Monday, December 27, 2010

A Contemplation of Death

"A Contemplation of Death" is a weighty title for a simple blog post. Actually, it is the definition of the word thanatopsis, which is also the title of one of my favorite poems. I reread the poem this morning, since yesterday my maternal grandfather died. He died 2 years and 5 days after his wife died, and at the exact same time: 1:10 p.m. He was surrounded by his children and he was listening to his favorite song, Moonlight Serenade, by the Glen Miller Orchestra.

Just the other day, my mother told my sister and me that after her mother died, friends would comment that it was so sad that she had died at Christmastime. My mother said that she found it comforting: "It's because of Christmas that I know I will see her again one day." I am sure Mom feels the same way about the passing of her father. I find her response to be a lovely illustration of being "sustain'd and soothed by an unfaltering trust."

For me, there is an acceptance of my grandfather's passing as a natural progression of life, but I am sad for my mother and her sisters and brother, living without parents. 

And I have an uneasy sense of time moving too quickly.   

Me, Grandpa Jackson, and my sister, Nicki

THANATOPSIS
by: William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

      O him who in the love of Nature holds
      Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
      A various language; for his gayer hours
      She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
      And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
      Into his darker musings, with a mild
      And healing sympathy, that steals away
      Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts
      Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
      Over thy spirit, and sad images
      Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
      And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
      Make thee to shudder and grow sick at heart;--
      Go forth, under the open sky, and list
      To Nature's teachings, while from all around--
      Earth and her waters, and the depths of air--
      Comes a still voice--Yet a few days, and thee
      The all-beholding sun shall see no more
      In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
      Where thy pale form was laid with many tears,
      Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
      Thy image. Earth, that nourish'd thee, shall claim
      Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
      And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
      Thine individual being, shalt thou go
      To mix for ever with the elements,
      To be a brother to the insensible rock,
      And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
      Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
      Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.
       
      Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
      Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
      Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
      With patriarchs of the infant world--with kings,
      The powerful of the earth--the wise, the good,
      Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
      All in one mighty sepulchre. The hills
      Rock-ribb'd and ancient as the sun,--the vales
      Stretching in pensive quietness between;
      The venerable woods; rivers that move
      In majesty, and the complaining brooks
      That make the meadows green; and, pour'd round all,
      Old Ocean's grey and melancholy waste,--
      Are but the solemn decorations all
      Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,
      The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
      Are shining on the sad abodes of death,
      Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
      The globe are but a handful to the tribes
      That slumber in its bosom.--Take the wings
      Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
      Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
      Where rolls the Oregon and hears no sound
      Save his own dashings--yet the dead are there:
      And millions in those solitudes, since first
      The flight of years began, have laid them down
      In their last sleep--the dead reign there alone.
      So shalt thou rest: and what if thou withdraw
      In silence from the living, and no friend
      Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
      Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
      When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
      Plod on, and each one as before will chase
      His favourite phantom; yet all these shall leave
      Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
      And make their bed with thee. As the long train
      Of ages glides away, the sons of men,
      The youth in life's green spring, and he who goes
      In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
      The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man--
      Shall one by one be gathered to thy side
      By those who in their turn shall follow them.
       
      So live, that when thy summons comes to join
      The innumerable caravan which moves
      To that mysterious realm where each shall take
      His chamber in the silent halls of death,
      Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
      Scourged by his dungeon; but, sustain'd and soothed
      By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
      Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
      About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams. 
       

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Purging

I started this post back in August. Actually, it wasn't really a post. Just a title. I saved it as a reminder to myself that I had something to say on this topic. But a lot has happened since August. I didn't know then just how much purging was coming my way.

When I went on vacation this summer, I started a list: Things to Purge. I had clutter in mind: Closets that were bursting with one too many season's worth of clothing; baskets overflowing with well-loved, but forgotten old toys; my office desk which, after a summer of neglect was looking like it was crafted of paper-mâché, and the dreaded loft: an unfinished third floor room filled with old furniture, Christmas ornaments, baby gear, and dozens of tubs of clothes. The loft had been in pretty good order until the girls decided to go up there and dig through the tubs in their never-ending quest for something different to wear. What had been orderly stacks of clear tubs labeled by season and size had been reduced to utter carnage. It looked like a Target had exploded up there and I hadn't had the guts to face it.

But with fall coming, and the start of the new homeschool year, I was feeling the need for order and so, sitting on the beach in August, I started that list of items to purge. I didn't get far. We came home, did a little shuffling of things here and there, then settled into the school year. The list, my big ideas, and my motivation for purging were quickly forgotten.

In fact, a curious thing happened. Instead of purging, I started hoarding. No, not in a gross, finding-flattened-cats-in-my-garage kind of way (by the way, thank you, A&E, for that image I will never be able to un-see). I started collecting activities. Commitments. I starting saying yes to every opportunity that came my way.  I was taking three dance classes a week, working my TA job, volunteering at church, and considering taking on more responsibilities in my homeschool community. Before long, I had plans every day and most nights of the week except Thursday.

Anthony was not thrilled. The girls were even less so and let me know in subtle ways like plastering themselves to the bay window sobbing and knocking on the glass as I backed out of the driveway for a 45 minute tap class. This made no sense to me. I'm with them constantly, after all. You'd think they'd be glad to be rid of me for an hour or so.  But they weren't.

Then, two weeks ago, we got an update on a friend who had been struggling with breast cancer for several years. She was actually my sister Nicki's best friend from high school. While Nicki had kept in touch with her and visited her in Georgia a few times, I mostly kept up with her on Facebook. That night, her 16 year old son updated her Facebook page with a status that read: Mom is in bed, she has been getting worse lately...she's headed HOME! just think how amazing it will be when all this pain and suffering is DONE! All the prayers and support have been so loved and needed! She loves all of you and we will see her in GLORY and live forever! 

My stomach lurched. Of course, I agreed with what her son wrote. But I was grieved, too. How could I not be heartbroken for this family when their wife and mother, who had only turned 40 a week earlier, was leaving them? I was also amazed by this incredible son our friend had raised. 

Still, I started crying. Carys and Anthony were both asleep next to me, so I tried to calm down and go to sleep. But I couldn't stop. It was 11 at night, so I ran down to the basement hoping I wouldn't wake anyone up while I was losing it. 

I thought about my friend and her beautiful family and the utter grace with which they were handling this unthinkable situation. I was comforted thinking that she was surrounded by her husband and children who adored her. Even from my limited observation, I could see she had done a brilliant job raising her children. How had she done that? I wondered. I feel like I'm dropping the ball daily with my girls and then praying later that none of my many screw-ups will leave them scarred for life. Just that day, Chloe and I had a big dust up during schoolwork. She just couldn't get the hang of counting mixed coins, no matter how many times I taught it to her. With each mixed coin problem in her workbook, I had to teach her the concept all over again. I eventually blew up at the poor little thing, saying things I immediately wished I could take back, and reducing both of us to tears.

I'm sure my friend was not the perfect mother and that she felt the sting of personal failings sometimes, too. But as I sat there crying for her, I started to see that she made very different choices than I had been making lately. I saw my packed schedule and my insistence on adding more and more to it and it dawned on me that I wasn't making my family my priority. I was squeezing them in to whatever time I had left over. No wonder I was so frazzled and short-tempered with them! Was this what I had quit my job for? And why was I signing up for all these things anyhow? I was ashamed to admit that my decision to participate in something usually had little to do with the purpose of the event, and much more to do with what I would get out of it --recognition, a new circle of friends, bragging rights. What did any of these things matter compared with this limited time I have with my daughters as they grow up. I've already been home for four years. What do I have to show for it?

As my thoughts returned to my dying friend, I knew that in these last days she was not thinking of what she had given up or sacrificed so that she could pour everything she had into her four children and her husband. She knew she could do many, many things with her life, but she chose carefully. And she chose wisely.  She knew what mattered. And she knew what, in the long run, was inconsequential.

I went to bed. When I woke up the next morning, I started sending emails withdrawing from commitments. I felt terrible to be going back on my word, but I knew it was the right thing to do. I also replied "no" to holiday invitations, dropped a dance class, and turned down some new opportunities I had been considering.

Two nights ago, I was relating all this to my friend Tracy when it dawned on me that this was not the first time that I had recognized I was doing too much and not giving my family the attention they needed. I had gone through this process at least twice before in the last four years. I hadn't remembered those experiences at all that night I was in the basement thinking about my friend. 

Suddenly, a new compassion and understanding for my little Chloe was born. Understanding priorities and balance are my mixed coins. And I keep forgetting how to count them.



 
The friend who inspired so many.  She died on December 6th.

"Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her." --Proverbs 31:28

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Daydreams and Wake Up Calls

It's Christmastime and my genetic predisposition towards unrealistic expectations is in full swing.

We took most of December off from home schooling so that we could focus on baking, gift giving, card sending and holiday movie-watching. Some of these have been checked off our list (we've watched every holiday movie from Christmas in Connecticut to White Christmas), while others have been redesigned ("baking," for instance, has been replaced with "eating").

Shopping was successfully completed, even a bit early, and with a slightly lesser air of criminality than in previous years.  For some reason, I continue to try to Christmas shop with my children in tow. I really must stop doing this, especially since it never goes well. It may have been a no-brainer when the girls were clueless babies, but now I'm reduced to distracting them with "Wow! Have you ever seen such a huge package of toilet paper?!" while I frantically stuff gifts under our winter coats in the cart. While this is an improvement over the year I hid a Barbie in the coat I was wearing (those Target security people swooped in out of nowhere like so many Dementers), it still has a suspicious look to it that compels me to explain with a nervous laugh to every passing stranger, "Wow! It sure isn't easy to shop when you home school your kids! Seriously, I'm not stealing this."

Yesterday, I had just such a shopping adventure, made a bit more successful since my mother came along. We were able to divide and conquer, with Mom taking the girls to help get things off her list, while I made a mad dash down the toy aisles with my list (though still hiding everything under the coats). When we stopped for lunch, Chloe took one bite of her personal pan pizza and out came her first front tooth!  It was a cute little momentous occasion. She had hoped at least one, if not both of her front teeth would come out for Christmas, which is also her 7th birthday. I tucked the tooth away in my wallet to save for the pillow that night and we all went over to my mother's house to eat Christmas cookies and watch Elf for the tenth time this month.

Despite a little shopping stress during the day, the afternoon at Mom's was fun and relaxing, just the kind of day I'd had in mind when I planned this "month of Christmas merriment" for the girls and me. A sleepover  was decided on and so I fished the tooth out of my wallet, feeling sort of nostalgic about sharing Tooth Fairy duties with my parents. I wondered if they were thinking about how time goes by so quickly. I feel like it was only last year that I was in the hospital giving birth to my own Christmas baby. Do they feel like it was only yesterday they were putting a quarter under my pillow while I slept?

While I thought about these things, Chloe held her tooth in the palm of her hand. Carys wandered over and started haranguing Chloe for a turn at holding "da toof." Suddenly, a gasp and a faint clicking sound as the tiny tooth hit the linoleum on the kitchen floor.

As the girls dropped to their hands and knees and started searching for this white little tooth on a shiny white floor, as quick as a flash, Teddy, my parents' Morkie pup, darted out from under the kitchen table.  He immediately discovered the tooth.

And ate it.

For about a minute, I felt like crying, partly at the look of utter horror on the girls' faces, a little with the thought that a dog ate part of my kid, but mostly from quiet, self-conscious embarrassment at my own sentimental musings, so roughly interrupted by reality.  I decided now was as good a time as any for me to leave and let Mimi and Stampy handle it. They helped Chloe write a letter explaining the catastrophe to the Tooth Fairy, who would surely understand, and Chloe woke up this morning to find a crisp dollar bill waiting for her. The tooth-eating dog disaster was all but forgotten and inconsequential in light of her excitement.

As I think about the many holiday plans on my list, the ones I pulled off, those that still might happen, and the few that were foiled entirely, all that really matters is the end result. Christmas morning will come, whether I'm ready or not.  And it will be lovely, no matter what.