Category Archives: Grief

Signs

The penultimate text from the hospice social worker said, “I hope (if you believe in this), she will send you signs.”

I’ve been looking. Waiting. Would my sister send a sign? There have been three now.

Friday was my first trip up to Salem alone in a while and for some reason I was filled with dread.

I needn’t have been, for my sister made her presence felt right away when a solar powered lantern went on. Poof. Just like that! My sister got it for herself at Christmas and even though it’s been plainly visible for three months, not once have I seen it lit. Hi, Noreen.

The second sign came in the form of four turkeys: two strutting by themselves, one squished dead on the side of the road, and the fourth roosting in a tree up the street in the gloaming.

The first turkey showed up during Finn’s and my morning walk. Nothing unusual, though I was a little surprised that it was alone.

But then, a second bird in Peabody — also alone. I’ve never seen one on the North Shore.

My tingly-sense was activated.

Almost an hour later as I neared home, I saw the dead one. It was crumpled up against the guardrails dividing Route Nine, feet sticking straight up in the air. The glorious feathers in a heap. I gasped.

I’ve seen dead geese, squirrels, rabbits, cats, blue jays and skunks, but not once have I ever come across a dead turkey. It was heart breaking.

But later, just before full dark, I took Finn around the block and spied the fourth turkey — way up in the branches of a maple tree. On my street. I was stunned. I’ve only seen roosting birds one other time and it was an entire flock.

The thing was part shadow, part creature, its presence both spooky and majestic. Hallowed. Sent.

Lastly, today I came across a stack of box lids — the last things in my sister’s hall closet. I planned on keeping them because they make wonderful sorting trays for paper, which is why I was a little surprised that these were empty. Oh, but wait.

In the stack, folded up, was a map of Italy! Can you believe it? This last piece of ephemera came as a gratifying benediction, one week after reserving plane tickets to Rome.

Even though my travels over the years stirred up my sister’s anxieties, I know that she’d be thrilled on my behalf about this trip.

I have the map to prove it.

Spring temps at last

The clouds slid slowly to the west. Blackbirds darted from treetop to treetop while fat jays swooped down onto sodden, yellow lawns. I wore gloves but it was in the 40’s. Finally! We passed the husky — Sasha? — who stares (and then stares some more). Finn did just fine. “See the doggie?” Treat. Treat. “See the doggie?” Treat. Move on.

I listened with one earbud to a Pod Save America episode entitled “Peak Stupid.” You can guess what it was about. I might be all out of outrage for the moment.

Once home, I lifted myself out of the chair to check caller ID. The ACLU again — for what? — the fiftieth time in a month? Instead of annoyance, there was a twinge of recognition that it will never again be my sister calling. My intrusive, demanding, unreasonable sister.

Maybe it’s time, at last, to ditch the landline. Do any of you still have one?

Today, a charity comes to Saint Peter Street in Salem to look at my sister’s furniture. I hope they take a piece or two.

Now, at least, I am waking at my more usual time of 6:30. Since March 13, I’ve been waking at the approximate time of my sister’s death: 5:30. Lying awake in the dark.

Is she “gone”? How does one gauge these things? There hasn’t really been a moment when I felt her spirit near or when I felt a notably fresh absence.

Does that make me dense, somehow ill equipped to feel these things? Or should I take my sister at her word?

Not that long ago, I might have jokingly asserted that I hoped she wasn’t going to be a pain in the ass from the other side. She retorted, “Shit! I’ll have better things to do than haunt you!”

She could be funny. So could I.

Ghost of Tara and travel plans

After ten years of a blogging on a basically free WordPress platform, I used up the allotted memory. A funny time for that to happen, if you ask me. A little like how I waited weeks to shut off my sister’s phone and cable and when I finally did so, she was dead within 15 hours.

As for WordPress — I just signed up for two years on the business plan. I’d rather not pay for what’s been free, of course, but I’m so relieved that the fix was straightforward, I don’t really care. Who knows what other bibs and babs will show up here now?

(Please note: in the process I dropped “WordPress” from my domain name, so your computer might be suspicious. Also, if you link to this blog on your blog, you’ll need to update. Now it’s: http://www.deemallon.com).

Here are a few more pictures of the box holding my sister’s ashes. The play of light is something she would have appreciated.

Today, grief brought me to this realization: I am an incredibly resilient person. At the moment pretty battered and worn out, but not at all worried about myself. That’s what resilience will do for a person.

Two obvious contributing factors to my brand of resilience: loving food (seriously! and I don’t mean loving food in a serious way, but seriously, this is a factor) and, this is key — seeing beauty and stories everywhere.

I started my day watching an interview with Gloria Steinem (you can find the link in Michelle’s comment yesterday – thank you, Michelle!) Talking about the importance of narratives, Steinem said something like, ‘we are wired to tell and listen to stories.’

Yes. And to appreciate beauty. Wherever we find it.

Another mosaic from my sister’s clip files.

And sidewalk shadow and rust seen while walking to my car this afternoon– also beautiful.

There’s a lot left to do in my sister’s apartment, but the end glimmers and good thing because an incredible travel opportunity dropped into my lap.

Such a gift! Such timing!

My cousin Ginny (also Mallon) offered me a small scholarship through The Fat Canary literary and art journal to attend a residency program in Assisi, Italy for the latter half of April!

Can you believe that?

What contributes to your resilience?

Mercy and reflection

In one of my sister’s closets, I found two bundles of letters, postmarks dating back to the early 80’s. There were: Easter cards from Sharon, all manner of holiday cards from Dot, a couple of letters from my father in his distinctive engineer’s script, lots of postcards from my brother as he traveled Europe as a young man. Many, many letters from me.

It was the letters from my mother that undid me — forced me to box it all up and stow them for another day. Maybe another year. Maybe never.

What a hearty correspondent my mother had been! Did I, too, receive so many missives over the years? Probably. But I don’t really remember and unlike my sister, I didn’t hang onto them.

There were letters from Provence full of exclamation points (“perfect tomatoes! perfect green herbs! perfect bean cassoulet!”), letters from Florida full of encouragement, letters acknowledging weight loss (more encouragement), letters enclosing checks, letters of explanation post-misunderstanding, letters of apology.

“My dear sweet Valentine, Noreen… ”

The letters reminded me how distorted and corrosive my sister’s narrative about my mother has been, never elastic or truthful enough to include the good, the positive, the well-meaning.

One letter came on the heels of some disastrous trip to Washington. Why had they gone? Was it an art-related treat offered by my mother, some attempt to connect?

Oh god, the paragraphs about my sister’s explosive response to some fairly innocent remark read like a summation of my last nine years. “I’m sorry for what I said, but I didn’t think it was THAT heinous…”

And then, my mother scribed these stunning words: “You give me too much power and offer up too little mercy.”

Here’s Gauthier’s “Mercy Now,” which has been one of my anthems of grief.

The letters reminded me that at one time, my sister seemed poised for normalcy. Just one more infusion of cash, one more sorting of twisted emotion, one more round of diet supports, a car, a business, and she’d be fine, right?

Retroactively applying new understandings, it’s been clear that disorder showed up at every stage. How harmed she was by ignorance about mental illness! And how effectively her chaos was camouflaged by the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. A rebellious phase, nothing more, surely?

As I rejiggered history, I lost sight of the younger, better version of my sister. Sorting her things has brought it back. Her flashes of brilliance, her capacity for understanding literature, her iconoclastic spirituality, her intuitive and stunning art. I remember that there was a time when I felt eclipsed not just by her shadow but by her strengths, too.

Family legend has it that my sister spoke in full paragraphs by the age of two, while my speech was so garbled only my mother could understand me until after the age of three. There was my sister’s nearly perfect score on the verbal SAT. Her voracious reading and gigantic vocabulary.

My sister read the LOTR every spring for years. As much as I loved Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, too (another of her favorites), I could barely get through the trilogy once and anyway, who’d want to read “The Two Towers” a second time? She devoured sweeping historical novels — Leon Uris, for instance (she may have read “Exodus” three times) and Michener (have you seen how long “The Source” is?) She adored the romances of Mary Stewart and the mysteries of James Lee Burke. Bindings gave way, covers taped and worn. I brought “This Rough Magic” to the nursing home, but it stayed in the drawer. She was going.

A lot to unpack here, but for now, not the letters.

Have you saved any correspondence from over the years? If so, why and do you ever look at it? I have the letters that K and I exchanged early on, which are precious but clearly not for the boys’ eyes.

In closing, let me leave you with the idea of things undone. A friend reminded me that in the Tibetan tradition, survivors attempt to tie up loose ends for the deceased over a period of 48 days. What, has my sister left undone? And if the better question is, what didn’t she leave undone, is such a pursuit futile?

What will I leave undone? And you?

 

 

 

 

The Clip Files, Intro

The support and love that readers offered here moved me profoundly. Thank you! I’d considered turning comments off for the announcement that my sister had died and I’m glad I didn’t know how! Locally, friends have stepped up with legion acts of generosity. Flowers. Dinners. Errands. Packing up the apartment. Prayers. The word that I hear in my head this week to describe friendships is: MIGHTY.

My sister had many compulsions, all of which added up to a disordered life and her premature death at 64. She’d been incapacitated physically for most of the last ten years and morbidly obese for nearly the entirety of her adult life.

Her need was bottomless, her rage explosive, the triggers countless. There were many times over the last nine years when I didn’t think I would survive her. But I offered up a battered loyalty.

Relating to my sister was so crushingly difficult that the demands placed by her remaining mess feel very nearly trivial.

Her clip file, however, poses special problems. For one thing it’s huge — the equivalent of ten banker’s boxes? Fifteen? It’s hard to tell yet, because I keep finding more.

The collection was housed in boxes that lined the walls and spilled into her teensy living spaces. Also in cardboard lids, recycled Kleenex containers, drawers and scattered on table tops. Bills and medical statements mixed in. Foil packs of albuterol buried. While fetching her things (coffee, lunch, address book), I constantly tripped over some box or other. Consolidation, not allowed. I felt a constant, smoldering resentment of all her fucking paper.

So here’s one of many contradictions: how could a visual person, a former artist of some promise, someone still interested in images of nature, interior design, archeology, ancient religious iconography, ALSO be a person who let her living space look like a literal dump?

(For the first three or four years in Salem apartment Number One, at the outset of every visit, my sister would make the same cheery-but-shame-filled queries: “Doesn’t it look better? Can you tell I’ve made progress?”

Me: nearly speechless with disbelief, sputtering some lame agreement).

So you’d think I’d be standing at the recycling bin, chucking it all with a flourish. A big exhalation of relief. Garbage at last! But here’s the second contradiction: I’m not.

The above assemblage represents just a third of the images she pulled while at the nursing home. She couldn’t sit up. Had no scissors. Knew she was dying. But she kept at it.

As for myself, being a collage artist who also sometimes uses images as writing prompts, I view these papers as a treasure trove.

My sister’s legacy.

The second they assume an ugly weight, which might be tomorrow, I’ll recycle.

But not yet.

And she’s gone

Yesterday, holding her hand as she struggled to breathe, my sister looked up and said, “Oh look! An angel just fell through the ceiling!”

Just got the call.

It’s over. She’s gone.

Autocorrect typed she’s “fine.”

I hope she’s that, too. After so, so much struggle. Her whole life, really.

Go with the Angels, Noreen.

Grime and fatalism

After ten years of not exactly saintly but certainly thorough and effective advocacy for someone with an unfortunate cluster of problems, your vocabulary changes. Words like ‘impairment,’ ‘handicap,’ and ‘disorder’ become second nature. You may not like their clinical sheen, but since they’re far better than the words applied during a tempestuous childhood, you use them. The ugly echoes: ‘fat slob,’ ‘fucking nuts,’ and ‘impossible.’

But today, a new word supplies perspective and it is GRIME. Sorting your sister’s beads from the failed parent-financed venture in Rockport, you dump them into plastic trays, eager to chuck the sticky plastic bags. They are so GRIMY. You use windex on the storage boxes, not wanting to know the source of one lid’s ocher spatter (cat puke? ramen stock?) The tools of glass-cutting and jewelry-making offer sad testimony to squandered talent — cruddy, rusted and neglected as they are.

Restoration requires, among other things, sand paper.

I had to use a dry toothbrush to clean these three little felt gifts.

Indolence, apathy, compulsive consumption of low brow television and food, the repetitive shooing of most people away, and the manufacturing of insult and victimhood with others, it turns out, leave a grubby residue.

You will need to remember this.

When you’re telling yourself that it wasn’t enough to supply her with a brand new pack of jewelry findings — that you should’ve figured out how to get her crafting as well — you’ll need to remember this.

And you’ll need to remember the virulence of her refusals. Her knack for turning any suggestion that required effort on her part into evidence of your deeply flawed character. Recall, just for one second, her lengthy diatribes about your failure to understand. Your lack of compassion. And how the screeching had more in common with hurricanes or tsunamis than with speech.

You learned not to make the suggestion. And to skedaddle.

You have long recognized the violence of applying “shoulds” to others. Perhaps this difficult passage will teach you to extend the same courtesy to yourself.

As to fatalism: think I’m gonna start taking my social security. At 62, I am now the age my mother was when she died. I’ve outlived my father by eight years. My sister is receiving hospice care at 64.

My parents were smokers and my sister has health issues that I don’t share, but still…

The monthly payment won’t be a lot, but for someone who hasn’t earned a significant salary since the early 90’s, it seems a small fortune.

Lastly, look at this guy. With temps in the mid-30’s and beautiful sun, we enjoyed what felt like a balmy walk this morning!