Personal

First Thanksgiving

A few weeks ago my brother and I scattered our parents’ ashes into the St. Joseph River in South Bend. Leeper Park hugs the river immediately north of downtown, and is a short walk from Mom’s childhood home. It was Mom’s wish that her ashes be scattered there. Dad wished only that his ashes be scattered, so we chose this place for him, too. We invited close friends and family.

We crossed a footbridge onto a small island just off the river bank, and released their ashes under this tree. Rick released Dad, and I released Mom. A persistent, insistent wind wanted to blow their ashes back, so we went slowly. Finally we finished, and their remains spread gently into the water.

My wife handed out flowers from large bouquets; carnations, roses, lilies, and daisies. Our guests took them gratefully and tossed them right into the water so they could float downriver with Mom and Dad.

It was good to share stories with everyone and shed mutual tears. Several of us then went to lunch together after and continued to stay connected over our mutual losses.

Thanksgiving was Mom’s favorite holiday. Until she handed off the reins to me six or seven years ago, she always made the family meal. It was the same every year, as the food tradition mattered so much to her. A well-set table also mattered to her and it was the one time we used the generational family china, glassware, and silver. When Mom passed the china down to my wife and me, we knew she meant for us to continue her traditions. We did.

Now, I may not. Those traditions don’t mean anything to my wife’s family, although they cheerfully went along with them these last several years. What’s left of my family don’t always come for Thanksgiving. This year especially, my two sons will spend Thanksgiving with their mom, as it’s the first since we lost their oldest sister Rana. It feels like we are free to make our own traditions. Or maybe we’ll make no traditions and just do whatever feels good every year. But no matter what we do, we’ll remember Mom on her favorite holiday.

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Comparing and contrasting grief

People kindly keep asking me how I’m doing since Mom died. I always say some version of, “This is hard, but I’m okay.” Sometimes I add, “Losing my daughter at the end of last year was so wicked hard that losing my mom feels like a walk in the park.”

Rana the last time I saw her, Aug. 2021

Rana’s death was a deep shock that wouldn’t lift for a long time. Then I was furious with her for taking her own life. I was exhausted for weeks. At first I couldn’t sleep at night. But soon I slept hard every night, but still awoke tired. I’m not normally a napper, but sometime in the afternoon I’d just hit the wall and nothing but 20 or 30 minutes of sleep would get me past it. Then I was deeply sad, and I felt lost.

In time, my grief settled into an ongoing sadness, a dull ache. By mid-summer I was starting to enjoy life again, thanks in part to antidepressants and good grief counseling, and Rana wasn’t on my mind every day anymore.

All my life I expected that my mother’s death would tear me apart. I adored Mom and always felt very close to her. She was a source of safety for me as a child, and she did many lovely things for and with me that are lasting good memories.

Mom watching my brother run track, Spring 1985

After Dad died, my relationship with Mom became unsettled. Not only was she grieving, but also she was figuring out what she wanted and who she was without her husband. This altered some of our familiar patterns and occasionally left one or the other of us feeling a little alienated from the other. It was never serious, but we needed to have some conversations to make amends and find new patterns.

We were still working things out when the cancer came. The treatment wiped her out, as treatment does. Then, thanks to osteoporosis, her vertebrae started developing hairline fractures, one by one, with treatment and recovery each time. She wasn’t able to do very much. All she wanted was to be able to run her errands, see her friends, and work in her garden, but all of this was severely curtailed. She watched a lot of TV, and she lost a lot of weight, mostly muscle. “This sucks, Jimmy,” she said. “If this is the rest of my life, I don’t want it.”

I was relieved for her when she died. I was relieved for my brother and me, too, as we felt helpless while she suffered and declined. The devastation I feared never came. I’ve felt like a hundred pounds have been draped over my shoulders, and my mood is low. There have been a few very rough days. But this grief is young yet, and who knows how it will unfold. At least I’m functioning reasonably well.

Margaret with her parents, Jo Anne and Walt, at Mass in April, 2018

We lost my wife’s mom, Jo Anne, in the summer of 2019. I’d known Jo Anne, and Margaret’s dad, Walt, only since about 2014, as I came late to the family party. They were a dear couple, devoted to their faith and their family. Jo Anne was smarter than she usually let on, and she had a wonderful creative streak.

Her deathbed was in Margaret’s sister’s home. All of Margaret’s seven brothers and sisters, plus husbands and many of the 20+ grandchildren, gathered more than once to pray the rosary over her. She was conscious for many days as she slowly faded away, and was able to interact with her family on some level until nearly the end.

When she died, I was saddened, and I felt the loss. But I’m not sure I’d say I experienced full-on grief; I had known her only a handful of years, and we weren’t close. I mostly felt bad for Margaret, and tried as best I could to be there for her.

Jeff and Mariah just after they eloped in January, 2018

In April of 2018 we lost Mariah, Margaret’s son Jeff’s wife. It was an accidental death. Jeff struggled through his 20s to find his footing and build a stable adult life. He had some staggering setbacks. So did Mariah. Their difficult experiences lined up well enough that they understood each other. They were crazy about each other, and I think Mariah is the love of Jeff’s life. Her sudden death was traumatic for us all. Margaret and her daughter Lain were devastated, as they knew her well and loved her very much. I wasn’t as close to her, but even so her death felt like being hit in the head with a baseball bat. I staggered through my life for weeks, reeling. But when that passed, I was mostly okay again.

Dad with his new puppy, Shadow, in about 1991

I say mostly okay because I had lost my father in January that year. Dad and I had a challenging relationship; I wrote about it at length. He loved me to the best of his ability, and I think I loved him. I was attached to him for sure. But I often felt terrorized by him as a child. He was easily angered, and when angry, he was harsh and punitive. For example, when I was a boy he grew tired of me not putting my Big Wheel (a plastic tricycle) away when I was done with it, so one day he made me watch while he sliced it in half on his band saw. I worked hard to forgive his bad behavior toward me so I could be at peace.

In my 40s, I finally realized that the only way I was going to have a relationship with him was on his terms. I was deeply disappointed, as I hoped for greater openness and closeness. I was never happy about it, but in time I came to accept it. He loved to argue, and I learned the hard way to refuse to be baited. He was always interested in my career, so we mostly talked about work.

Dad learned he had lung cancer in 2007. His cancer metastasized in 2017, and he died the day after his birthday in January, 2018. I wasn’t very sad and I didn’t miss him. I still don’t miss him. But the first year or so after his death I was anguished and angry over the terrible lost opportunity, a lifetime of next to never having the close, warm relationship I always wanted with him.

Gracie and me
Me and Gracie in about 2009

On Thanksgiving day in 2013, my dog Gracie died. My first wife picked her up as a stray and it was clear she had been abused. She never fully recovered from it and was always a difficult dog.

I got our two dogs in the divorce. Sugar, our Rottweiler, died within a year. She was the best dog I ever had, and I missed her, but I didn’t grieve for long. I guess we just weren’t that close after all. Gracie, on the other hand, was the dog I never wanted. But after Sugar died, she bonded hard to me — and in time, I to her.

Gracie lived to be very old, at least 18. In her later years, she slowed down considerably and became deaf. This only drew us closer as I took greater care of her and even worked out hand signals to communicate with her.

She died on my parents’ kitchen floor. I felt my heart breaking as she lay there dying. I was torn up that she drew her last breath while I was on the phone with the emergency vet.

But she was just a dog, right? I went right back to work as if nothing had happened. But I missed Gracie terribly. I cried a lot for weeks, and it hurt for a year. I still miss Gracie, nine years later. I’ll never understand our bond, but it was deep and strong. I moved out of the house we shared in 2017, four years after Gracie died, but I never stopped expecting to see her lying in the nook created where my desks intersected in my office. It was her perch; she could see and hear much of the house from there. I never stopped being disappointed she wasn’t there. I seldom remember my dreams, but when I do, Gracie is often in them.

From all of this I conclude that the experience of grief varies widely, and depends on the relationship you shared with the person (or dog), as well as timing, namely what else has happened in your life, especially lately.

But I’m tired of grieving. I’m ready to move past it. Unfortunately, Margaret’s dad has been in painfully slow decline for a year now, and is under 24-hour medical care. He can’t do anything for himself anymore, and spends his days sitting. It’s no kind of life. We all hope he dies in his sleep, tonight if possible, so he can be released. But that’s one more grief to suffer.

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Personal, Stories Told

First and final memories with Mom

When I was small and we lived on Rabbit Hill, Mom made fun for us out of next to nothing.

There was an easement behind the houses on our side of the street for electric lines. Behind that were the houses on the next street over. Because of the way the two streets curved, east of our house the easement widened considerably. I remember the area being full of tall grass, with a few trees on the perimeter.

Once Mom packed us a picnic. We walked the easement back to that open area and spread a blanket on the grass. It was such a simple thing, but it felt like such an adventure. I don’t remember at all what we ate that day — probably bologna sandwiches. It didn’t matter what was for lunch. We were doing something new and different and special, and I was excited!

We knew Mom had days left when I recounted this memory to her. She knew it, too; she told me so that day, even though words came with difficulty through the morphine. She tried to tell me things, but could manage only a word or two. It clearly frustrated her. If I asked her a question that required a one-word answer, she spoke clearly and immediately, which I think was a relief to her. But then she paused and said, “I’m on my way out.”

I was relieved that she knew it, but my heart ached for her. Her last year had been one health problem after another, blocking her from the one pleasure she so badly wanted: to work in her garden. Oh, for her to have just one more season with her flowers and herbs!

I began to tell her my favorite memories from my childhood. I started with the picnic story. Then I asked her if she remembered the day we walked to the end of our street, rode the city bus downtown, and shopped at Robertson’s. That was my hometown’s big department store.

Courtesy Cardboard America

There was a luncheonette on the mezzanine at Robertson’s, and Mom bought us lunch there that day. We had sandwiches and milk, nothing extravagant, but it had to be quite a splurge for Mom. When we got up to leave, I noticed that Mom had left 45 cents on the table. I don’t know why after 50 years I remember that it was 45 cents, but I do. I thought surely she had left it behind by mistake! I scooped it up and brought it right to her. “Oh Jimmy,” she said, “that’s for the waitress.” She went back and left it on the table again. That’s how I learned about tipping!

I told her that she had created so many wonderful memories for my brother and me, and that they made us feel very loved and special. I said I was sad that she was so close to the end, but that I had a lifetime of being loved by her to remember and rest in. I said that everything was taken care of, and there was nothing more to do. I told her that it was okay for her to go, whenever she was ready. After a little while she fell asleep, and we left for home.

I wish I had also shared my memory of the time she threw a party for all of the neighborhood children, just for the fun of it. Of how she walked me to school on my first day of Kindergarten, and how safe and supported that made me feel. Of how she always had a good lunch waiting for us at home each school day, and what a welcome break it was, and how I loved that she would sit with us and listen to us talk about our morning. Of how she helped me learn my multiplication tables in the fourth grade, something I really struggled with, and how pleased the teacher was when I mastered them. Of how she was so affectionate to me on those rare days I was sick and had to stay home from school, and how that was exactly what I needed. Of the day the tornado touched down on the road at the end of our street while I was trying hard to walk home from a neighbor’s house, and I was afraid to my core; when I finally made it home I ran to her crying and melted into her arms. Of making pizza together, of making milkshakes together, of drying the dishes as she washed them and just talking about whatever was on my mind. Of coming to school to hear me sing in the choir. Of sending me on my bike to the store four blocks away for milk, and how that made me feel like I was trusted and had something to offer. Of how she walked with me to the local library branch to get my library card, and let me go there to check out books all the time.

Of how she loved me deeply, fiercely, and openly, and how much that firm foundation let me venture out into the world with confidence.

I hope the stories I told her let her know with certainty that I loved her, and appreciated her, and was grateful for her. I think they did.

That was Saturday. Sunday when I went to visit her, she was talking out loud to nobody when I entered the room. Then she saw me. “Oh Jimmy!” We talked a lot that day. It was clear she was not always in touch with reality, but she was present enough to connect with me. My son Damion decided to visit that day, too, and I’m so glad he did. He and Mom talked for a half an hour about all sorts of things. Damion was gracious when she garbled her words or said something that didn’t make any sense in context. But overall, they had a lovely conversation, their last, it turned out. Damion finally said he had to head home, a 90-minute drive. Mom’s last words to him were, “Drive carefully!” It was perfect; she always said that to all of us when we headed home from her place.

After Damion left, Mom talked with my brother, Margaret, and me for a little while. Then abruptly she said, “I’m tired and need to sleep. You all go home. You don’t need to stay here all day. I’ll be fine.”

“I love you guys. You have been so good to me.” Those were her last words to us.

Early Monday morning the nurse called my brother urging him to come to the hospital right away. Rick texted me the same message, which I didn’t see until my alarm woke me. I drove to the hospital as soon as I could manage. Mom was asleep. She didn’t look at all to me like she was living her last day. But the nurse said that she was seeing strong signs that made her sure that Mom wouldn’t survive the day.

Margaret and I were a little hungry, and we decided that it was important to solve that problem right away so that we wouldn’t be distracted when Mom left us. Just as we started back to the hospital after finishing our meal, my brother texted to say that she was gone.

When we arrived at Mom’s room, there she was, physically present but spiritually gone. My brother was there when she died, thank God, so she didn’t die alone.

Two difficult events when I was younger always kept me away from the dead. My mother’s best friend died of cancer in 1981. She and her family lived across the street from us on Rabbit Hill. I had wonderful memories of her — she was fun, and interesting, and insightful. She was an amazing woman. At her funeral, her youngest son was a teenager trying to hold it together. He led me personally to his mother’s casket. But in her last days in the hospital, a tube had bent the corner of her mouth downward in an ugly way. Her son had warned me, but the sight of it was more than I could bear. I had such wonderful memories of her when she was alive, and I was angry that this was my final memory of her.

My grandfather died after the new year in 1987. The year before he had been in and out of the hospital fighting the illness that finally took him. I have a sterling memory of him from the previous summer. My brother and I spent a weekend with him and our grandmother. He was his usual self, as if he’d never been sick. When we left, he told us he loved us. It was the one and only time that stoic Greatest Generation man had ever said it. I cling to that memory.

But as he lay dying I was ushered into his room to see him, unconscious and shriveled, all of his muscle lost as he had withered away. I deeply regret seeing him, as it is a terrible last memory.

These two events sharply altered how I have handled funerals from then on. I refuse to view the body. I have a last memory of the deceased while they were alive and I strongly prefer to keep it that way. When Mom called to say that Dad had just died, I drove straight to their home. But I refused to see Dad lying dead so I could keep my last memory of him.

When Margaret and I reached Mom’s room, her body still lay in the bed. Strangely, it was comforting to see her. It connected me concretely with the devastating finality of her death.

We sat with her as we talked about the things we needed to do next, estate matters, her cremation, and such. I don’t know about my brother, but it sure helped me to talk about those concrete matters then and there, while Mom was with us, at least in body. It both started, and somehow eased, the grieving process. When we left her room, we were surprised to find we’d been in there for more than two hours.

It’s been three and a half weeks now since Mom left us. I always expected that Mom’s death would be devastating, but it hasn’t been. I’m really, really sad. Sometimes my mind just wanders away into the fog, which isn’t awesome when I’m in a meeting at work. Perhaps that the shock and horror of my daughter Rana’s death at the end of last year makes this grief seem like a walk in the park in comparison. But every grief is different, I’ve learned. I’m not sure what’s in store. But I know concretely that Mom loved me, to her core.

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Carole Ann (Frederick) Grey, 1944-2022

My mom died last Monday, of cancer.

Mom smoked most of her adult life, which led to COPD several years ago and lung cancer last autumn. She told only a handful of people about the cancer. She was optimistic that treatment would give her a few more years, and she didn’t want anyone fussing over her until it was absolutely necessary.

Treatment was hard and it sapped her energy. Then advancing osteoporosis led to debilitating fractures in several vertebrae, one after another over several months. There’s an outpatient procedure to treat that, but a couple weeks after each procedure another vertebra would fracture and she’d do it all over again. Mom needed a lot of help through all this, and it was up to my brother and me to provide it. This was a treadmill all of us wanted off, yet it lasted for months. Mom was frustrated that she couldn’t do much of anything, especially the simple things that brought joy to her life.

My brother and I grieve this huge loss, but we are also relieved that this is over.

Mom was born December 18, 1944, to George and Kathryn Frederick in South Bend, Indiana. She was the third of four children: Jack, Dick, Carole, and Dennis. The family lived in South Bend’s historic Chapin Park neighborhood for much of her childhood. This neighborhood of brick streets and large, older homes is near downtown and the St. Joseph River. Mom spent a lot of her childhood exploring the area around the river. She described herself as a tomboy who would climb a tree and then move from tree to tree for blocks, never needing to touch the ground. She also enjoyed going downtown during the formality of the 1950s, a time when a well-dressed woman would not be caught dead downtown without her gloves on.

George was an engineer at Bendix Corporation who designed brakes for trains and landing gears for airplanes. Kathryn was at times a homemaker and at other times worked in South Bend department stores. They enjoyed an upper-middle-class life. They were the first family in the neighborhood to get television, which Mom remembered happening 1948 or 1949. This was before South Bend had television stations. They aimed their antenna toward Chicago, where they’d pick up Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, Mom remembered distinctly. Neighborhood kids would fill the living room to watch. The Fredericks were also known far and wide for their annual open house the night of Christmas Eve, which was a proper bash. Her childhood wasn’t idyllic, however; as her father’s career took off, both of her parents increasingly drank too much. Their alcoholism led to dysfunction in the family.

Mom’s high-school graduation portrait, 1963.

Mom was a beautiful young woman who was pursued by several men during her teenage years. These men came from the upper-middle-class and upper-class world in which Mom’s family moved. But none of them lit Mom’s fire.

Jim Grey, 1958.

Jim Grey was born in the hills of West Virginia, from a family that lived from hand to mouth. Mom met him in about 1963, as she was finishing high school and after he had completed a tour of duty in the Navy. Mom fell hard and fast. They married in 1964, when Mom was just 19. Dad soon found a good job with Oliver Corporation, which made farm equipment. Mom worked as a secretary and a bookkeeper.

Mom became pregnant with me in late 1966. They needed to buy their first house, but they didn’t have money for a down payment. They came upon a large and growing family so desperate to leave a small starter house on South Bend’s south side that they let my parents assume their mortgage. I came in August of 1967, and my brother Rick followed in July of 1968.

The Greys in 1972, on my grandparents’ big green davenport.

We enjoyed living in that neighborhood the adults all called Rabbit Hill. Many young families lived there, and there were lots of children around. Mom stayed at home with Rick and me in those years, as was so common then. After we started school, we walked home for lunch most days. Mom created a warm and comfortable home for us, even though money remained tight on Dad’s wages.

2903 Erskine Blvd.

In 1976 we moved to a larger home less than a mile away. The house on Erskine Blvd. is the one I consider to be “home,” as that’s where I spent my teenage years. Also, Mom and Dad lived there for 38 years. Well into my adult life I could always go home.

Mom did a lot to make our home as lovely as we could afford. She did most of the work painting the interior. She did most of the work landscaping the yard, including planting plenty of flowers. She and Dad bought antique furniture for the home, and bought art to hang on the walls. Much of the art they owned came from their friend Dean Porter, who was an artist and art professor at Notre Dame.

Mom typing a paper for my brother, 1984.

Mom was also heavily involved at our elementary school. She was recording secretary of the PTA; she was “room mother” each year, alternating between my class and Rick’s; and she was on the teams that put together special events like Balloon Day and an annual school fun fair.

As Rick and I entered our teenage years, Mom took a job as an aide at the elementary school. One reason she chose that job was because she could walk there — she didn’t drive. Another reason was that she would be home with her kids whenever we weren’t in school. After a few years Mom became an aide in the high school, which was also within walking distance. I’d see her around the hallways sometimes; a few times when I was about to be late to class I’d stop by her desk and she’d write me a pass. The teachers always arched an eyebrow at that, but then chuckled and let it pass.. Some time after I graduated, Mom became the attendance secretary and held that job for many years.

Mom’s job was especially important when Rick and I went off to college — I chose Rose-Hulman and he chose Notre Dame, the two most expensive schools in Indiana. We got a lot of need-based financial aid, and Rick and I borrowed money to pay a portion, but Mom and Dad funded the rest. Because Rick and I were one year apart, for three of those years they wrote large checks to both schools. Dad had risen in his career into manufacturing management, but even with that much improved salary, money remained tight.

Mom in 1991, in what had been my childhood bedroom.

After we were clear of college, Dad decided to leave manufacturing and go into business building bespoke wood furniture. He was a talented cabinetmaker who had been building pieces on the side for Notre Dame and several private clients, and he thought he would be able to make a real go of it. Mom was his business manager, keeping the books and handling all of the administrative tasks. Mom kept working at the high school, as well. I’m a fuzzy on the timing but I remember that she did finally quit that job after a new Principal didn’t treat her well and the pressure finally became too much. I’m pretty sure there was some period of time where Mom and Dad relied entirely on Dad’s income as a cabinetmaker.

Mom described those years as the closest and happiest of their marriage. She felt like they were fully partners, and it filled her with joy. But those were also mighty lean years. Dad hoped word of mouth would be enough to build his business, but it wasn’t, and Dad wasn’t much of a salesman. In the end, they threw in the towel and Dad went back to work in manufacturing.

While I was growing up, I always thought that there wasn’t enough money for us to own nice things, or to take vacations, or to go out to a restaurant nicer than McDonald’s once in a while. Yet money was there to send me on a once-in-a-lifetime exchange trip to Germany while I was in high school, and money was there to send Rick and I to expensive colleges. Money was there. Not much, but some, for sure. Through young-adult eyes I started to see that my father was just a tightwad — and that my mother very much wanted the occasional luxury. She would have loved to take a trip with Dad, even something as straightforward as a weekend in Chicago. She would have loved to enjoy a few nice possessions. I don’t think Mom expected or even wanted Dad to drown her in luxury. She understood that she married a man who came from nothing, made working-class wages, and by his nature lived frugally. But I could see she was disappointed.

I tried to fill that gap, at least a little. In those first post-college years, every summer I invited Mom to spend a week with me in my Terre Haute apartment. I took some time off work and we’d go play. I didn’t make much money so our excursions were humble. Once we went to see a jazz trio at a coffeehouse, and we enjoyed it so much we closed the joint. We shopped for antiques, something we both always enjoyed doing. She talked me into buying a very nice mahogany dresser at one shop. I drove her to the covered bridge at Bridgeton one year. Every year we drove Indianapolis for a day to enjoy some of what the big city offered, including a meal at as nice of a restaurant as I could afford. When I visited my parents in South Bend, I always took Mom shopping, something Dad not only wouldn’t do, but criticized as unnecessary. Once for Mom’s birthday I took a day off, drove to South Bend, and surprised Mom with a trip on the South Shore train to Chicago to spend the day in the Loop and visit Marshall Field’s. We had a lovely lunch there in their fanciest restaurant.

Family Christmas dinner in 2000. Connie Barton photo.

I did less of this after I married in 1994, and even less after my son Damion was born in 1997. My life was full of my own family. Mom was happy to be a grandma. She readily accepted Ross, my wife’s child from her previous marriage. Mom was indispensable when Damion and Garrett were born — she was with us in the delivery room, and spent the next week with us helping us care for our new little ones as my wife recovered from the birth.

Mom with Garrett, 2000. Connie Barton photo.

I started to see that before I married, I had been doing things for Mom that I believed my father should have been doing. Now I had a wife of my own, and she deserved that time and energy.

Moreover, my marriage was troubled. I’ve written about it a lot on this site so I won’t rehash it here except to say that it consumed me. After that marriage ended, Mom said that she watched in fear as I shrank away and lost myself. I had become an empty shell, she said, and she missed me terribly. It was a long, slow climb back to myself.

As my life restabilized, my new home became the place where the Greys gathered. I worked hard to make excellent memories for us all there. Mom and Dad still lived in South Bend then, but came to Indianapolis several times a year, including a week every summer, to spend time with their grandsons. Christmas was always at my house, and I worked my butt off every year to make it a terrific time for everybody.

Mom at my house at Christmas in 2012, with her dog Abigail.

It’s funny how when you’re living a busy life of work and family, you lose track of your parents’ timeline. I don’t remember what year Dad retired. He had been plant manager for three companies over several years, and was terminated each time. At one of the companies he may have quit rather than be demoted. I can’t remember clearly the reasons Dad said each job ended, but in each case it sounded like he wasn’t treated equitably toward the end. He never reflected on what he might have done to contribute to his terminations, at least not to me. But after the third firing, he was thoroughly demoralized.

Juvenile Justice Center
The sprawling Juvenile Justice Center in South Bend, which housed the St. Joseph County Probate Court.

In the face of this uncertainty, Mom went back to work. She soon became a clerk in the St. Joseph County Probate Court. I don’t remember whether this was before or after Dad decided to retire. I do remember clearly, however, Mom telling me that he didn’t consult her about it at all. He just announced one day that he’d put in for Social Security and was retired.

Mom was beside herself, not just because he decided that unilaterally, but because it meant she had to work now to keep her and Dad afloat. Dad’s service in the Navy included the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion, which qualified him for Veterans Administration benefits, including health care. The way Mom talked about it, Dad didn’t even think about how Mom would cover her health care when he made his decision. “I guess you’ll have to take a job that offers health insurance,” he said.

I lost a great deal of respect for my father for this. I’m still angry with him for it. My father taught his sons that it was our responsibility to provide for our wives, and to protect them. Dad didn’t live up to his own values and left Mom not only to fend for herself, but to support him.

I guess it’s a consolation that Mom really loved her job in the Probate Court. She was a key player in the computerization of that court’s records. She said they were one of the very first courts in the state to do that. She was very skilled in the software, and helped not only the judges and magistrates use it, but also the attorneys, who could now file papers electronically from their offices.

Dad learned he had lung cancer in 2007. Because Dad got his health care through the VA, he made a lot of trips to the big VA hospital in Indianapolis. He developed macular degeneration; as it progressed, his sight grew worse and worse. He was still okay to drive, but he grew concerned about the frequent long trips to Indianapolis. Eventually Dad wanted to move to Indianapolis, in large part to be closer to his health care.

Family game time, 2016.

It was time for them to leave the house on Erskine Blvd. anyway, as they were starting to find it challenging to care for the property as they always had. But Mom never wanted to leave her home town. She always thought they’d buy a smaller house or maybe a condo there. But she could see that it was probably best for Dad to live in Indianapolis. Housing costs more here, so they wouldn’t be able to afford as much house. She spent well more than a year getting rid of more than three decades of accumulated stuff so they could downsize. She finished in 2014. Mom retired, they listed the house for sale, and they moved into a small condo in Indianapolis.

A strong upside to this move was that Mom and Dad could visit me and my sons a lot more often. We had a lot more great times in my little house. By this time I had met Margaret, and we were heading toward marriage. Margaret was frequently a part of our family gatherings. Her four children were sometimes a part of the story as well.

As Dad’s health slowly declined, I think Mom felt increasingly isolated. She missed South Bend for sure, and all of her friends there. And then Dad’s cancer metastasized. He needed more and more help with daily living and she found herself immersed in caring for him.

Dad’s vision had also deteriorated enough that he had to stop driving. This was a big deal to Dad, but a bigger deal to Mom because she didn’t drive.

In 1985, against Dad’s wishes, Mom went to driving school and got her driver’s license. But Dad refused to let her buy a car of her own, and his car had a manual transmission that she couldn’t drive. Dad’s next two cars had manual transmissions, too, and I feel sure that a main reason was that Mom couldn’t drive them. Mom eventually gave up on driving.

Margaret and I re-taught Mom how to drive. Mom struggled with confidence and fear behind the wheel, but became comfortable enough to drive to shopping and doctor’s offices near their home. She hated Dad’s car, which was surprisingly uncomfortable and bigger than Mom wanted anyway. So at age 72, we took Mom to buy her first car. She chose the smallest one on the lot, a little Nissan Versa Note.

Mom and Dad and her new car, 2017.

Dad passed away early in 2018. Then at the end of 2019, Mom’s dog Abigail unexpectedly died. For the first time in her life, Mom lived entirely alone. It was something she never wanted.

My brother Rick stepped way up, providing a lot of companionship for Mom, taking her places and giving her new experiences. One thing in particular he showed Mom was the joy of walking into a very nice restaurant without a reservation, but taking seats at the bar and enjoying dinner and drinks there. Anytime I went out with Mom after that, even to the pub across the street from her home, she always wanted dinner at the bar.

Garrett’s college graduation, 2021.

I saw Mom as often as I could, but it wasn’t nearly as often as I wanted. I’ve written a lot here about how crazy life has been since Margaret and I married. It’s been one loss or crisis after another, and it’s taken an enormous amount of time and energy. Over the last five years, Mom has reached out to me many times imploring me to call or come by. Rick has even had to urge me to visit Mom more often.

The pandemic made this harder, of course. All her life, Mom wanted to visit Churchill Downs. For Christmas in 2019, our gift to her was a trip to that famous track in the spring. We even bought tickets. COVID scuttled the trip, of course.

There were good times. She got to see both Damion and Garrett graduate college. In the last few months at my previous employer, believe it or not I had very little to do — it’s one of the reasons I left — and I visited Mom many afternoons. The pandemic was still in full swing that autumn and winter and we still felt unsafe being in each others’ homes. I bought a powerful propane heater for her back patio and we sat out there in the radiant warmth drinking coffee. That worked until temperatures fell below freezing and that heater couldn’t keep up.

In those conversations I learned a lot about my parents’ relationship that I never knew. After Dad died, Mom processed her life and her marriage. Mom talked about a bunch of ways that Dad had treated her with contempt and cruelty all through their years together. I had often wondered why Mom didn’t assert herself more often to get her needs and wants met, but I learned just how unkind Dad could be when she did that. I caught rare, brief glimpses of such treatment as a kid, but not enough for me to connect any dots. I do remember one jaw-dropping incident that I witnessed in my 30s. But I had no idea just how often Dad treated Mom poorly.

It broke my heart for her. Mom lived her entire life for others, leading with her family. That’s not to say Mom didn’t have any faults. Her perfectionism left Dad believing he could never do tasks to meet her standard. Fear and anxiety consistently held her back from things she wanted to do and from getting her needs met. And in her later years, her politics went off the reservation to the right, making it hard to talk with her about current events. But Mom was a generous, loving person who worked tirelessly to care for the people she loved. She should have gotten as much in return.

Mom told me about her cancer last October. She said two tumors pressed against her esophagus, making them inoperable. She told me that this would be the end of her, but with chemo and radiation she hoped for a few more years yet. Even though it turned out she had less than one year left, knowing that it was the beginning of the end let me pre-process her death. All of my life I imagined her death would be a horrible event, and that I’d feel like the bottom fell out from under me. I adored my mother and always felt very close to her. She was the source of all things good in my childhood, and I loved her company as an adult. Yet when she died, I felt primarily relief that she was no longer in pain. I know I’m sad, but I’m not very much in touch with that yet. I’m going to miss her terribly.

Mom was 77.

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Dean Porter, 1939-2022

My father’s best friend passed away on September 1 after an illness. Dean Porter was like a second father to me.

Dean at Christmas in 1984

Dean and his wife Carol moved into the house next to my parents in 1966, in that starter-house neighborhood we called Rabbit Hill in South Bend. Dad and Dean clicked, and began a friendship that lasted the rest of their lives. The day my father died, Dean called me right away. His first words, strained with emotion, got right to the point: “My best friend has died!”

Mom and Dad and Dean and Carol played canasta nearly every Saturday night from 1966 until my parents moved to Indianapolis in 2014. My brother and I grew up with their daughters Kellie and Tracie. When we were all small, Dean drove a big Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon. It was the car we all rode in when we did something together because it could hold all eight of us. We four children rode on the floor in the wayback, where there were no seat belts — a real sign of those 1970s times.

Dean was a Professor of Art at the University of Notre Dame. He led the fundraising for the construction of the Snite Museum of Art on that campus, and was the Snite’s first Director. We all attended the Snite’s grand opening, and the openings of more gallery showings there than I can remember. Because of Dean, my family had an unusual amount of contact with the art world, and with artists. A few times, a living artist showed his or her work at the Snite, and we got to meet them. I remember one artist in particular: Christo, who was famous for audacious works such as wrapping the German Reichstag in fabric, and erecting 3,100 yellow and blue umbrellas in California and Japan. Christo had a cold and limp handshake.

My father’s career could not have been more different from Dean’s, as Dad worked in manufacturing quality control, later rising to middle-management positions before wrapping up his career as a plant manager. Manufacturing in northern Indiana declined heavily starting in the 1980s, and for a time Dad was unemployed. This happened as the Snite was preparing to open. Dad had dabbled in small woodworking projects, making little boxes and other items. This was enough for Dean to give Dad the job of building all of the benches for patrons to sit on throughout the museum, as well as most of the pedestals that sculptures and other art would rest on, and a great number of frames for paintings and photographs. Dad simply lacked the confidence that he was capable of this work. Dean would hear nothing of it, and insisted that Dad do it. Dean was very convincing. Dad did the work. The last time I was in the Snite, Dad’s benches were still there.

Dad’s work at the Snite led to word-of-mouth woodworking jobs throughout northern Indiana. He built all sorts of bespoke wood furniture for peoples’ homes, and even religious items for priests and chapels all around Notre Dame. This work sustained our family through some rough years, until Dad was able to get back into manufacturing. Dad kept doing custom woodworking on the side until he retired.

Dean even helped me with employment once. While I was in college I always worked during the summers so I could buy books an incidentals the next year. One summer I struggled to find work. The last-resort summer job in northern Indiana was detassling corn, which is hot, dirty, tedious, and unpleasant. But I was over a barrel and about to sign up. Then Dean called me to say that the woman who ran the museum gift shop was about to go on a long medical leave, and asked if I’d step in while she was away. I was saved! I sat in that air-conditioned gift shop all summer working the easiest job I ever had.

In my adult years I saw less and less of Dean and his family. I always wished I could see them more often, but we all had full lives that had gone in different directions. I’m especially happy that I made the time to visit them a few years ago in their home. Even then I could see that Dean’s health was declining, as it does as one ages. Still, when Tracie contacted me to say that her father had passed away, it was a shock. In my mind, Dean was as vital and healthy as he was when I was a kid. He always will be.

Dean Porter was 83. To learn much more about his life and accomplishments, read his obituary here.

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55

55/MR
Nikon Df, 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6 AF Nikkor

After my birthday every year, I look to make a photograph where the number of my next birthday is in the image. On a Michigan Road trip earlier this year, I came upon this just south of Rochester, and it was perfect.

Today I complete 55 trips around the sun and begin my 56th. For most of these years I sought after perfection. In my 50s, I’ve finally come to accept that seeking it sets me up for disappointment and disenchantment. I’m a recovering perfectionist! But it’s good to be open to perfection when it finds you. Then stop and enjoy it as long as it lasts.

I’ve written a birthday reflection every year since I turned 44. See them all here.

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