It seems fitting I’d start a blog writing about loss. I’ve had a lot of it this year. And as the year winds to a close, reflecting on the loss helps me acknowledge my attachment to people I cannot keep.
Thanksgiving and Christmas do strange things to me. I get emotional; I cry easily. I watch the holiday crap-movies and TV shows. I start shopping eBay for “vintage Christmas” anything: lights, decor, cards, wrapping paper, whatever. I light logs in the fireplace. I wrap gifts to George Winston’s “Winter.” By candle light. I bake my mother’s famous bread.
My mother, Grace, embraced these holidays for all reasons cliche, and I inherited her enthusiasm. As I’ve grown older, I find I either embrace it and enjoy the crap out of myself, or I cry, aching for that profound shift in countenance, that magic smell of a new doll, the constant odor of a Douglas fir.
I assume my mother’s death brought this on, this enthusiasm, this ripe climate for a month-long consideration of loss. Each year since her death, I attempt to fill the loss with magic moments and memories.
Foster the Ideal; Its Reality Will Diminish
Thanksgiving 2003, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Our entire family celebrated with them, spending the holiday on Kauai, where we’d all traveled as a family years before. This trip was the first occasion in 15 years our entire family would be together on the island. My mother started planning the trip in 2002, sending frequent email updates about the rental house, travel dates, when to buy airline tickets, what we’d do for Thanksgiving, details of the family anniversary dinner, etc. My close friends — all of whom knew and loved my family — rented the house next to ours. It was exciting to review the plans with her.
My mother and I spoke on the phone almost daily about these plans. That year, we got close. Closer than we’d been in decades, rivaled only by the closeness we had in my childhood. Here it was, 30 years later, and I craved her voice at my ear every day.
By the time the trip came along, however, something had shifted.
I arrived a day late to Kauai and first went to the house, where my parents were relaxing on the lanai. I walked in with a completely overwhelming sense of anticipation, that everyone would be thrilled I had arrived. Instead, my parents were surprisingly tepid to my arrival, and my siblings had already left for the day’s sunset and happy hour. To this day, I’m not sure how I let that happen; I was unreasonably attached to the outcome. Typical redemption fantasy.
I assume the excitement and anticipation got the best of us that week. The ideal of things is generally more hyperbolic than the reality of things.
My arrival foreshadowed the rest of the trip. While I spent some time with everyone, I mostly drifted off alone, preferring to explore the island on my schedule, with spontaneity and a loud car radio in my convertible. Dinner with the family was generally pleasant, but riddled with emotions brought on by attachment: jealousy that my parents seemed to enjoy the company of my siblings more, envy that my brothers were both happily married, the never-ending fear of missing out. A week into the trip, my close friends arrived and I spent a lot of time with them.
Thanksgiving was interesting and somewhat of a stress fest. Before it, my mother complained to me that the yam side dish we were preparing was too complicated: too many ingredients [like, ginger and carrots, cinnamon, cloves]. “Your daddy won’t eat that,” she said. “You have to make him a simple baked yam.” I reminded her that my dad, her husband, would eat anything, and always did. She insisted with some fairly strong attitude, so I did it. And, even though my father preferred the “complicated” version more, I still felt her disappointment with me. Not a new thought, by any means. Again, redemption is a fantasy.
What happened to the year we’d spent attached at the ear? Why did she seem so disappointed and distant again? I know now, of course. But on that trip, I completely avoided the thought. Better to enjoy the moment and soak in the plumeria.
Fear of Missing Out Gets the Best of Us
When I was 8, my mother worked for Los Angeles County, and consequently, she had all government holidays off, including Veteran’s Day. Our tradition involved the two of us spending the day together. For years, we’d dress up like “fancy ladies,” do some shopping at a department store, have crepes, and maybe get a new hairdo.It was important to me, because it was just us. No brothers, no Dad, just me and Grace, dressed up like ladies, having lunch. This went on until I hit my early 20s and moved out.
In our phone chats leading up to the Hawaii trip, we had planned to spend a few hours alone together on the island, shopping and having lunch. Just like the days when she worked for the county. Both of us seemed genuinely excited about this prospect. I know why it never happened: i didn’t initiate it. I was off on my own, avoiding what seemed like a stagnant trap of lethargy. Fear of missing out strikes again. We finally agreed to have lunch our last day, before their flights home, at the Hyatt Regency at Poipu. My father tagged along.
Our lunch was sweet, loving, simple. We watched and laughed about my father, who seemed fascinated with the koi pools at the hotel. My mother and I lounged on the luxurious outdoor couches, speaking in fake English accents, pretending we were sooo rich and sooo bored. I gave her a photo album as an anniversary gift, and she thanked me, promising she’d fill it with pictures from our trip. At the time, of course, I assumed wouldn’t be the last time my mother and I lunched together.
Three weeks later, my mother would get up in the middle of the night for cough medicine, lose her balance, fall, and hit her head on the bathroom floor.
Redemption Is a Warm Puppy
Four months after my mother died, my father met and fell in love with Ruth Dunlap, a stunning, beautiful woman who wasn’t my mother. I missed my mother so much, and to watch him find someone so quickly seemed unfathomable. It didn’t take long for me to see how happy she made him, and then I was grateful to her.
Today, of course, I realize he wasn’t replacing my mother, he was finding a new partner. I was attached to the ideal–that my mother would always be there for him. Releasing that was a lesson in humility, and yet another lesson in adulthood. The two of them took care of each other. They craved each other. They relied on each other. They held hands wherever they went. They even seemed to have their own language.
Loss # 1
This year’s began in February, when my father’s partner Ruth Dunlap died of lung cancer. We watched her fade away like an autumn leaf, quietly fading until her last breath, a frail, gentle whisper that released her, and us. We also lost my father’s peace, his happiness, and perhaps his passion.