Category Archives: Death & dying

All that’s left

About the time I started middle school (or, as we used to say, “junior high”) I had exasperated my piano teacher to the point where she decided I had to find a new teacher. I still don’t know how I flummoxed my mom so. I suppose it could have been my legendary stubbornness.

(Example: My parents told me I could practice any half-hour of the day I wanted. Could be before school or after school or in the evening; I could manage the time as I pleased. I did not like this edict, even though I liked learning to play piano and was quite good at it. Know how I responded? I set the alarm each morning at 3:30, got up and banged my etudes and sonatas as loudly as I could  until 4 am and went back to bed. My parents, to their credit, didn’t mention it at the time, although I know now that middle-aged people don’t sleep very well and absolutely abhor being awakened 3 hours before the alarm.)

Mom found a new teacher for me, a world- renowned composer and teacher who had been featured in the newspaper for publishing her latest opus. Remarkably, she lived within walking distance of our house, but she was not taking any new students. Somehow my mom finagled an interview and audition for me.

I was really nervous for our meeting. But Mrs D, as her students fondly called her, seemed genuinely charmed by me, earnest girl that I was. Mrs D had not one but TWO grand pianos in her living room (a wall had been knocked out to make room) — talk about impressively intimidating. I played for her my best Für Elise on one of the pianos and poof! Mom was no longer saddled with me as her piano student. Soon both my sisters followed me under Mrs D’s tutelage.

Mrs D was quite a character. She taught us not only the notes but to “sniff the keys” — that is, to feel the music and not be afraid to get demonstrative with the keyboard. She would tape ping-pong balls to our palms to counter our tendency to flatten our hands. She was brilliant, whimsical, odd, unafraid, tough, loving, and the most fascinating person I knew. She was a renaissance woman — she wrote novels, painted paintings, traveled the world with her beloved husband, and composed and played songs that evoked a range of emotions for both the listeners and the players. The first time I ever saw my name in print was when Mrs D dedicated a sonatina to me.

Once as a teen I ran away from home…to Mrs D’s house. She listened to me, opened up a can of black olives to console me (our bonding food — with her I was odd, too), and patted me on the bottom as she pushed me back toward home. Another time she and her husband were preparing for their imminent trip to Europe. Not wanting to pay high prices for stuff they could easily bring with them, they one day had me help them make martinis and pour them into seal-a-meal packaging to put in their suitcases. I didn’t realize exactly what I was doing, but it was a merry time helping them get ready.

Several years ago Mrs D’s husband died after a devastating Alzheimer’s decline. She missed him terribly but stayed vibrant and modern, though she was nearing her 90s. She hung out on Facebook, kept composing and publishing music for children, and wrote her autobiography. Turned out she was a codebreaker in WWII but had been under a 50-year veil of secrecy.

Eventually she grew frail and could no longer live in home with her two grand pianos. She was moved to a nursing home where she charmed the staff and entertained the other residents with her piano-playing and storytelling. My sisters and I visited her Thanksgiving of 2010 and sang her this song in harmony. She held each of our hands and made lengthy eye contact, loving us through and through. “Please come back soon, my sweethearts,” she said.

My mom and I visited her last Spring, about this time. We filled her in on our lives, listened to her reminisce, and told her we’d visit again.

Mrs D died last June. She was 92.

I attended the estate sale at her home this weekend. All of Mrs D’s  belongings were on the lawn being picked over by passers-by (the pianos were gone, in the possession of her son). Remnants of a life — junk really. Travel books from the 1970s that no one will ever read. Wall hangings and artwork that look hopelessly dated. Ten thousand travel photos that have meaning only to the two people who took the trip.

I browsed. I time-traveled. I was back in junior high. I was sitting through recitals in that living room. I was either eating black olives or packing green olives in liquid. I was visiting Mrs D while home from college. I was introducing her to the man who would become my husband. I was chasing my toddler around in that living room, trying to keep the knick-knacks safe from her grasp as I showed her off to Mrs D. While my life was ascending, I didn’t even notice Mrs D’s corresponding counter-arc.

This is what’s left of a life. Tchotchkes that outlive their owner, untethered and unowned. Doomed for a landfill. A wave of grief swept over me for the loss and love of Mrs D, the inevitable loss we face, the complete disconnection that waits for everyone. What would my estate sale look like?

I decided to salvage only one item, as impractical as it is symbolic.

A different type of keyboard, to be sure. But a touchstone to a woman who touched my life in a profound way.

On death and dying

Would it be in bad taste to talk about death in bullet points? Should I cut to the heart of the matter? I’ve been a little choked up in my thoughts and emotions. Hang in there with my gallows humor. Colonel Mustard in the Dining Room with a Candlestick.

Now I’ll get serious. Deadly serious. These are some of the thoughts I thunk during the wake, funeral and burial of my mother-in-law.

  • Receiving lines can be excruciating for germophobes.
  • People acclimate amazingly quickly. My children Freaked Out when they approached the casket for a private moment before the wake began. Within five minutes they were back to normal. Grieving, still, but able to incorporate Grandma Marshmallow’s altered presence into the occasion.
  • Death grants a person something of a beatification. What were annoyances when a person was alive are viewed as quaint personality quirks after death. I feel guilty even admitting that I harbored any feelings of annoyance.
  • Kids keep me present. Children are so much better equipped than adults are to be in the moment. They are not yet as adept at being wistful about the past or worrying about the future. The are able to be. here. now. and they remind me to do so, as well.
  • Observing the dying process has been, in hindsight, like watching a trainwreck in slow motion. You know the ending and you just have to wait for it.
  • My memories of Lisa are split in two: before the cancer, when she’s vibrant and beautiful and active and seemingly eternal; and after the cancer, when the insidious malignancy has robbed her of her hair, many of her abilities, her life force. I have a hard time reconciling the two.
  • People want to DO something.
  • People who are mourning their own losses are comforted by comforting.
  • Even if you say, “In lieu of flowers…” people will send flowers. Lots of flowers.
  • Friends and family hold us up when grief becomes unbearable. We can always come back to it. Just a conversation or a touch tends to break up the grief.
  • Mercifully, grief tends to come in bite-sized morsels. I am amazed at how moments of normalcy took over whenever the grief became to much:

Despair – load the dishwasher – sadness – toilet paper roll needs replacing – grief – oooh, here’s a text message – sob – help Reed find his non-existent socks.

  • The burial is the most difficult part for me. I hate hate hate that returning to the earth.
  • There’s a yearning to get to a New Normal. We left town two days after the burial, and I dreaded leaving my father-in-law and sister-in-law to their newly quiet lives. But when the time came I sensed that my in-laws and my husband were curious about finding their New Normal. As it turned out, the leaving wasn’t so hard for we leavers or the leavees.
  • I view, “She’s in Heaven” and “She’s an angel now” as platitudes to calm and placate. My theory is more along these lines. But I must admit that in the dark days of the wake and funeral, my own beliefs seem platitudinous, too. It wasn’t until our flight home lifted into the air that I was able to start believing again in something eternal and connected and bigger than life in this dimension. Sort of. So who knows what the purpose and meaning of life is?
  • Where IS the soul when the body no longer houses it?
  • When a person is alive, she is available in your mind as a motion picture. When that person has died, she is accessible to you only as snapshots — the movie no longer plays, not even in re-runs.
Aunt Jen, Tessa, Reed

I went 40+ years without having to experience the death of a parent/parent-in-law, and Lisa’s was the first death in our parent’s generation. I am fearful that now the bubble is popped, the other three will follow soon. And by “soon” I mean within the next 40 years.

One final note. I am expected to live to age 96. How about you?

Sliced

We didn’t know it, that first day of Tessa’s swim team practice in the spring of 2010, but our lives were about to be sliced in two.

Before: we were consumed with the end of the school year. There were report cards, field days, deciding on next year’s school, assemblies. We’d had a wind storm the night before that blew our shed off its foundation. Roger was dealing with some serious problems at work that were weighing him down. I was preparing for a big conference and was feeling similarly weighed down.

Little did we know how heavy things would get.

Minutes after Roger told me “I don’t know if I can take anymore. It’s just too much,” his cell phone rang. It was the slash that would govern our lives for the coming year and beyond.

His dad reported that his mom had had a CAT scan for some pain in her side. It revealed masses on her lung and liver.

Over the next days and weeks the full diagnosis emerged: Stage 4 lung cancer, metastasized to her liver, lymph and bones.

How could this be? Grandma Marshmallow had just visited us for Christmas. She spent Easter with us, and we’d gotten up at 4 in the morning and enjoyed a glorious sunrise at Red Rocks amphitheater together. Surely this diagnosis must be a mistake. Not Lisa, a non-smoker who ate healthfully and was physically active, a loving and well-loved person. Surely she would beat the odds with treatments.

We visited her last summer during her early rounds of chemo. We visited in the winter when the doctors said there was nothing more that could be done. Roger and I met his parents in Florida in February while we were on a business trip. We spent Spring Break with her just weeks ago. Those were her waning days when Grandma Marshmallow was all but bedridden, her energy depleted, her spirit straddling two worlds. We teared up at our goodbyes, knowing we’d likely not see or hear her again.

Grandma Lisa died on April 12 at 8:38 in the morning. Roger had gotten to her side hours before. She was surrounded by her loving husband, son and daughter.

This will take some processing, so bear with me.