On this day – it’s about the funny quirky stuff. If mom was still alive the stress would have started about a month ago – just before her birthday. The phone would ring and she would say “I can’t find my calendar. Your father and I have driven to the local bookstore but we can’t find it anywhere. The one place we checked that I thought would have it was already sold out.”
The calendar she was referring to was the Sierra Club Wilderness Calendar – because she loved the photography. It had to be the spiral bound one – so she could flip it over quickly if she needed to. AND – it had to be the one with the large boxes (for days) so that she had enough room to list all of the appointments that she and dad had. “Okay I’ll take care of it.” I’d tell her; and while still on the phone with her I’d grab my computer, go to amazon.com or Sierra Club (#sierraclub), search for the calendar, order and pay for it and make arrangements for her to have it in two days.
By this time she’d be talking about something else and when there was a break in the conversation, I’d tell her “okay it’s on the way”. “What’s on the way?” she’d ask. “Your calendar,” I’d tell her. “Susan Ann!” she’d say, I could never quite figure out if she was frustrated that I had arranged for it that fast or if she was happy that I had saved her some time trying to find it. What was important was that it was on the way. As the years went on, she would call and ask “can you order a calendar for me?” “Sure” I’d say and by the time we hung up from speaking with one another, she would know when the calendar would be coming. But she’d still double check – “it’s the spiral bound one right?” “Yes” I’d tell her.
The week that it arrived she’d spend her initial time looking at all of the photographs. When I was with her she told me what it was she liked about each one. The next week, she’d spend time putting in everyone’s birthday, making notes of appointments and (my favorite) adding her sketches of all of the holidays and birthdays.
Then in 2017 when we moved to RI from Florida, we packed the calendar but couldn’t find it once we arrived. This wasn’t good as I had finally (because I’m slow like this) realized that mom’s calendar and pencil was the exact equivalent of my MacBook pro. So I went to Amazon, looked up previous orders, changed the address to Rhode Island and (“bam!”) another one was on the way. By the time it arrived though, we had already (finally) found her old one so she had all of them (2 for 2018 and her 2017 one) next to her chair.
A few weeks ago when I was with my brother, I told him I had found her calendars about a month or so before visiting him. And because I’m neurotic like that – I took pictures of some of her sketches. And yes, I even thought of ordering a Sierra Club calendar (which would be totally nuts as everything even related to a calendar, appointment or important date is so streamlined on my MacBook (and color-coded and synced to my phone and watch) that this is a totally crazy idea. Right?
Today I was at Walmart looking for one of those hook thingies to hang Christmas decorations on my door. I was distracted by this really beautiful Christmas tree – the ones that have snow on them. A man walks by me and says, “wow, they’re getting so expensive, aren’t they?” (it was a 7.5 ft. tree for about $160.00). He tells me “I don’t even get a tree anymore” and that he doesn’t really celebrate Christmas since his wife died of liver cancer about 15 years ago. “She fought hard,” he tells me.
We discuss how relationships are interesting like that – how you really see someone’s strength when they are faced with adversity. He smiles upon hearing this “yes, she was quite a fighter,” he says. “I’m sorry about your loss,” I tell him – thinking that even though it was long ago, he still misses her. He tells me that there will not be anyone else for him (not sure how we got to this but we did) – but he seems content and walks me through his thoughts about the rest of the trees and the Christmas lamp post that is next to them that he thinks will be stolen in a second if someone actually purchases it and puts it out on their lawn. “Maybe it’ll help the mailman see where he is going as it gets darker,” he says.
I loved speaking with him, not only because he was telling me about his life but also because he actually looked like an elf. He was a little guy – about 5’4″ ish with short wavy hair, jeans and a red and black checkered flannel
shirt, and one of those small little cute beards on his chin – the kind that you see on elves when you’re shopping at Walmart.
When he left, I kept looking at the tree. Like the last thing I need in my place is a 7 1/2 ft. Christmas tree (that honestly – I would seriously keep up until April because it looked really cool). But when I think about our conversation and what he first said when he walked by me, it was like mom and dad were speaking through him – like a tactful “what the hell are you thinking buying a tree like that?”. (It was a Teresa Caputo like moment)
And yes, I left without it – but it was definitely the high point of my day. When I left, I had the 8 items I was holding in my arms and went to check out at the register (one of the ones that are staffed because I hate the self check out thing). The lady in front of me said “Please go ahead of me – you only have a few things,” but I said, “No, you go ahead, I just need to stand here and think about the way my life is going.” (which made the lady behind me crack up and tell me all about her daughter and the 7 (!) Christmas trees she has in her home.
I love these conversations that take place during the holidays; they’re not kidding when they say, “it’s the most wonderful time of the year”.
It wasn’t easy for me to leave New England to start a new job for a few reasons, but the one that was most bothersome for me was not being able to see the flowers at mom and dad’s grave site.
I’m not really sure what started this idea, but I think it was the fact that I wasn’t ready for mom to go when she died. And I know that the time of anyone’s death is not anything you can ever control; but mom’s death just took the wind out of my sails for a bit.
So after their burial service, when everyone had gone and my brother had flown out and I was on my way back home to New Hampshire, I stopped into the cemetery to say good bye and take one last look at the flowers we had left knowing they would be gone the next time I was there. As I stood looking at the tombstone I thought “nope, can’t do it”.
I felt like I needed to leave something a little more “in line” with our family so I got back in the car and drove down to Chaves where I found this little cat who has been “guarding”… okay maybe “watching over” mom and dad since their burial service.
In a way that I really can’t explain, there’s something reassuring about this teeny little kitten just hanging out with mom and dad that always makes me feel a little bit better and more reassured. This is especially true now that I am now in Maryland and can’t stop in to see the flowers or speak with them as much as I had when I lived in New Hampshire.
As mom had always loved planting flowers in the cemetery, we left a few bulbs thinking no one would really notice and when they came up, they would help shade the kitten that was watching over them. It was the perfect plan. And yes, I thought of leaving a Christmas tree with blinking lights but even I know that there needs to be a little dash of tact when dealing with the “things to leave at the cemetery” issue.
So this week, my brother went to meet with our accountant and stopped into the cemetery to check on things (as instructed by me, his neurotic sister, who wanted to make sure the cat was okay and the box of greens left at Christmas had been moved so the flowers could come up in time for Spring).
But today, he called me to say there was a huge sign posted at the entrance to the cemetery that said that on April 10th they were going to remove everything from the cemetery except for flags for veterans. This news made me a little apoplectic – not only because of our guardian kitten but because I still haven’t heard from the person responsible for making sure there is a flag in the cemetery for dad on veterans day and Memorial Day.
Anyhoo – Luckily my brother noticed the sign and called me with his report.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got the cat!!” he said.
It was funny in that he also realized the importance and significance of its presence at the cemetery. It’s like “if anyone in our family is anywhere, there must always be a cat”. “I’m taking it with me to Florida” he said “its not like it’s going to take up a lot of extra room in my luggage”.
“You should probably give it a little bath” I told him.
“Already did” he said. We both were reassured our little guardian kitten would stay with us instead of being absconded by someone removing everything from the cemetery.
Sometimes when I go to the cemetery I can almost hear mom: “you know we’re not here right?” – which I understand. But there’s something about having an access point that’s a little more tangible than a prayer or a quiet walk on a beach.
Maybe that was the point of it all – to get families out of the cemetery and talking to each other instead of standing in a cold, quiet New England church yard staring at a slate tombstone. Now if I want to see the cat I have to go to Florida to see Scott and Trey (his Maine Coon cat).
But there’s something about the transition of our “watch cat” that has disrupted my true north.
It happened again just as it always has. 6:00 am, I have just fallen back asleep after getting up and there’s Mercy, your friend, walking into a room where I am sitting and looking down at me with a big smile and a warm hello.
She asks about you and I tell her you have died. Slowly it occurs to me that she has died before you so technically, both of you are in heaven.
I walk downstairs and find myself in a hospital where I have once worked and there you are, with a strange hand held pad thingy in your hand telling me you’re trying to find your appointment. “It’s at 9:00am,” you say.
“It’s 11:00”, I tell you, sadly realizing that again, we have missed an appointment and I’m angry at myself for scheduling it too early because you always told me that you preferred all of your appointments to be scheduled at 11:00am. “We won’t have to rush in the morning, then we can stop for lunch and I can be home in time for my nap”, you said.
It made perfect sense. But unfortunately, there were those few times that no appointments were available at 11:00 so we had to adjust for the appointment with the financial planner at 10:00 am or the outpatient surgery on a Friday afternoon at 2:00pm.
Seriously, who does surgery on a Friday afternoon at 2:00pm? End of the week, everyone’s tired; why?
The surgeon struggles to stitch your skin but it breaks and you keep bleeding. He tries again and again and again before he finally gets it. You are in pain. Normally you’re one heck of a brave trooper but not this time. “Ow!” you say, loudly. I can’t even look at all the blood but as he cleans and covers your wound with bandages and talks to you about infections, debridement, and wound care, I look back at your leg and see it braced against the cushion on the seat below you as we are sailing close-hauled to Martha’s Vineyard on a beautiful sunny day so many years ago.
“I’m paying for all that fun we had out in the sun and on the water,” you tell us. I don’t know that our young surgeon understands the joy of sailing to the Vineyard as he continues to stitch your skin.
I feel your hand on mine as we look at the pad you have with the appointment time on it. I can’t believe I have screwed this up again by scheduling it at 9. But you say “it’s okay we’ll reschedule” which often meant you didn’t really want to go to it anyway. You were done with the surgeries and the pain with the subsequent bruising and scars.
And then I realize that you’re in heaven with your friend, Mercy, and I don’t know why you’ve come to visit me in this 6:00am dream I am having…in New Hampshire, still under a year since you have died.
This is Nate. He’s my guy, named after the author Nathaniel Hawthorne. For the last threeish years, Nate and I had been living with my mom in Florida and taking care of her. She had two cats of her own, Trey and Callie (pictured below). Trey is the oldest, a Maine Coon cat who thinks he owns the world, Callie is a little diva (who’s a year younger than Nate) and then Nate, who sort of has a personality of his own and is probably one of the most affectionate cats you will ever meet. He is a master at headbonking.
Mom and I had made a deal that if I found a new career endeavor in New England, she would move back with me as she wanted to see her friends and watch the leaves change in the Fall. Hearing her discuss this made my job search more focused as I wanted this wish to come true for her.
A few months later, I was hired and we made plans to move. Initially, she wanted to live with me but then decided that it would be better for her to be in an assisted living place closer to her friends in our hometown. I decided I would stay in the town where my new job was and then commute back and forth to visit her on the weekends.
Originally, because it was only a few days, I left Nate at home to guard the fort on the weekends I would visit her. But as mom became iller and I was spending more time with her, I decided to keep Nate with me. Together, we would drive to and from Mom’s normally listening to books on tape or podcasts along the way. He seemed to be a lot more relaxed everytime we listened to “This American Life” so it became a thing.
From our visits and conversations during the week, I thought mom was getting better. This thought was short lived however as, on a Friday when I spoke with her, I heard her coughing and realized this wasn’t the case and that the pneumonia she had developed was still present. I decided that Nate and I would head out earlier than we usually do the next morning and also called the staff and asked them to check on her that Friday night.
Early on Saturday morning, her nurse called to tell me that when she had arrived to give mom her medications, she had died.
It was news I never hoped (and wasn’t ready) to hear.
After making calls and asking for help from a friend, Nate and I got in the car and headed south to mom’s.
The next month was a foggy blur as I emptied out mom’s apartment while taking time to have a few big ugly cries as I wasn’t ready for her to leave. And while Nate and I spent time getting things together, Callie and Trey were definitely struggling.
Callie is a rescue cat (her story is here). A beautiful and also very affectionate little girl who had a tendency to sleep with mom on her pillow above her head. Mom would go to bed and she would tell me “the next thing I know, Callie’s on the pillow kneading before settling down and purring while finding her comfortable spot to spend the night”.
And because she was a girl, every time one of the guys got close to her, she would growl wanting to make sure she had her space and her “mom time”.
Trey was the master of the house. He was “mom’s cat” and had been part of our family for several years. Even before they settled in Florida full time, Trey had traveled with them back and forth to Rhode Island. At one point, during one of their flights, she had opened his carrier to pet him during a layover at Dulles International when he decided to push by her hand and take a nice long walk along the concourse.
Mom, not wanting to scare him, followed him from behind until she could finally get close enough to grab him. Hearing her tell the story was hilarious and Trey had many events like this but usually did really well between living in Florida during the winters and on their boat with them during the summer.
But when mom died, he was lost. And while I knew that cats grieve when their owners die, I never realized how bad this grief process could be until I watched Trey for several days after her death.
The morning I arrived, mom had died but was still in her bed. What was reassuring to me was that she looked the way she always had whenever I arrived early in the morning; resting quietly looking content.
Trey was lying across the doorway to her room. It almost seemed like he didn’t want anyone to enter and didn’t want her to leave. And he didn’t move – as the nurse, and subsequently, the funeral home director went into and out of the room, he stayed exactly where he was – lying fully sprawled out, blocking the doorway, watching everything.
When the funeral home director came back with the gurney, I picked Trey up and took him to mom’s chair in the living room. I think he liked that he could still smell her presence so he stayed there… watching everything like a hawk with those big Maine Coon Cat eyes of his.
Callie, initially had hid under the bed but then followed us into the living room where her “people” were.
The following days were the worst as Trey and Callie realized that mom was no longer there. I’d watch as Trey jumped from the top of her bureau (where the clothes she had worn most recently were still in a pile) and then to her bed; he was clearly looking for her. Callie had settled into the floor of her closet where she slept on top of her shoes.
A day later, it was early in the morning when I decided to take a shower. I had closed the door when I could hear the feverish scratching of paws against the door and loud yowling. When I turned the shower off, I grabbed a towel and opened the door to see Trey – it was like you could actually see the sad, disheartened, “oh, it’s only you” look on his face.
A few days later, my brother arrived. Together we discussed Callie and Trey and keeping them together or separating them. Because Trey had been the only cat my parents had had for several years before rescuing Callie, we decided that Trey would go back to Florida with Scott and Callie would move in with Nate and I as they seemed to get along pretty well.
The next few weeks also seemed trying for Callie and Trey as furniture was donated (along with antiques and books and other belongings). What had been their home had transitioned to suitcases, duffel bags, and boxes which subsequently were taken to different places. The emptier the room became, the more confused they all appeared to be.
Because of this transition and the grief they had, I paid a lot more attention to what I was doing and made sure that we developed as consistent a routine as possible for them regarding spending time together, feeding and bedtime. I also made sure that some of mom’s clothes were available for Trey to lie down on.
On the last day, I put Callie and Nate in their carriers and took them to my car. Trey and I were the last ones to leave mom’s room. I made sure we had a conversation and a prayer about mom watching over us in heaven and then thanking Trey for being so brave before we closed the door behind us.
A few weeks later Scott returned to take Trey home with him. Watching them together going through security at the airport, I knew that both Trey (and Scott) would be happier together but I cried as I watched them leave. Trey had endured probably one of the toughest times in his life but I knew he would be happier having all of Scott’s affection to himself and being in warm, sunny Florida where he could watch the birds play outside while watching the world go by.
And Callie and Nate have settled in well together here in our home – adjusting to their new place.
Two years ago, when my mom died, the assisted living facility where she lived gave me 30 days to pack her belongings and move them out of her small apartment. As much as it seemed like 30 days was a long time, it wasn’t. As we had relocated to New England from Florida, a few months prior, some boxes remained unpacked as we struggled with the transition. I felt like I had completely lost my sense of “home” and couldn’t imagine how, at 86, she must have felt during this challenging transition.
But I realized I just needed to stay in her room at the assisted living place and finish everything while we also planned a memorial service for her and my dad. Some boxes were easy. Sometimes, I knew immediately what to keep and what to donate. Other times, when I would open a closet or a drawer or look at a picture, I felt the immense sorrow and grief that went with missing mom.
Every time I opened the door to her closet and looked at her clothes, I felt sick.
My sadness went on for another week and became more uncomfortable until I knew I had to do something because I was running out of time.
I took all of her clothes out of the closet and separated the ones I could donate from the ones I knew I needed to keep because of all of the memories they carried with them. Slowly and meticulously, I went through piles and piles of clothes.
When people die, I heard that there are websites listed on the internet where you can make quilts out of clothes. As I skimmed from site to site looking, they all seemed robotic and impersonal. When I told one of the staff members at the assisted living place that I was thinking about this, she said: “I have a relative who makes quilts.. all by hand.. they’re beautiful; let me ask her”.
A few days later, she returned with a phone number and said, “she hasn’t made a lot of quilts but would be willing to help you; just call her.”
So as I sat on mom’s bed among the piles of clothes, I called her and introduced myself and asked her about her willingness to help me with a quilt. She agreed and told me about the quilts she would be able to make and asked: “are her clothes dark colors?”.
I looked around at the piles of (mostly) shirts alongside me. “No,” I told her, “there are mostly bright colors; mom loved bright colors.” I hadn’t realized how bright the colors were, or how distinct some of the patterns were. But as I looked at them, my memories came flooding back. I saw the shirt she had on when we sat on the back deck of the boat cooking dinner as we looked out over the harbor in Block Island, and then one she was wearing more recently when we cruised around the neighborhood in our golf cart in Florida. I saw the one she was wearing when we sat together on a bench eating lunch as we looked out over the intercoastal waterway watching the dolphins. That shirt was a “must-have” in the quilt because of how beautiful that day was.
Looking at the pile of clothes and remembering those days, I realized that, as sad as I felt, everything would eventually be okay. I wasn’t sure, I felt a little better, but I still really missed mom.
“What should I do with the remainder of the clothes that I use or the ones that I don’t?” she asked. “Keep them,” I said definitively. I couldn’t explain why but the thought of some of mom’s bright colors going into making a quilt for another person – another family, seemed like a perfect idea.
Aristotle once said “the whole is more than the sum of its parts,” I felt that spreading all of the bright and dark materials, colors, and textures that mom wore broadened the perspective she brought to us all.
When I ended my conversation with my new quilter friend, the intense sadness I felt became a little more manageable.
A friend had told me about a “fluff and fold” place about a mile away, so the next morning, I filled two large duffle bags with the clothes for the quilts and dropped them off. A few days later, when they were ready, I took them to FedEx and sent them to my new favorite Quilter in Virginia.
There were only two additional emails from the Quilter which followed our initial call. When she asked about an idea for a pattern, I sent her a photo I had of a quilt that mom’s grandmother had made for her. When we discussed size, I told her that a 60-inch by 60-inch quilt would be perfect and asked if she could make two of them, one for my brother and one for myself. I also told her to take her time as I wasn’t in a rush and knew that our loss’s most difficult memories were in good hands.
Six months later, I received an email informing me that our quilts were ready and on their way to my home in New Hampshire.
“I hope you like them,” she wrote.
Since sending her the two duffle bags of clothes, I had consistently thought the day I received them would be like Christmas morning. I knew I would receive a beautiful gift but had no idea how they would look.
They would be sent by a woman I’ve never met, who had agreed to preserve the legacy of someone she has never met whom I loved very much. Sometimes the world is impressive.
The quilts arrived in October. It was precisely like Christmas morning, and I couldn’t help but stare at them because of how beautiful they were (and are). I took pictures and sent them to friends as I was so impressed with the result. The hand stitching was lovely, as was the juxtaposition of color and texture in the materials used.
I told one of my friends, “it feels like I’m looking at a legacy in color and texture.” I remembered that poem, “The Dash,” about the quality of your life from when you are born until the time you die but in the form of the colors, textures, and fabric we wear.
When I think of all of the decisions I’ve made since mom died, having our two quilts made is one I will never regret. I challenge you to consider where your thoughts go the next time someone mentions the importance of “living your dash.” If you’re like me, maybe the subsequent thoughts you have will be more related to colors, texture, and the time you had that shirt on when you did that thing that you remember because it was such a great time.
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