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.


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.