobic about hospitals, medical procedures, etc. And here was my father being forced to “breathe,” his body nearly up off the bed.
Was he conscious? No. Any chance of a recovery? No, it was a major stroke and most likely brain death already happened.
After doing blood tests, doctors found no traces whatsoever of the medicines he was supposed to be taking. They believed he stopped taking his medicines before he told us, and was not taking them in the hospital at all. He truly meant it when he said he had enough medicines for one lifetime.
My sister had power of attorney and a copy of my father’s written request not to be kept on life support.
* * *
The physician seemed very angry with us, told us we would be killing our father. My sister went to get another copy of the end of life papers my father had signed years before, after he saw his mother be kept on life support for a long time.
After looking over the papers carefully, the hospital agreed that the power of attorney did had the power to have the tubes removed. First, the doctor gave him a shot of morphine to be sure he would not be in pain, in case he did return to consciousness.
We left the room as the life support tubes and machines were removed, all except for a monitor that read brain activity.
* * *
When we went back into my father’s hospital room, we watched the monitor–in less than 5 minutes, complete flat line, no brain activity. In just a few minutes, he was absolutely, no question about it dead.
Had we killed him by having the machines turned off, the tubes removed? I didn’t have the courage to be the one to make the decision. I am glad I didn’t’ have to make the decision. I am glad he found someone who would do this for him, for I could not. I am glad he saw his mother’s end of life and decided this was not for him.
But did we kill him? Who is to decide how an older person should end his or her life–for that is what not taking his medicines meant. He had one stroke then another soon after taking his medicines.
I’d never seen anyone die before. To watch brain waves go completely flat in such a short time told the medical staff that he had been dead before, just kept alive by machines forcing in oxygen and forcing his heart to beat. Is this death, I wonder? He did not seem alive on that awful table with the tubes and the machines–it seemed cruel and gruesome.
I don’t know all the medical terms, and my memory may be off since it was so emotional.
* * *
But it was exactly six years ago, and dreams haunt me. Nightmares. I wasn’t even aware of the anniversary coming up, but my body remembered somehow, and the nightmares have been vivid.
Gruesome–gruesome images–the body forced up and down on life support. The memory of talking to him and hearing the stroke hit him hard, the last words he ever said…I feel weird, can you come?
* * *
Life and death issues. Who is to decide? Was it his right to decide–I simply don’t want to take my medicines anymore? At 80 years old, he’d been pretty spry up to then. Perhaps it was depression over my mother, or simply realizing life wasn’t going to get any easier for him.
Or it might have simply been his arrogance of being angry with my mother for not taking care of him, anger at the world that he had to take medicines whose side effects he didn’t like. He had quite a streak of arrogance, of feeling that he was somehow better or deserved better, and quite a streak of narcissism, if I understand that correctly–such as taking my mother’s Alzheimer’s as an insult to him rather than a heartbreak that it was.
And then nothing. Nothing whatsoever. For reasons I cannot go into, there was no closure, no saying good bye.
Six month later, my mother died. I felt active and wretched grief for a long time after her death. It was shortly after my best friend died, two other close friends, and my husband’s best friend. It was truly a terrible time, but the close deaths stopped and I believe I was able to grieve for my mother, my much loved friends. Broken hearted for too many deaths too close together–it was all mixed up. Who was I crying for now? Sunglasses became a good friend.
Work during the day, smile while you teach, then reach for the sunglasses as the weeping came in waves, for many long months. It’s been long enough now that I can think of my mother and friends with great fondness and happiness to remember them, while I still miss them greatly.
But my father? More complicated. I knew somehow I would have to put dealing with his death on hold, to wait a while–it was simply too much.
Six years later, I believe I am beginning to mourn for my father, wish things could have been different between us, that his life and our family could have been different. He was a brilliant and talented person, but very cruel and bitter at times. Hysterically funny at times. Charming at times.
In another age, he might have been a famous something or other–I’m not sure what.
But I recognize this feeling, this grief, as something I felt growing up when I would think of “father.” I believe I mourned not having a father my entire life, as strange as that sounds. I knew I’d have to be my own father, raise myself as best as I could.
I guessed a lot. Read a lot. Tried to make a science on how to raise myself properly. What I am today is a hit or miss childhood of trying to raise myself with the help of some wonderful mentors, teachers, kind adults in my life who never knew of the absolute hell of a pretend childhood. They never knew how I loved them for their mentoring.
As to my father, I so wish I could speak to him again, for time does help heal. Would we be able to speak of some matters that went unsaid? Probably not.
But I still feel it was wrong to let someone pass without a formal good bye, glad to have known you, your life meant something.
Perhaps I am telling him this in my very vivid dreams: good bye father, I am sorry it wasn’t better between us, your life had meaning. Like it or not, I see more of him in myself every year–the tendency to love drama, the silly story telling, the endless need to tell and hear stories–the love of art–the strong emotions, even some of my very weaknesses I loathed in him I see clearly in myself now.
My husband always tells me no one is all bad; he reminds me often that there can be much to love in even people who do great evil–we need to find that good, that lovable part and encourage it, acknowledge it–not just the bad that people do.
For this, I will always love him, my husband: he has helped me see that life is not all good or bad, all evil or good–there are many shades–something my father detested in people, wishy washiness he called it, all that damn grayness or shades of mambly pambliness–you either loved or hated him or nothing in between.
Sorry, father, I must side here with the living one I love. I did not love you, and for that I am ashamed and sorry. I loved you as a human being, my fellow human being, but not as a father. That was not possible for me. I pitied you. I was slightly in awe of your keen intelligence and eerie ability to hone in on others weaknesses and exploit them, but that is not love.
Six years later, I begin to say good bye to my father, six years after his death. I will not romanticize his life due to the passing of time, but am perhaps better able to begin dealing with his life and death with the help of the passage of time. Perhaps to see the good and the bad, the love, terror, humor, and sadness that can co-exist in one person.
Attempts at specular poems, and yes, I probably need to leave the sparrows alone. They appear too often in my poetry; however, I do love sparrows since they STAY ALL WINTER and provide some color, sound, movement even during the dull dreariness of November, December, January, and February.
Specular poems are a form where halfway through the lines repeat themselves in a mirrored order.
Image of the American Tree Sparrow from the Creative Commons.
Thanks for reading!
Since my sister died last month, I’ve been re-experiencing grief in different ways than when grief last visited. Before, I was filled with sadness. Now, I am experiencing sadness, but also regret and dread. I think of what a cliche comparing depression to having a black cloud hanging over your head, but that image is strong with me now.
I am older now than when the others died so quickly, one after another after another, 15 years older. And my sister and I had a complicated relationship. We were estranged for some years, as is common in families where the abusive parent tries to keep the siblings apart by telling lies about each other and sewing discord. Nevertheless, my sister and I found ourselves to become much loved dear friends for most of our lives. We were such different people, but we shared a long history of trauma and grief, but also humor, laughing, and a love of nature. After my sister had her children, who are now in their 40s, we became dear friends.
Fifteen years ago I wrote more poetry than ever, as I converted grief into words. I wrote about divorce, break ups,winter, sicknesses, illnesses, aging. I had to warn my husband that divorce was code for grief, as I could not write about death then.
It was a time of great creativity, and looking back, I can feel that grief again–a purer type of grief, perhaps, since those lost then were never other than positive in my life, family and friends who shared only positive emotions in my life.
One of the poems I started writing back then, “Not Sleep,” I finished much later and have recently had published in Cagibi, a Literary Place.
I do like this poem, and could only write it many months after the death of my mother. I could return to it then only years later.
I wonder how my sister’s death will affect my poetry writing. I would give up writing poetry forever if I could have her alive again and healthy and happy, but that cannot happen. Writing about her would be very difficult, for we had a complicated relationship.
I felt sorry for her. I pitied her sometimes. I had great sympathy for her suffering. I loved her, and felt I understood many of the seemingly unfathomable things she did to drive others away. I wasn’t married to her, was not raised by her–we had the relationship of peers who reacted to our shared traumas in very different ways. I found her very brave.
I am still too raw to talk much about her or write much about her, since she has only been gone a month. We are entering winter weather already here and it’s dark so much of the day. All these, blended with a recent injury and job change have me a bit bewildered at times and needing to step back, check my thinking, and affirm this: although I sometimes feel great dread lately, that does not make things dreadful. I need to question my automatic feelings and force myself to perceive, love, enjoy the many beauties in life.
My husband asked me the other day if I am feeling mortal; yes, I told him, that’s a great way to put it. No matter what, my sister is still dead. No matter how many times I pick up the phone to call her, she’s still dead. No matter how many times I think I want to tell her something, she is still dead. No matter how many times I think of something that could have made her last months better, she is still dead. No matter how angry or sad, outraged or fearful, she is still dead. No matter how much regret I feel for things I should have done or should have done differently with my sister, she is still dead.
Mortal, yes. Feeling very mortal, which has also prompted me to clean closets, read books, write poetry again, sign up for a class. If I feel I need to turn on ALL of the lights at home, I do so. If I want pumpkin pancakes, I get them. I am pushing myself to exercise more, for I know good health is so important to loving life. I am resisting the urge to get another job, because I have recognized that long term, this gift of time off is a precious gift.
What will I do with my life? It’s exciting yet scary to imagine! Sometimes I envision myself staying in bed, jaws clenched, covers pulled over my head, in some dramatic made for TV movie of the week about death and depression. Other times I think–April will come again, chorus frogs will return, I’ll get that storage room cleaned out, I’ll read another great novel, I will make new friends and develop new skills and wonder.
* * *
Thanks for reading. Interesting how I can be succinct when writing poetry, such as “Not Sleep,” while I am so wordy with prose.
Addendum: I am pleased Coffin Bell Journal IS publishing again. Always glad when literary journals survive. It can be read here: Coffin Bell.
Two LOVELY journals I was published in during the last year have closed their internet doors/ sites. I am sad about this, for each brought a different point of view to the world. One was very political and one was very psychological. Sad about this, but hoping their words last out there.
Good bye (for now?) to Tuck Magazine and Coffin Bell. The first published some of my political poetry and the second a feminist poem disguised as a horror story.
Back in 2001-2005, I suffered the loss of several loved ones, both families and friends. Before then, I sometimes marveled how I had not experienced the death of anyone I cared about and I was nearly 50 then. I knew that would end, and it did as friends died from freak accidents (falling on ice in a church parking lot and having a bone fragment reach the bloodstream–RIP Ruth) to dying while sleeping and choking (RIP Earl), to the death of my godmother from heart disease, my mother from dementia from a terrible head injury to my father to a stroke he suffered while we were on the phone–and so on.
All of this emotional and body memory is being resurfaced by the death of my only sister last week. I remember grief, what it feels like (shock, anger, grief, disbelief, pain), what it tastes like (tears), what it sounds like (choking, crying, silence). And then the permanence, the inability to touch the loved one anymore.
I wrote a lot of poetry about grief before then because of childhood losses that did not involve death, during this time, and afterwards, for my sister was diagnosed with terminal illnesses, one after the other after the other. She lived an amazing 15 years after the first terminal diagnosis–truly amazing.
But I rarely wrote directly about the one who died, except for about my best friend Susan who died young, before age 40, from colon cancer. We were such close friends I was shattered. When someone told me I should get over it, I snapped and wrote a very harsh poem titled NOTOVERIT, full of profanities.
You may have heard that writers used everything in their life to write, and that is true of me, but not in a direct fashion. I write sideways poems.
Sideways? I usually wrote about the death of a spouse or a divorce, telling my dear husband it was how I could deal with the grief, to write about it sideways, obliquely. Since we are still married, he just gave a puzzled look. But it helped me to write about grief in a way others could understand without battering me further.
This poem, “Where You are Not,” was written to explore the empty feeling of not being able to touch, to feel, to see the loved one anymore. I am blessed to have my spouse with me in my daily life, but grief is grief I think, and while I could not yet write about the many others since they came too close together, I could fictionalize my losses and take poetic license.
I really appreciate Esthetic Apostle for publishing this poem in their June 2019 issue.
You need help, was all he said. Not a question, a statement.
I had just come home from visiting a dear friend, and was making three trips from the curb to the car to the house–taking in emptied garbage cans, my purse, etc. I think I was limping a bit, leftover injury that’s so much better now, but still a limp at times.
He was a boy of 11-13, just riding his cool stingray bike around the block, around, around, around. I noticed him circling, looking bored. He seemed to be new to the neighborhood. Maybe he was checking out the middle school nearby.
After my second trip, a wheel on one of the garbage cans fell off.
You need help, he said, loud enough for me to hear him. No yelling. No gestures that would raise alarm. He stayed on his bike. A kid.
You need help.
You need help?
No, thanks, thanks a lot though. You getting ready to go back to school?
Yeah, he said, sounding a bit sad.
And he rode off.
In another world, I would have said thank you , what’s your name, here’s $5 to carry this stuff in for me.
In this world, I wish I could have told him, someone taught you manners, and that’s great. But in this world, young men might best be taught–don’t talk to women you don’t know for it scares them and we women tend to mistrust many males, even boys of 12-13.
And as a teacher, I would be very reluctant to accept help from ANY youngster not known–and I mean parents knowing ME.
If I see him again when I’m with the Big Guy, I will say hello and thank him for the offer.
But in this sanitized and isolated suburbia, we pay for help we cannot do ourselves. There is no community. None. We are advised to socialize out back, not in front. Nothing in front of the houses. No bikes, no lawn furniture.
Make it look like no one lives here but trees and shrubs and garbage cans.
I think I’m right that this was a boy who was taught to help the elderly.
Lesson learned, we are no longer than country.
We are the country of no guns allowed signs on schools, churches, etc.
We are the country of ever smaller nuclear families.
We are the country of cars and garages and where simple courtesy can be seen as dangerous. By children or adults.
It made me glad somehow that he asked, nonetheless. I salute your parents for teaching you manners. I hope I thanked you with a sincere smile; I didn’t have the heart to tell this middle-schooler that we just are not friendly to strangers.
I did look for this boy, but I never saw him again. I hope he is still willing to help out older folks, and hope his heart is still so good.