Category Archives: Grief

Six months later

The sea was wild, sassy. Tide high. Moon full. We took my sister’s ashes to Loblolly Cove where the rocks offered an initial perch, the sea a final wash.

We watched and waited for the wave that would offer the last rinse. They teased us, the waves, licking one side of the rock where her ashes lay, then the other. After a while, medium-sized wave crashed and it looked like it had taken all the ashes at first. But it hadn’t.

We watched and waited some more. Finally, I approached with a plastic bin to scoop water onto the rock. And wouldn’t you know, wasn’t it just perfect, that the biggest wave of the day arrived as I stood there, drenching me head to toe and washing the last of my sister away in a dramatic rush of foam.

Of course it was her. I laughed. “Hello, Noreen!”

As we walked back to the car, I noticed how much of the sediment in the rocks looked like human cremation remains.

K: “We all come from the same stuff.”

Finn discovered how tasty crab shells left behind by gulls were and made the return slower than it might have been otherwise.

And as always, I grabbed a token.

Now the token sits where her ashes used to be, in front of one of her favorite totems.

Today, the WordPress platform resists uploads, spins its refusal in ways I’ve never seen, forcing me to insert, and then insert again, all while wondering what the f@*k is going on.

To that I also say, “Hello, sister!”

May she be at peace. May I be at peace. May we all be at peace.

Recovery, bit by bit

I invite you to watch a video of my sister’s clip file while listening to the audio file (written out below). The audio is nine minutes, the video less. This is a bit of an experiment. It might not be possible to do them at the same time without more than one device because the audio link opens a new window.

 new-recording-8.m4a

It helps to thank my sister’s things as I toss them: thank you for being a place my sister could record her thoughts; thank you for gracing my sister’s walls. I left a trunk load at the donation center this morning: more clothes and books and a framed picture of Ganesh. She loved Ganesh.

She doesn’t get to hurt me anymore.

Mantras emerge. Two days ago, I struggled to remove a twisted wire from a matted picture of the atrium at the Isabella Stewart Gardner. It’s a keeper. The wire wasn’t cooperating. I knew how it might jab me, so I wrapped my fingers in a towel, not a precaution I would normally take. But I heard these words in my head: she doesn’t get to hurt me anymore. All day, I repeated it: “She doesn’t get to hurt me anymore.”

I don’t have to be burdened by her anymore.

Yesterday, picking up a heavy bag of her books sent a twinge up my shoulder. I adjusted the bag and heard the next mantra: I don’t have to be burdened by her anymore. This mantra is especially helpful sorting through her belongings.

She caused this misery.

At the donation center emptying the trunk, I thanked all the things. The second mantra came, but with a footnote. “I don’t have to be burdened by the misery she caused anymore — the misery she unequivocally caused.” Haaah. I could let go of all her bullshit about how everything was my fault. I could forgive myself for ever reacting to that bullshit. My failed poise. My lack of grace. I can breathe now.

There was a recurring question during the years of care: what was the source of her problems. When did things go so badly wrong – or was she damaged from the start? Did her problems arise out of epic, persistent self-destruction or was she so innately impaired that she couldn’t function as an adult? The answer probably didn’t matter. It certainly didn’t matter when she unleashed her fury in a vitriolic tirade.

It’s worth noting that her ability to use intimate knowledge of me and the family to launch personal and savage attacks survived her lengthy cognitive decline. I’m still washing it off.

When she essentially stopped moving and had to wear diapers, I leaned more into the theory of her lack of capacity. Simple goal setting was impossible for her, simple organization, beyond her capacity and had been for quite some time. Her anti-social nature and paranoia may have been hard-wired, too. At some point it became clear that my sister didn’t have the inner or outer resources to be an adult. Even very simple stuff was beyond her.

She can’t do better vs. she won’t do better.

It’s worlds of difference. Judgment lodges in one and falls away from the other.

Remedial reasoning? Perhaps — especially if you met her lately when all she was, really, was a bunch of conditions. But as I’ve noted elsewhere, earlier on she had a little more going for her. Deemed ‘brilliant’ in school, full of promise. She could talk a good game. Back then, you had to converse with her more than once to see she was off her fucking rocker.

Relating to my sister was so pervasively negative, so damaging to my sense of self, so at times, invisibly costly, that I had to rely on certain mental exercises to serve as reminders.

One exercise was to try and isolate her various conditions and consider how it would be if ONLY that one thing afflicted her. So for instance:  how would it be if she were solely physically handicapped? Okay, that would be a nightmare. Clearly, certainly, a nightmare. Pushing her in a wheelchair for appointments, debilitating. Watching her eat, demoralizing. Replacing her furniture when it gave way? Looking for things rated for more than 350 pounds? Tiring, endless.

On the other hand, if she’d only been aggressive, paranoid, and unreasonable, would that have made it easier? Of course not.

Had there been a choice, I’d have taken the physical incapacities over the mental any day. Her oppositional nature alone was so illogical and enraging, that it often had me exiting her apartment to walk around the building a few times, exhaling like a snorting bull.

What if it had been just her executive function that was shot? Still a nightmare. She expected to use me as a Rolodex. I wasn’t supposed to worry when she missed doctor’s appointments. The anxieties imposed were regular, with high stakes. For instance, all those times when she couldn’t call the Department of Transitional Assistance because she couldn’t find the phone number, when she forgot she had access to the Internet, and when she’d lost the form that was due back last week. The psych piece would come in if I offered to help. The rage would be unleashed if I suggested it was important that she keep her benefit, that maybe it was unfair to our brother to let it lapse.

And this was what? (there’s the question again) out of laziness? ineptitude? insufficiently developed frontal lobe?

Well, who the fuck was I, etc.

Then there was her ‘more is better’ philosophy, which made it hard to sit and have a meal with her. Her supposed gluten allergy went out the window every single time I bought us lunch – even at a Chinese restaurant where it’s possible to eat really well without it. At the all-you-can eat buffet, she’d pile her plate with fried chicken wings and dumplings. Not vegetables. Not rice. We’d need to sit at a table because booths couldn’t accommodate her size.

In other words, just her eating disorder would’ve been hard to be around.

And the pleasantries? Even non-triggering, non-combative exchanges were full of her weird assessments, her blindness to me as a person, and insufferable hypocrisy. They were awful and hard to take.

Those assertions and opinions alone were hard to take.

How many times did I have to listen to her strenuously recommend that my husband and I go on a cruise? Why was she incapable of processing the idea that a cruise is not anything I’ve ever wanted to do and probably would never want to do, no matter the frequency of her recommendations? A trivial matter, sure, but that didn’t prevent it from getting annoying. How many times did I have to listen to her tell me to use Epsom salts in the bath?  I bathe daily. I use Epsom salts almost daily. Why could she not remember this simple fact?

She used to be well-versed in astrology (I guess), but in her last years, astrology was a crutch. Oh, it was the new moon, she’d better take it easy. Oh, it was a full moon, she’d better lay low. She was often wrong about what phase we were in, but clearly, it didn’t matter. She’d pronounce, “It’s the full moon, everyone’s going nuts.” I wanted to ask, “Based on what? You’re a shut in.” or “How much lower can you set the bar?”

We could talk about TV and food fairly well. But even there, she was hard to take. My sister had violent objections to certain spices, devoted attachments to certain others. If I heard her utter her disgust about cilantro once, I heard it 5,000 times. She dismissed certain actors because of their foreheads or noses and routinely dissed my current favorite show for no reason whatsoever, simply asserting, “Oh, I can’t watch that.”

I quickly learned not to talk politics with her, but once in a while the topic bled in. Why was I listening to the news, she’d ask sharply, didn’t I know better? And then she’d offer an opinion because apparently she felt entitled to dominate a conversation about politics even though she was spectacularly uninformed. These conversations would be peppered with gob-smacking questions like, “Who’s Mike Pence?” or “Who’s Robert Mueller?”

On the hypocrisy front, my sister offered housekeeping tips. She criticized my methods in a kind of recurring, minor torture. Why was I kneeling to wipe the floor? Didn’t I know about mops and here’s the best one to buy. Have I told you about Alice’s trick with Murphy’s oil? Okay, I’d think, if you’re so keen on mopping, tell me why your kitchen floor looks like a crime scene every time you make spaghetti?

Imagine me at her apartment, kneeling to wipe up a pool of grease — not in judgment but out of concern for her stability — and being roundly condemned for being disrespectful or compulsive or for using Windex and why wasn’t I using a mop?

“I get exhausted just looking at you,” she’d often say.

These exercises served to clarify why I felt overwhelmed and powerless. There was a reason my energies were depleted and depression hovered. They also reminded me why it was so impossible to relate to a friend how things were going with my sister. Where did I even start?

My brother got it, of course. But I couldn’t regularly vent to him out of fear that he might punish my sister by withdrawing financial support. That would’ve been catastrophic for her, and by proxy, me. In all the nine years that I shelled out a little cash for lunch and gas and put my emotional and physical health on the line, it was my brother who supplemented her meager income. Month in and month out, without complaint. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise. Recall: kids in college. And more: if I’d had a financial stake in the expensive consequences of her wastefulness, disorganization, and profligacy, I would’ve lost my freaking mind.

My husband knew her growing up. He was terrified of her. Unfortunately, he bore the brunt of my venting. Poor guy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Denver eats, return

Watching Deadline Whitehouse, making chicken stock and dinner — I must be home. The sky is leaden, rain imminent — I must be home.

Trip to see younger son in Colorado was a little disorienting because we had no room to furnish or apartment to find or supplies to buy. Didn’t drop several hundred dollars at Target, so we went out to eat instead!

Best meal in Denver was not either of the three-dollar-sign dinners, but rather a reasonably priced lunch at Rotary Eats, one of the stalls in a place called Avanti. Avanti : like a food court, only good!

Exterior of Avanti, above, and interior, below.

My selections were roasted chicken thighs, roasted cauliflower with tahini sauce and golden raisins, and the best homemade potato chips I’ve ever had.

Our first special dinner was at The Black Cat in Boulder. The place gets great reviews and takes seriously the farm to table model of dining, but I didn’t like all the pickled vegetables or the flavor of the sauce served with my artisanal pork, so I was a little disappointed. I’m prepared to admit that the fault lay with my palette and not the food preparation. Salad was outstanding — greens picked that morning! — as was the service.

Brunch at “duo” in Denver proved disappointing, too, probably because I’ve had southern biscuits and the biscuits in my breakfast were grainy and muffin-like. K loved his meal, shown next to mine below.

(Biscuits and gravy with two eggs).

Sharing the meal with Denver friends we see about once a year, Marc and Kim, was great though. Marc and I went to law school together.

The other restaurant in the “duo” is located in Vermont.

We had another special dinner in Denver at a place called Vesta. I had braised lamb shank on a hot pepper infused polenta. Delicious! The meat fell off the bone, as it should! Those yellow chips are deep fried garlic slivers — insanely good.

The place is known for its sauces, so we started with a selection. The most popular was the hot pepper, horseradish a strong second.

I’ll leave you with “crack bacon.” I misread the menu at the breakfast joint “Syrup” and thought the dish was “cracked bacon” (as in crispy). Oh no. The strips were sautéed in brown sugar. Caramelized. They meant “crack” as in instantly addictive!

The phone is ringing and it’s not my sister. If you’re tired of her and my relationship, consider this post done!

My sister got very anxious whenever I left town — amped up worry informed mostly by abandonment issues and imagined travel mishaps. She never could keep straight the dates, so for weeks ahead of time, I would have to keep reiterating the plan. It got annoying. It didn’t help to write it on her calendar because usually her calendars went missing.

My sister magnanimously deemed my time away as vacation from her, partly because she knew I needed a little separation and partly because she kept forgetting about cell phones. Even so, to her utter amazement and gratitude, I’d generally check in at least once while away.

Obviously, this trip there was none of that. And no quick call immediately upon arrival home to quell her anxious misery. I missed that a little because her intense relief at my being back was a form of welcome.

On the other hand, there’s the relief: no need to scramble and rush up to the North Shore for a visit during the very same days when I need to settle back into being home. The car engine smelled like burning rubber or oil today while out for groceries. Instead of irritation I felt only gratitude — it wasn’t happening en route to Salem! I wasn’t gonna have to juggle car repair and a trip to Salem! I was headed home, where I would stay for the rest of the day!

It’s been two months and a week since she died — a fact I find amazing.

Sunday Assisi Walk Part I

How endless the visual and historical delight is here! This morning I went back to visit San Rufino, a cathedral I’ve now been to seven or eight times. Since I went on the Roman Antiquities tour yesterday — an absolute subterranean wonder, medieval Assisi having been built on top of a first century Roman town– I paid more attention to what is under the Cathedral… the layers of civilization and time in plain view.

Above: the front rose window from the outside on Good Friday and from inside this morning, reflected in the glass flooring that’s been used in order to reveal Roman wall work underneath.

On one side of the cathedral, next to statues of Jesus, Mary, David, Isaiah and others, is a preserved arch opening into an ancient Roman space.

Here, a hokey inclusion of my own shadow to hint at the insubstantial brevity of this life.

Speaking of life passing, one of the blessings of being here has been distraction from the last months of my sister’s struggle. I’ve lit candles for her all over the city and shared a little about her with a new friend, but otherwise not much — not much memory or hand-wringing. This morning, I threw coins into a pool at Santa Chiara (my sister’s middle name being Claire, recall), one each for K, the boys, me, and her.

Not three minutes later, there was a beautiful and perfect feather in my path. Some say finding a feather means an Angel is near. I thought cynically, it also means pigeons are near. But then, not two feet away, I found a sticker emblazoned with a pentagram, a symbol important in magic generally and to my sister personally. And so, there she was. Hello, Noreen!

I took out the little owl that I’ve been carrying around in my pocket (one of hers) and photographed it near a new picture of Francis in her honor from my favorite perch of this visit — my chair by the windowsill. Need I say — I am a sucker for religious iconography?

I finished the first Assisi-inspired quilt (below) and am rushing to finishing another to give my host before I leave.

Didn’t get to share pix of the sweet cafe where I had breakfast or the many incredible street views returning home, but look how long this is already. I’m going to load some wall and door pix on Flickr and otherwise will be posting about this trip for weeks to come!

Home Tuesday. Apologies for not commenting on blogs right now. Can’t wait to catch up with Jude’s class and Happy Birthday, Nancy!!!

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?