Thursday, March 21, 2013

Tears and Laughter

There were so many tears. Not that I'm surprised that I, or anyone else, shed them. There were just so many tears. When death takes a loved one away it doesn’t matter how prepared you think you are--you’re not prepared.

I recently wrote a post entitled My Granddaddy. It was a mostly a memory piece. Within that post I wrote about how my granddaddy used to take some of the younger grandkids to the local convenience store--The Little Store as it became known in our family--to fill a little brown bag with penny and nickel candy.

I flew home to Kentucky on the evening of February 25th, my granddaddy having passed away earlier that morning. When I got there all the grandkids that used to get that little bag of candy were there. I had an idea. What if we each got a little bag of candy and placed it inside the coffin? Or what if we each got a little bag and wrote our names on it and placed it inside the coffin? There are nine of us grandkids. I realize that nine bags of candy is obnoxious. I mean what do you do with that? You can’t really sit nine little brown bags of candy in the back of the coffin and you can’t really place them around the body. And then there’s the questions from people wondering what all those brown bags are doing littering granddaddy’s casket. Flat, empty paper bags with our names on them just didn’t seem right either. But a tribute in the form of a brown paper bag seemed so personal and right that I had to figure out a way to make it work.

After discussing it with members of The Family Band, my sister suggested we get one small brown bag and write “The Little Store” on the front then place inside 1-2 pieces of the candy we used to get as children. (Searching for that candy was quite the trip down memory lane and more difficult than I had anticipated as the candy choices today are quite different from what they used to be. Discovering which of those candies was still available, however, brought many smiles.) I then suggested that we each sign the bag. My initial intention had been that we--the grandchildren--each write our name. This seemed like the perfect compromise between nine bags of candy and nine empty bags with one name on each. However, the first person to sign the bag actually wrote a message to granddaddy. So that’s what happened. Each grandchild in his turn wrote a message to granddaddy on that little brown paper bag. Words of thanks, inspiration, love, and gratitude. 

I was the bag carrier. On Tuesday evening as we prepared for the visitation to begin I carried that bag from one grandchild to the next asking each in his turn to write a message to granddaddy. I couldn’t stop myself from crying. The idea was so beautiful and the message so personal from each grandchild. Each of us took our turn with that bag and then the representations of love in the guise of candy were placed inside. It was an offering, a gift, a memory ready to be forever sealed away with granddaddy; a symbol from our childhood’s that none of us would ever forget.

Hot, wet tears streamed down my face as I held that bag of candy in my hand and walked it to the coffin that held the body of my granddaddy. One small brown bag given in honor to a man who gave us so much.  


The day of the funeral I had to keep myself composed. I was to sing “Amazing Grace” with my sister. Tears tighten the throat and tightened throats don’t allow sound to freely flow. There could be no real crying until after the singing was done. I needed to sing the best I could for this man who'd always loved me unconditionally. I couldn’t allow myself to fall apart.

Much like when I sang “Wind Beneath My Wings” at my grandmother’s funeral nearly 9 years ago, the minute the song was over, and I was back in my seat in the front row beside my mom, I fell apart. I took her hand and the tears began to stream down my face. That poor tissue that I used to catch those tears never had a chance. So many tears. Exhausting tears. In that moment it’s almost impossible to believe that there will ever be smiles and laughter again. But there are. 


The day after the funeral I was not prepared for what I knew had to be done. We were all present: the children and grandchildren. The manpower was never going to be as strong as it was at that moment. We had to start emptying the house. Granddaddy was one day buried and three days gone.

It’s packing a life. It’s voyeuristic in its discovery of hidden treasures and secrets. It’s boxes filled with paperwork that should have been thrown away two decades ago. It’s a lifetime of acquired stuff that isn’t yours to part with, but the owner is no longer there to make the decision on its fate so the living are left to decide.

If I’m honest it was too soon, but when would we all be there together like that again? I quickly realized that not only were we mourning the death of my granddaddy we had to mourn the loss of my grandmother again. Everything inside their house was her--all the pictures, the flowers, the knick knacks. The joke was made that it was her house and she just let granddaddy live there. Hear the laughter? I can. The day before one wonders if they’ll ever laugh again and if it’s okay to even do so. And then there’s laughter. It just happens. That joke is part of my memories now. I can replay it. And as I do so, feel the smile pull up the corners of my mouth. 

It was true though. That joke about it being her house. When grandmother passed away nothing was really changed in the house. People took things, but they were small things. Her clothes had eventually been taken away, but otherwise the house looked the same.

As drawers and closets were opened and emptied so many things were discovered. Most of them pertaining to her. It felt like we had just lost them both.

I opened a cabinet in the kitchen and saw the bowl in which grandmother almost always served her potato salad. Nobody in the family can make potato salad like she did. Using the same ingredients it just doesn’t taste the same. I couldn’t help but smile, but I couldn’t stop the tear from falling down my cheek at the same time. It welled up in my eye before I knew what was happening. It spilled over the rim à la “Nikki Newman” on The Young and the Restless; that single tear that always amazes me. And the Daytime Emmy for Best Supporting Actor goes to... As that tear rolled down my face my mother asked me if I wanted the bowl. I told her that what I wanted was for her to take it. Before she could even respond to me I changed my mind and told her that I wanted it. It’s just a bowl, but it’s a bowl I remember from so many family meals. A bowl sitting on the table filled with the potato salad that everyone wanted. If I squint I think I can even see granddaddy using it for popcorn back when popcorn was popped on the stove. I could be making that up, but it feels right.

So many tears were shed over the course of that week. Sleep was a welcomed visitor every night as exhaustion both physical and emotional took its toll on us.

Amidst the tossable JCPenney statements marked "paid", the bank statements full of cancelled checks, pictures of people no one in the house could remember, and an empty L’eggs brand panty hose egg, the most amazing discovery was found. In a dresser drawer in what had once been my uncle Joe’s room my sister and cousin Casey found love letters. Love letters my grandmother had written to my granddaddy in 1949. She was a senior in high school. He, having graduated the year before, was living in Tennessee where he’d had to move for work. We read those letters aloud and listened to her words. She recounted her day and professed her love. She talked of how much she missed him; how she longed to see him again. 

In one of those letters, adorned by her lipsticked kiss, grandmother mentioned their song, “How Soon” and how she wanted it played at their wedding. She ended that sentence with, “Ha.” None of us knew the song, but I went to my iPhone and started searching the title and the year. I found several recordings of the song “How Soon (Will I Be Seeing You)?” Without knowing the artist’s version she liked the most I bought Dinah Shore’s. Since I know of the song’s importance to my grandparents only through the voice of my grandmother’s words in that letter it seemed only fitting that the voice who sings it to me be female.

Those letters had travelled from Arlington via mail to Tennessee and back to Arlington via, one would suppose, my granddaddy’s suitcase; from the original homestead where they lived as a new family to the house they built in 1978. More than 60 years later they were found stowed away in that drawer. 

One might argue that they were forgotten tokens saved from a bygone era, but I would say they meant so much to my granddaddy that he kept them because he loved her--though tokens they might be, they were tokens of that love. We’ll never know why granddaddy saved those letters or if he even remembered that he had.


No matter how many “things” filled their house the one thing no one can dismiss is the love that was there. And even though the house is now mostly an empty shell we carry on our lives with the spirit and essence of their love living inside us. 

There is no longer the question of How Soon? lingering between them. There is, however, a bag of candy from The Little Store that will have to be shared.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


I’ll start here: “I’m wondering how long I’ve been living my life expecting rejection instead of seeing possibilities.” That was a Facebook status that I updated as I walked away from my gym after a decent if not pushed to fatigue workout. 

I followed that statement with “Hmmm...” both written and vocal.

Let me now take you back to what prompted it. I was standing in the gym watching people. The gym is a great place to watch people. You have built in breaks between reps with mirrors everywhere. It’s hard not to watch people. There was one man in particular who I had seen enter the locker room while I was still getting ready for my workout. He entered wearing a cap and aviator shades. I remembered him because all I could see of him was the bottom half of his face and that bottom half had two perfect lips. When he was decapped and deshaded I got the full picture. He didn’t have the lush head of dark hair that his dark cap allowed my mind to create for him, but a shaved head instead. His face was slightly more narrow than the aviator’s revealed, but he was very cute. I watched him as he walked out of the locker room singing to himself, looking twice at the friend I was talking to and never at me. 

Later, down on the training floor, I saw him again. I saw him see other guys, but never me. It was in that moment between reps, watching people, that I realized I don’t often look for the possibilities but am always prepared for the rejection. I say rejection because that’s how it feels to me when someone I find attractive doesn’t notice me. I create the scenario where they don’t think I’m attractive therefore they reject me. My crazy leaks out at some of the most inopportune moments. Anyway. 

I never give myself enough credit for being someone that others might actually want to get to know or like hanging out with.

I’m going to make a leap now in an effort to determine if there’s a connection.

Here’s what I’m wondering: I have a guilt complex regarding my birth. I’ll explain. I was conceived out of wedlock, but born post wedding. My parents got pregnant in high school, got married in high school, then became parents within weeks of graduation.

None of this is my fault. None of it. But I possess the guilt of a child wondering what his parents’ lives might have been like had they not been tied down with him just as their lives should have been experiencing the post high school lift off. I’ve often considered myself a mistake; an accident. My parents have never made me feel that way. Those are my words and my feelings. 

I began a dialogue with my therapist about this at the end of my last session. He compared these feelings to those children sometimes adopt when their parents get divorced. They blame themselves for the separation even when it has nothing to do with them. My being born is not my fault. When I think about my family, my being born was the only option. Abortion would not have been an option and I can’t imagine adoption was a thought that tipped the scale on the possibility side. No, I was to be born and that’s that.

I think the guilt stems from the idea that I wonder what my mom might have accomplished had she been free to go to college. I don’t even know if she wanted to go to college. I know that I wanted to go to college so I’m projecting my thoughts onto her teenage self. My dad said to me one time that he and mom were going to get married but I hurried it along. That’s probably the truth. Maybe my parents were going to get married, but maybe they wouldn’t have gotten married so quickly. To put this in cause and effect terms: I’m making myself the cause in a scenario where the effect is a life without choice. I’ve created that scenario complete with self bashing guilt without one example of truth that my “cause” produced a negative “effect”. 

I saw my mother’s grades once when I was in high school. She was a good student. Smart. Popular. She didn’t get to walk at graduation. There was no cap and gown for her. My dad got to walk in cap and gown no problem, but not my mom. That double standard hurts me for her. My parents were married and had been for 4 months by the time their graduation rolled around, but in 1971 the pregnant girl couldn’t walk. 

I cannot explain why any of this should cause me guilt. I did nothing wrong. The pregnancy is not my fault. Really I should take fault off the table. I could ask why protected sex wasn’t practiced, but if it had been I wouldn’t be here.

Have you ever wondered where the red brick road leads in the film The Wizard of Oz? I have and quite often. I think a perfect example of what could have been lies down that road. For my mother, she didn’t take that road. She took the yellow brick road and on her journey toward Oz she was given me. Her path includes me and probably always did.

She didn’t reject me--not at birth, not when I came out. My father didn’t reject me either. Why then do I find it so easy to think the boy with the great lips (a stand in for any boy) is never going to notice me? The minute I saw him I felt I had nothing that would draw his focus. Why have I cast myself in the long running saga of my life as “the boy who gets rejected”?

Where does this idea of it being easy to think I’ll be rejected and therefore it’s not even worth the effort to try come from? Is it because I think I’m unworthy? I can tell myself everyday that I’m worthy of love, happiness, health, wealth, friendship (the list goes on), but I’m not sure I believe it. That is a sad realization. Yet I do get out of bed every morning and say, “Thank You” to the Universe for a new day to live and love and learn. That means I have to know there are possibilities for good (and bad) things to come into my life every day.

My therapist says that instead of seeing myself as a mistake I should see that the Universe made room for me. Space and time opened up and welcomed me with open arms just like my parents. I should except that my mother’s path includes me and that without her unexpected pregnancy I wouldn’t even exist. Unexpected is the way my therapist wants me to view my existence. He’s right. Mistake and accident are negatives that I’ve put on like a heavy coat in the middle of summer. They’re dark, heavy, suffocating words.

I was unexpected and instead of preparing for expected rejections I really need to open my mind and eyes to the possibilities. They can be unexpected too. Unexpected things can be good things. Just ask my mom. 

Flight of Family


Sitting in seat 22C waiting for the free DirectTV preview to end, "This happened" was running through my mind.

I was tired. I won’t pretend to be as tired as I’m sure the rest of my family must have been from their long overnight vigils, but I was tired nonetheless. After getting the call at 5:21am to tell me, "He's gone," sleep had not come back easily. It shouldn’t have, if I’m honest. I should have gotten up right then and began planning my trip to Kentucky for his funeral, but I didn’t. I laid in my bed and willed myself back to sleep. I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t face the day. I didn’t want to face that day. If I went back to sleep I was buying myself a few more hours, or minutes, without having to process that the inevitable had happened. The only sleep that came, however, was light. It was more a resting of the body, but not a resting of the mind. So that inevitable processing began working its way from the knowledge center of my brain to the emotional center of my heart...

Granddaddy died. I’m never going to talk to him again. Is Momma going to be okay? How am I going to do this? That was the phone call I’d been dreading. All these days of ups and downs over. I wonder if anyone feels relief mixed with their sadness. Everybody's there. I wish I was there. Granddaddy went to sleep and never woke up. Granddaddy is gone.

...when I finally threw the covers from my body and placed my feet firmly on the ground, the sadness hung over me like Charlie Brown's cloud. I could feel it penetrating my soul as the day progressed. Once a flight was booked, the car ordered, and my bag packed I was left with the mundane things like taking out the trash, washing my breakfast dishes, getting cash from the ATM. I passed the remaining time watching television programs recorded on my DVR. As the time for my car pick up arrived, that feeling in the pit of my stomach began to ache--slight at first while riding in the car to the airport; growing in intensity as I sat waiting to board the plane; more intense once up in the air.  

Sleep came to me on the plane, but brought with it dreams that were so vivid I was afraid I might call out or moan. It was a sleep that was just on the cusp of fully under, hovering in a purgatory between alert and dozing. It wasn't restful. The turbulence that accompanied parts of our flight added to the distraction and inability to fully relax.

Of course that aching in the pit of my stomach that continued to grow was the dread of seeing my family. Don’t misunderstand. I wanted to see them. I needed to see them. But I had kept myself together from the moment I’d heard the news of Granddaddy's passing. The vision of seeing my sister waiting for me at the airport gave me pause to question if I could hold myself together in that moment. I would have to wait and see.

No one could blame me for crying. Sadness does that to you. The death of a grandparent will do that to you. The death of your last grandparent--and your mother's last surviving parent--will do that to you. There's the desire to be strong for my mother, but the acknowledgment that I'm human too, and I’m going to feel the emotional impact of this situation when I see the members of my family who loved this man as much as I did.


I wasn't alone on the Paducah leg of my flight. Steen was with me. Marshall Steen Fischer. He's married to my cousin, Leah. When I first met Steen, Leah told me some people call him by his middle name, Steen, instead of calling him, Marshall. I latched onto it right away. It never fails to bring a smile to both of our faces. I think it started out as sort of a joke, but has become a term of endearment. I almost always refer to him as Steen. It’s become my thing. His thing is to call me Big Mike. 

So Steen and Big Mike connect in Chicago and fly to Paducah. I sat in seat 4B. Steen was two rows ahead of me and across the aisle before he moved to the window seat of the unoccupied row directly in front of me. Even though we weren't sitting together, it was a comfort to know that I was not alone. I think that was a big deal for me as I had been reliant on the texts and phone calls from my family--most of whom had been at Granddaddy's bedside for days--to get information on his condition. I could have been there myself, but his symptoms seemed to constantly change from better to worse and back again. To fly to Kentucky to sit and wait seemed like a death watch to me. So I chose to stay at home in NYC and work knowing I would have to leave at the drop of a hat when the inevitable happened.

To have weathered that waiting without the companionship of family made Steen's presence on that leg of my flight home a comfort that I hadn't even known I wanted. That's the power of family especially when family doubles as a friend.