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death

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Rememberance

Six years ago today, on a Friday morning full of promise, my wife, her best friend and I had just left our home en route for Florida to visit Maria and Cristina’s childhood friends. We were less than a mile from home when my cell phone rang. I was in the backseat with Lucy, our squatty white labrador-dachshund mix. It was my brother, George. I answered cheerily and cautious. I hadn’t been able to get in touch with my father or stepmother for two days before. I had called my brother in tears just 24 hours ago. I had a terrible feeling and I wanted to speak to our father. But he hadn’t heard from him either. And now my big brother was telling me in a croaking voice full of sorrow, “Dad’s dead.”

“No way,” I responded as my world went from sunny and light to gray and bleak in a matter of seconds. There was no possible way that my father, 61, healthy, loving and wonderful, could be gone. I choked on my own air that I was gasping in far too fast as my brother explained what he knew: that it appeared he’d had a heart attack while his wife, our stepmother, was at the barn checking on their horses. He’d died alone. That crushing new knowledge bent me over. George said he was headed to Athens, and we hung up, exchanging “I love yous” as we always did.

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What happened next was unbearable as I looked up at my wife and Cristina and said that my father had died and could we go back home. It was an absurd request, but I wasn’t thinking clearly, that of course my wife would be turning the car around and driving the half-mile back to our home and that Cristina would get on the phone to try to fly back to New York while I curled myself into a crumpled ball of hideous heartbreak on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor, unable to do anything but moan as salty tears soaked my cheeks, meeting a runny nose, connecting to the saliva pooling at my open mouth, jaw slack.

My wife came and checked on me but there was nothing she could do. My world had come crashing down and I was shaking from the shock and the grief.

In the week to come while we took time off from work and life to grieve at my father and stepmother’s home in a lake community outside of Athens, my brother and I bonded more than ever before. We were already incredibly close and now this – the loss of our shared hero – had left us clinging to one another in a state of devastation. Every year on Oct. 3 since my father’s death has been difficult as I remember the punch to my chest of the shocking loss. But every day without him has been far more challenging. Every time something big has occurred, like my wedding or the launch of my own magazine or the birth of my twin sons, I’ve wanted him there to celebrate with.

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My dad never missed an opportunity to tell me how proud he was of me, and it meant the world to me to have a parent like that. And when things have gotten rough, as they often do, like when my mother disowned me or I found out I had a life-threatening genetic heart disease or I watched my brother suffer in a hospital bed for 14 weeks before passing away from organ failure at age 36, or when my son was diagnosed with autism, it would have been soothing to have my dad to lean on. And then the lazy, normal days, when there’s nothing going on but an ambling walk on a dirt road, surrounded by eager, wet-nosed dogs and our precocious sons my dad never met, sunlight glinting through the green-leafed oak trees, my heart hurts for him, then, too. Sometimes I just want to call him up and say hi, and hear him say again in his sweet Long Island voice, “Hey, darlin’. I’ve been thinking so much about you and what you’ve been up to. Tell me everything.”

 

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the vivid life

I will not disappoint you, Henry David Thoreau

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I’m trying to de-clutter my life, but it’s hard. One 360-degree glance around our home, and I see that it is filled with endless amounts of baby gear that I want to hold on to should we try for a third; books upon books ranging from topics of art, literature, cooking, romance, mystery, pregnancy, weddings, mythology and heaps of fiction; Leo and Rocco’s insane amount of toys that they adore; Maria’s art supplies and computer equipment from her 15-year career as a graphic designer and web developer; Barley, a sweet, devoted English creme golden retriever rescued from an Alabama harem where he served as chief stud; our aging crank of a cat who would probably prefer somewhere calmer rather than our home which, for him, has been turned into a race track as he is forced to burn kitty rubber to run away from Rocco’s sticky fingers and bouts of maniacal laughter as he chases him; an abundance of an eclectic mix of modern and antique furniture that Maria and I have acquired through our own purchases, but also inherited from grandparents who’ve passed; along with photographic time capsules of the life we’ve so richly enjoyed and of our dearest loved ones.

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.  ~Confucius

My sense of what is “mine” in this world is heightened right now because Maria and I are moving George’s belongings out of his girlfriend’s condo today. Two days ago, we visited his  5×10 storage unit, and it was hauntingly sparse, mainly noticeable were the treasures he’d gathered from my father’s belongings after we lost him 4-and-a-half years ago, as well as all of his soccer memorabilia from his champion days as the star goalie of our high school soccer team. Try as I might, I couldn’t help but let out a little helpless gasp of hurt when gazing upon his small pile. After 36 years of life, this is what his life had been whittled down to in tangible belongings. But George wanted it that way. He was a real minimalist.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.  ~Leonardo DaVinci

I’ve already spent a few hours at his girlfriend’s house just a week after he died so I could go sit in his closet and lovingly select some of the shirts I remember him wearing and have them made into a quilt. My stepmother did this for me with some of my dad’s shirts, having a small lap quilt made out of my father’s plaid and chambray button downs, with a thick navy border, and now his namesake, my son Rocco Bruce, sleeps with it every night. He insists on bringing it downstairs every morning, along with his owl madras quilt made just for him by his Mema, and his monkey dog, a stuffed animal that Maria insists is a monkey but we all know it’s a dog. Alongside George’s regularly worn shirts, he also had his lettermen’s jacket with all his prized patches from playing Varsity soccer, along with his yellow goalie shirt and his purple-and-black (so 90s) goalkeep shirt. His soccer coach, Greg Huberty, gave us all such a better memory in his eulogy at George’s funeral of how amazing George was on the field and protecting his goal. They called him “the terminator” and he saved almost every goal that was launched his way.

I spent some time going through George’s top dresser drawer, where he saved every important piece of paper. There wasn’t much because of his minimalism, but what he did hold onto touched me to my core: George had carefully preserved every single tangible item from my wedding, down to the menu and the cocktail napkins we served that read, “Eat. Drink. Get married. Kirsten and Maria. June 13, 2009” Equally heart-wrenching was the discovery of Tyler and Sarah’s baby teeth and the artwork they’d given to him over the years, with little love notes to their daddy.

George held onto what mattered to him and shed what didn’t. Thoreau’s wisdom is what George lived. His accounts were few, his relationships simple, his belongings minimal.

I have more social media and email accounts than I can remember, a few of my relationships are horribly complicated, and sometimes I worry I’m a beginner hoarder (not really, but deep down the fear is undeniable).

There’s no way I can (or shall I say desire to) live as simply as George or as Thoreau might be directing us all to, but I am trying to reduce what I have, buy less, close some email and social media accounts, continue to disengage with people who only bring about misery, concentrate on only what matters, and let all the needless frittering over silly, meaningless matters fall to the wayside.

The best things in life are nearest:  Breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of right just before you.  Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life’s plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life.  ~Robert Louis Stevenson

 

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How optimism has saved my life (and sanity)

I don’t call myself an optimist to self-compliment. It can actually be a curse. I don’t get to wallow in self pity for long. I forgive people way too quickly. I trust others in bad situations, and I put myself in close proximity to toxic people because of my naïve nature, thinking that people will be good if I just give them a chance.

But I’m proud, too, of being an optimist. It’s gotten me through the dark times of my life. Very dark. I have survived a lot: When I was 8, my parents divorced. At age 10, my mother, the county jail nurse, moved a convicted felon straight from the jail into our home. By the time I was 15, I’d been molested by a family friend and then repeatedly gang raped by my boyfriend’s friends for a year and a half—all high school athletes—until numbness overtook me. For the remainder of high school, I acted out in every way possible, demonstrating just how poorly I thought of myself and found myself pregnant in my first year of college, but I lost the baby to a heart-wrenching birth defect. It took me seven years and five schools to graduate college, and I did it all on my own, amassing a huge amount of debt and hangovers and a strong circle of friends who believed in me as much as I did.

Finally, at 25, as I found myself through a career I’d wanted since I was a child reading books and magazines under the covers with my flashlight, I began to blossom, and my optimism, my ability to see the light through any tunnel I’d trudged through, started to do more than just save my life—it enabled me to fully enjoy it.

And that’s when the universe gifted me with Maria, a strong, sincere woman who loves me despite my troubled past and supports me emotionally through the good and bad times. For the next five years, our love bloomed and grew. The moment she proposed to me in Central Park, the day before I turned 30, rushing rivers of happiness plummeted through my body. I couldn’t wait for my father, a man for whom my affection was boundless, to walk me down the aisle.

When he was ripped from my life just 8 months before my wedding, my heart throbbed in a way I never knew possible. My whole chest ached as the loss drenched me. It would be years before I could even speak of him without tears quickly spilling down my cheeks, without warning. By my side through this has been my steadfast wife, but on my other side has been my sweet brother, a man whom I’ve admired and appreciated as a devoted father, a beloved uncle and a really fun comrade. George walked me down the aisle when I married Maria in 2009, and has stood by my side through thick and thin in every way. When my mother and I became estranged before the wedding, George helped me cope with comedic relief (how else are you going to deal with a woman who tells you a week after your dad dies that her responsibility to her children ended when they turned 18?).

It never got much better with me and my mom because every time we were around each other, I would open myself up with a forgiving heart, only to get hurt again (see how that optimism is my Achilles heel?). When my brother became terribly ill with severe acute pancreatitis this past November, it took me 24 hours of serious pep talk to embolden myself with nerves of steel and some serious detachment to put my strained relationship with my mother aside to help my brother. As George’s sickness progressed and he was put into a medically induced coma, my mother’s mental capabilities decreased and I had to take on the role of parent in addition to sibling, taking on all of George’s financial affairs and medical decisions.

It was a 15-week roller coaster of incredulous highs and rock-bottom lows, peppered with a sharp increase of verbal abuse from my mother (winning statements include disowning me and my children and telling me she was sick of me and didn’t want anything to do with me once George recovered), the death of our dog at Christmas, our water heater breaking, the threat of toxic air pumping into our lungs and thus our heat having to be turned off for two days, a close friend of George’s going absolutely mental on me, daily discussions with George’s doctors in ICU and then his horrid rehab facility and then getting him moved back to ICU, all on my own because my mother was essentially just a visitor coming to see George and looking to me to make all of the decisions.

The lowest point of the journey of George’s illness was his rapid decline at the end due to the development of three medically resistant infections. Ten days after he had taken 10 steps, the doctors were speaking to me with heartbreaking phrases such as “it’s time to think about hospice” and “we’re doing him more harm than good” and “he’s on the strongest antibiotics available and they’re not working” and “there’s nothing more we can do for him.”

We moved George into hospice on the last Friday in February. Those were some of the longest days, but they were no longer filled with the constant worry that had troubled me the last 14 weeks. While George was in hospice, I felt that I was watching his spirit being tangibly stilled with peacefulness, and though it was difficult to watch him slowly leave his body, it was an honor to be by his side throughout it all. By Tuesday night, his breathing became so shallow that it woke me up. I’m a heavy sleeper with serious hearing impairment in both ears. But I had watched him breathe for more than an hour before I’d finally given into sleep, only to wake three hours later when his breathing made significant changes. He was gone 30 minutes later, and I laid my head on his strong chest and let out my tears for my sweet brother, just 18 months older than me, with two children of his own, and his entire future wiped out. Poof. Gone. My heart remains broken, and I don’t know when it will be repaired. Maybe it won’t be. I’m not trying to fix it right now.

The family slowly gathered after I made the phone calls around 4:30 a.m., and by 11, the funeral home had come to take George’s body. At a family lunch at noon, my mother threatened the life of her only living child: me. And though I remained calm and polite and invited her to a therapy session with me, inside I knew that in order to protect myself and my own family, I needed to put some distance between us for awhile. Again. It’s not our first go at estrangement after all, and though I might be too forgiving, the time has come to be even more protective of what I have left.

Life will continue to hand out lemons, and though I’m honestly not trying to make lemonade from it, I am still able to enjoy the happiness that life offers, even in the midst of trauma and tragedy. Life is a bounty of smooth and rough patches, and I’m quite certain that it’s better this way, than always being easy with no challenges. Does life suck sometimes? Absolutely. There’s no question about it. Do people suck sometimes? Clearly they can. But most of them don’t, and I feel such a connection with the people on this planet, just for the simple fact that we are all in this together, that I haven’t lost any of my faith in humanity. Do I startle easily? Yes. Do I more easily suspect people of child abuse and molestation? All the time. Do I want to make sure my wife drives extra carefully and goes to the doctor once a month to make sure no crazy illnesses are developing? Yes, I’m guilty of now worrying that I might lose her, too.

But I’m not searching for any deep meaning for the reason that I have lost both my brother and my father and have been left with one family member—the one who loves me the least—from my original four-pack, because to me, there’s no good reason. Life just isn’t fair. We enjoy who we are blessed with for as long as we have them. I’m going to do my very best to enjoy the people I have left in my life while enjoying my own existence. I am just happy to still be here.