Dear 2011 and 2012

Dear 2011:

So, you were a pretty good year that ended pretty effing badly. I can honestly say I’m not sorry to see you go. Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.

Dear 2012:

Welcome. Let’s play nice. Okay?

Love,
Natalie

In Her Time of Dying: Aftermath

December 30th, 2011

I’m finding a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that all of this began just a little over a week ago. I cannot comprehend that it’s only been nine days since my mom was first admitted to the hospital and coded for the first time. I feel as if I’ve been living this experience for a year.

I’m taking today off of work and spending it by myself. My brother left for Milwaukee this morning after he and I had breakfast together. I’m so happy that he’s going to get to be home with his fiancée for New Year’s Eve, and that they can ring in a new year together. I miss him. I don’t know if I could have done this without him. He and I were together through all of the hard years growing up. He and I were together when all of this truly started in the summer of 2008 and we were together to see it finished. It feels in a way that several things in our lives have come full circle in all of this. When we visited the hospital and had to go through the emergency room entrance because the patient entrance was closed, Drew asked me if I remembered sitting in that exact emergency room with mom the summer of 2008 and I told him of course I did. It seemed poetic somehow that her journey ended where it began. The morning that I got Nellie’s Christmas gift from mom was the day she died. You can call it a coincidence; just another Christmas present that was slightly delayed but I feel like it’s more than that. I feel like it was her goodbye to Nellie when she was no longer to vocally convey it herself.

I find myself feeling okay most of the day, but melancholy and detached by the time evening comes around. I’m having a hard time forgetting the night she died. Forgetting how she looked in her last hour. I will write about the night she died, and will probably be pretty detailed about the things I saw. But not yet.

The day she died I left work around noon to eat lunch with Drew. I sat at a red light waiting for it to turn, feeling sad and heavy. It felt like my heart weighed a thousand pounds and was trying to make its way out of my chest through my feet. I sat there behind the wheel, shoulders sunk, feeling as though I was drowning under the weight of sorrow when my favorite Ani DiFranco song came on: “Little Plastic Castles”. The cheery, upbeat combination of horns and drums surrounded me and the contrast of their joyful sounds versus my inner pain felt surreal; like a dream. The song’s tone and chords seemed so out-of-place with my emotions that at the time I couldn’t even fathom that one could be in such a place so full of happiness and creativity to create such music.

We went to the crematorium yesterday to get everything in order. I gave answers as the director asked questions for her death certificate. He asked if any of us wanted to witness the cremation (a resounding NO). We gave a credit card number and, as easily and efficiently as if we were ordering a new couch for our apartment, the transaction was complete. We even got a receipt.

Everything comes down to business. Even death.

I have to go shopping for a “vessel” (as the funeral director put it) to put mom’s ashes in. True to my penchant for laughing at inappropriate times and finding funny things where funny things maybe should not be, all I can think of is the Big Lebowski.

I want to be alone. I don’t want to be alone. Part of me is afraid to be alone. I feel so weird. I’m not necessarily sad she is gone. I don’t really miss her being here, because we had such a hard relationship and I haven’t enjoyed being around my mother in over a decade. I feel sad because her life was so difficult and full of sadness. She was young, and she had so many bad things happen to her. She alienated everyone around her. Hers is a tragic story; one that breaks my heart. I also think that for the first time, I’m mourning for her tragic life and for the mother that I truly will never have. I always knew that she could never be what I needed or wanted her to be but now that she’s gone, it really never will happen. I found myself feeling very childlike yesterday when I took a nap; I found myself thinking, “I want my mommy”. I realized I’ve been thinking that for years. It’s something that I never got, and never will. Last night Nellie was having a hard time getting to sleep. I kneeled beside her bed and stroked her hair. I told her I knew that mama had been gone a lot lately, but that she was back now and things would get back to normal. I just kept repeating, “mama’s here. Mama’s here.” And I just felt so fucking sad.

I try to focus on the positive things she experienced. She had two awesome (I might be biased) kids. She took wonderful vacations with her family and saw beautiful things. She played in a band with her sister. She got to see her youngest child get married. She was at the hospital for the birth of her first grandchild, and was one of the first people to hold her. I asked Joshua if I was ever going to get the image of her dying out of my head. I cannot stop thinking about it. He told me to try to replace it with an image of her in happier years and that eventually it would fade. I want it gone now. I don’t want it in my head anymore.

This is really hard. I am very aware that my grieving process is going to take a long time, and the thought of it makes me feel exhausted. I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to be feeling these things. I want them to go away. The thought of getting back to doing normal things after I’ve seen the things I’ve seen seems far away. Thinking about sitting at my desk and writing e-mails, answering questions and phone calls, and doing my normal tasks seems impossible.

I took a picture of myself after I’d gotten showered and put some makeup on. I looked somewhat normal again after days of throwing clothes on and not caring what I looked like.

I looked normal, except for my eyes.

My eyes look different. Not the color, or the shape, but what’s behind them makes them look different. I’m never going to be the same again after this.

They just look different.

A Goodbye.

My mother passed away last night with Ellen by her side. She waited until my brother and I had stepped out to grab a bite to eat. We had been gone for maybe 30 minutes when we got the call that she had passed.

I am going to write more, but I have business to take care of first. I am in no way finished writing about this experience.

Thank you for the love and support.

Susan Jean: 11/26/1951 – 12/28/2011

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In Her Time of Dying: A Change.

December 28th, 2011 ; Morning

I am back at work today. “Back” at work is really a relative term; I am here, and I am also not here. When my alarm clock went off at 5:45 A.M. this morning, I didn’t want to get out of bed. I wanted to ask my husband to take our daughter to daycare and go on to work so I could lay there. Instead, I pushed myself out of the warm comfort of my covers and into the shower. I went through the motions of my normal morning routine and found myself getting back into the groove of it once I started drying my hair.

It seems like a million years ago that I last did this routine before I was thrown into a blender and poured back out again. Getting Nellie ready, packing her bag for daycare, fixing my coffee and driving the normal route to get Josh to work felt alien; like it was something normal people did in a different dimension. Normal people whose lives hadn’t been flipped upside down in just seven short days. Normal people who hadn’t spent the last week in and out of the hospital surrounded by chaos and imminent death. Doing these mundane things felt both strange and comforting. As I’ve been shuffling about in this whole ordeal, I’ve felt like a ghost of a person drifting amongst the living. When people ask the courtesy question: “hi, how are you?” I pause for a second before answering. I want to tell them what I’ve been through in the past week, but it’s not quite socially acceptable when the clerk at a gas station asks to unload the burden of your dysfunctional relationship with your mother who is dying in the hospice unit you admitted her to on Christmas day, is it? So I pause and answer honestly: “I’m doing okay”.

I’m feeling those walls I mentioned yesterday – the emotional ones I’ve been building and fortifying for the past fifteen years – beginning to weaken a little. The kindness, love, and support that I’ve been surrounded by has chipped away little blocks here and there. I’ve found myself accepting and returning gratitude more easily than I have before. I’ve always had a hard time conveying and expressing my thankfulness and appreciation. I have a hard time telling people I love them. In the past few days the words have fallen easily from my mouth. I sometimes think it’s because I simply don’t have any energy to put forth into keeping my fortress up.

This experience is changing me. I can feel the change and yet I cannot put my finger on what exactly is shifting and evolving inside of me. I simply know that it is happening, and I accept and welcome it.

Afternoon

My bosses bought us lunch yesterday and had a coworker deliver it to the hospital. Their support and love has been overwhelming. We ate in mom’s room with our food on our laps. We didn’t talk much. I sat there eating my fajitas and kept thinking that it seemed wrong somehow that we were eating such delicious food in front of a dying woman. I keep thinking things like, “she’ll never eat Mexican food again” or “she’ll never shit in a toilet again” (seriously, that one crossed my mind while I was in the bathroom the other day). Knowing that death is coming makes you think of those things, I guess.

I’d look over and see the output from her catheter; there wasn’t much there but it was a reddish/coppery color that made my stomach turn. I kept looking at that fucking thing, the last of the urine my mother would produce and I wanted to be sick. I wished that we’d gone out of the room to eat. The sound of her breathing (shallow but gasping, rattle-y and sick) and that container of piss made me lose my appetite and want to vomit. I ate every bit of my food, however, because I apparently am a bit of an emotional eater. I never really realized this until this week’s events began to unfold.

I talked to my brother, who stayed overnight. Her vitals are declining. The nurses offered a vague guess of maybe a day.. Maybe a little more. Her time is winding down. I just want this waiting to be over. I don’t want to do this anymore, and I don’t think she does, either. I’m going to the hospital soon to meet my brother for lunch. The thought of being in that room with her and her shallow, gasping breathing makes me anxious and scared.

Early Evening

I went to the hospital for a few minutes to pick Drew up. They were in the middle of giving mom a sponge bath. I went in because she was agitated and making a lot of noise. It was really upsetting to see her upset like that, and I wasn’t entirely happy with the way the nurses handled her. They were not hospice nurses, but normal hospital nurses. They didn’t have the deliberate, gentle, slow touches that we’ve come to trust from the hospice nurses. The whole experience freaked me out really badly.

Drew and I had lunch and I decided to come home and just sit in the stillness until it was time to get Josh and Nellie. A package had come in the mail and when I got there, and opened it I saw that it was my mother’s Christmas gift to Nellie. It came with a note that said, “To my Nellie Rose. Love always, Grandma Sue-Sue”.

I looked at it for a minute and then broke down into tears for about five minutes. I slowly lowered myself to the floor and sobbed. I eventually calmed down, then burst into tears again. She got Nellie one of those Twilight Turtle night lights and I think Nellie will love it.

Once my crying jag had passed, I had the urge to track down my parents’ wedding photo album and look through it. I didn’t find it, though I do know it’s in my apartment somewhere. I don’t know why I felt compelled to do that.

Mom is running a fever. One of the hospice nurses that I trust most came in to talk to us about needing to bring it down. She suggested a suppository, and from the experience mom went through earlier in the day I was really hesitant. Fortunately the hospice nurse offered to do it herself, and she was so gentle with her, mom didn’t even stir.

The nurses and staff here are truly unique and special. I feel blessed to have met the people we’ve met.

 

In Her Time of Dying: Reflections on the Day

December 27th, 2011

We came up with a loose plan of action for funeral/cremation arrangements. I called several places locally to get rates, and am shocked at the cost of death. One place I called had a rate of nearly $3,500 for a cremation alone. No memorial service, no burial, no minister – just converting my mother’s body to ashes and sticking her in a case. It’s almost disgusting how outrageous the prices are. One can’t help but feel that the death industry preys on grieving people and takes advantage by charging high prices that mourning families don’t know any better but to pay.

Anyway. My brother and I stepped out for a little while for a coffee break and to talk with extended family members in regards to the upcoming plans. It has been essential to both of us to get away from the unit; to interact with families who are not going through the stages of grief and to feel somewhat normal. We talked about wedding plans, – I failed to mention that the day my brother came down here he proposed to his girlfriend! – had coffee, joked, and then got down to the business of calling funeral homes and our family members.

I am angry, annoyed, and agitated that my mother was in so much denial about her health that she avoided making these types of decisions and plans for herself while she was able. It’s not like the subject wasn’t broached; both my brother and I suggested getting her plans started even before she fell ill and my brother in particular was met with vehement hostility. Now, he and I and her partner Ellen are left scrambling to make plans by what we think her final wishes were. We have no idea what that is, so all we can do it guess based on what we knew of her. It’s a little easier for Ellen and my brother because they knew her better than I. Ellen was with her for the last nine years of her life, and Drew (brother) had more good years in his childhood than I did. I got about eight years before our family unit began to disintegrate and I literally have to dig and delve to find good memories of my mom that aren’t tainted and shadowed by bad ones.

As we walked back through the hospital we talked, we rounded that corner I’ve spoken so much about and the hospice unit doors came into sight, I found myself chilled by the cold reality of our situation once more. I wonder if it will ever feel less shocking? If after a nice break, the return to the hospice unit won’t feel quite so heavy?

I miss my husband and my daughter. I’ve been going home each night to sleep, because I can’t stay here overnight. That is my limit. I have to be home in my bed with them and I’ve felt some guilt about that, but at the same time I just cannot stay here. I’m going back to work tomorrow (not sure how useful I will be) after almost a week in crisis mode and it’s going to be very strange to not be around respirators, oxygen masks, and the feeling of death engulfing me in a strange and morbid embrace. My coworkers and bosses have been amazing, offering support, lunch, coffee, and the most important and helpful; schedule flexibility and freeing me from the burden of having to worry about my hours and pay.

Josh (my husband) has been feeling helpless, I know. He hasn’t been here much with me, instead he’s been caring for our curly-headed tot and honestly that is where I need him. Nellie knows something is up and misses me. I know she does. I would be considerably more stressed and worried if he were not there and she was worrying about his absence as well. I feel very strongly that I need her daddy there. I may feel differently if my brother has to go home to Milwaukee before all of this is over, but for now he and I have each other to lean on… I still go home each night and vent, talk, and sometimes cry to Josh. He has been an amazing support, whether he realizes it or not.

I know I’ve already posted once today but I had the opportunity to kind of sit and reflect with my thoughts the events of this day, and I felt compelled to post again. I’m not sure what the evening brings.. I’ve been keeping the ringer on my phone up and expecting THAT call each and every night. I am surprised with each dawn that comes and my mother is still alive. I know that soon, I will wake and she won’t be here.

We’ll deal with that when we come to it.

In Her Time of Dying

One of the most powerful urges I’ve experienced during this whirlwind that began when I received a frantic phone call last Wednesday evening was the urge to write. I wrote a short post on Christmas when we first admitted mom to Hospice and didn’t write again until today. I toyed with the idea of not posting that first entry, but I decided to share it because it is how I felt when I first got here. I want to chronicle the evolution of my feelings… My blog has never really experienced nor contained anything this heavy. Not even my miscarriage was this heavy. So if thoughts of death, dying, and details (not gory details, but some details of my mother’s physical state) bother you feel free to skip this. I will not be offended. But perhaps you know someone who is also going through this. Perhaps that person is you. And maybe reading this will make you or someone else not feel quite so alone in what you’re experiencing. I’ve decided to call this chronicle In Her Time of Dying.

December 25th, 2011

I step out of the elevator, turn the corner and reach the doors that I have to walk through. I pause as I read the sign talking about how family and friends are welcome, but to be quiet and respectful within.

Dying people need quiet and respect.

I push the heavy double doors open and step inside. I gaze down the long hallway; eying the doors that hold people whose time is running out inside. I take my first step towards her room, my footfalls echoing on the hardwood floor.

I hate it here. It is secluded, peaceful and clean and the nurses are sweet. But still I hate it here. I am afraid. I  am uncomfortable. This is a place of finality; a place of whispered apologies, forgiveness.  A place of tears and memories shared.

I didn’t have quite as big of a problem in the first unit, the critical care unit, because in that waiting room people were waiting to see what was going to happen. Waiting for their loved ones to get better. Here, we are all only waiting for one thing:

Death.

The air is heavy with the promise of it. Here, it is guaranteed. In the rest of the hospital people have babies, mend broken legs, have surgeries but here in the hospice unit, there is only one thing that happens here. The faces of the families who wander the hallways are all the same: tired, grief-striken, confused, numb.

I reach her room and enter and I am gripped with a sudden urge to turn and flee back the way I came. This is the closest I have ever been to death and a dying person and I want to run away and pretend this is not happening. I do not run. Instead, venture into the room and stand beside the bed where my mother lies dying.

I look down at her, discomfort and anxiety filling me from head to toe. We haven’t had the best relationship; my mother and I and I would actually venture to say that it has been a bad relationship. I harbor a lot of bad, resentful, angry feelings toward her that I’m struggling to let go because they don’t matter anymore.

I hate it here.

Dec 27th, 2011

I’ve come to feel slightly more comfortable with the concept of this place. We’ve met a lot of really nice people. Very supportive people and staff. The nurses, the counselors, the chaplins are all amazing folks. We are at a Catholic hospital, which worried me at first considering we aren’t even remotely Christian/Catholic. But everyone – with the exception of one nurse who thought it would be a good idea to get into my mother’s face last night when she thought that the end had come and asked her if she had accepted Jesus Christ into her heart as her personal Lord and Savior – has been not pushy or evangelical at all.

My brother, Ellen and I have been talking about what to do after mom dies. It’s not an upsetting conversation so much as it is a weird one. Talking about cremation, burial, eulogies, and other things of that unpleasant nature while the person you’re talking about is still alive in the other room is very surreal and strange.

Mom’s breathing has changed. I watched her chest today moving in and out; it was like it was caving in every time she inhaled. She’s working hard to breathe. Part of that is because we’ve turned her oxygen off completely. She’s been pulling her mask off herself almost since she first got to the hospital. It is the one thing she’s been able to control and has been very clear about, and since she can no longer communicate we made the decision for her to leave it off. Her skin is a dusky gray combined with the yellowish orange of jaundice. She twitches and flails occasionally, which the hospice nurses said was normal and a part of the body’s preparation for death.

Every noise, every beep, I think is the end. Just when I feel like I’ve come to terms with the actual process of her dying, a false alarm happens and I feel like I’m going to panic. I’m not sure where the root of the feeling is; when thinking of everything else I feel very ambivalent and numb but when I think that the actual moment of her death is nigh, my pulse quickens and I feel like I want to throw up. I am scared, I am panicky, and I think it is because I don’t know how I’m going to feel when it does happen. I am so very skilled at stuffing and masking my emotions that when this woman who has caused me so much misery, pain, and anxiety is no longer alive to poison me with her toxicity, I’m not sure what my emotions will be or how powerfully they will come. I am afraid to feel them.

I took a long walk around the hospital today, wandering nowhere in particular to clear my head and stretch my bones. I strolled slowly, without a real destination and observed the different feelings of the wings I walked through. I prowled the hallways of the critical care unit, where this journey began and remembered the feeling of fear and uncertainty I felt our entire stay there. I visited the surgery waiting room, where there was a similar air of anxiety and questions waiting to be answered hanging in the air. I wish this hospital were a place where babies were born. I would have liked to have passed through the waiting rooms filled with proud grandparents and relatives waiting to greet a brand new life… That would have been a breath of fresh air before I returned to the place where people are waiting to meet death. My feet carried me to a coffee shop, and back again down the hallway leading to the hospice unit. As I rounded the corner and saw the double doors I noticed that the air  changes once you reach this part of the hospital. It hums around you with a quiet respect and dignity; it is not necessarily heavier but it is more solemn. It’s a feeling of finality; the closing of a chapter on the lives of each and every person who has someone in this unit.

I wondered as I wandered if “hospice” was written all over my face. I wondered if the lost, numb, haunted, resigned, confused glaze over my eyes was recognizable to the hospital staff.

I have a lot of work to do, emotionally. We met with a grief counselor today and I liked her a lot. I wonder if this experience might be the push I need to finally be ready to seek my own personal therapy to fight my inner demons and try and shake off some of the ghosts of my past that still haunt me. My mother has always held such a power of me in the sense that I made a silent, somewhat subconscious vow to myself that she would never see me overly emotional. No tears. No joy. No love. No fear. She had betrayed and violated my sense of trust so completely, and so many times over the years that she no longer held the right to see me at my weakest; my most vulnerable. I suppose in a way I was always afraid that if she did catch me with my guard down; she would seize the opportunity and sink her claws into me, injecting her poison deep into my veins.

My hope is that her passing will weaken those walls enough that with some therapy, I can finally send them tumbling and be free of the poisonous power she held over me.

I have a long road ahead. First, I have to get through today. Then tomorrow… And so on.

 

Hospice

My mom has been transferred to the hospice unit at the hospital here. This has all happened since this past Wednesday. On Christmas, I became my mother’s power of attorney and had to sign her admittance papers into the hospice unit.

This is the beginning of the end, and it still hasn’t all absorbed into my brain yet. It doesn’t feel real. Like this isn’t happening. Sometimes I can pretend it’s not, and forget about it until I push open those doors into the unit and am hit with the realization that this is it.

I have so many feelings I’m not even sure what they are. I feel numb a lot, which I guess is normal. I sometimes wonder if this would be easier or harder if she and I had had a good relationship instead of a bad one. In a way I think harder, because I would be affected more intensely on an emotional level but in a way I think easier, because the feelings I’m having wouldn’t be battling each other so heatedly. Sadness, grief, relief, anger, resentment are all vying for my emotional attention and it’s not in the normal stages of grief way. I have had a truly dysfunctional relationship with this woman, and now that her life is at an end I don’t know how to feel about it.

Yesterday was Christmas and I had an excellent morning with Nellie, Josh, my brother, Josh’s brother, and his parents opening presents but after that the dark cloud that is this whole fucked up situation descended on me and I was lost in the fog once again. I wanted to wring the neck of every goddamned Santa I saw. I wanted to hold up my “Hospice & You” folder in the face of everyone who cheerfully wished me a Merry Christmas and say, “NOPE.”

All I know is that this is beyond difficult and I’m just kind of here at this point. I’m not doing well, I’m not doing terribly, I am just sort of… Doing.

Hard Times.

I’m not going to say much here except that my family and I are going through an incredibly hard time right now. My mother, with whom I do not have a good relationship, was admitted into critical care Wednesday night after being there for a routine doctor appointment when she suddenly coded and had to be shocked back to life.

She coded four times in two days. Her heart seems to have stabilized for now but everything is very touch and go. She ha a multitude of other issues ad ailments and she is very, very sick. To the point that my dad, brother, her two sisters, two of my cousins and a family friend drove overnight 10 hours to come here.

She has no power of attorney assigned, no end of life plans and until yesterday, no one had any idea her feelings about life support, ventilators, etc. the doctor spoke with her and she agrees to DNR paperwork that I signed yesterday. It was a surreal moment and even though I know this isn’t the case, as I scrawled my name across that paper the first thought that seeped into my brain was, “you’re signing her death warrant.”

I don’t think it will be long. But I don’t know for sure. My dad and brother will have to leave and go back home soon and then it will be me and her best friend here. I’m afraid, I’m sad, and I’m so many other emotions I’m not even sure what to call them.

All I know is that for the time being, I’ve been able to put the intense anger I have toward her on hold for now, because it doesn’t do either of us any good.

That’s really all. Not really the Christmas I pictured, but life gets in the way of our plans sometimes.

Whatever you believe in, whether it be prayer or positive energy, please send it out way because we have a rough road ahead still.

Greasy

My daughter’s hair is out of control. It’s long, curly, fine, and all over the place. I haven’t been able to bring myself to cut it yet. More often than not, her hair resembles Gene Wilder’s in Young Frankenstein. I usually have to wrestle it into pigtails or a ponytail, lest she look like she got a little too curious with an electrical outlet.

My daughter has also had chronic cradle cap on her scalp, which drives me insane. Yes, it’s harmless. Yes, her hair covers it up most of the time but when she’s sitting on my lap I can see it while I run my fingers through her curls, and it drives me insane. I’ll sit there and try and pick some of it off like some sort of mother chimpanzee while she fusses and protests. I did a little bit of research the other week on toddler cradle cap, and one website helpfully suggested rubbing olive oil into her scalp, letting it sit, then loosening the scales (like she’s a lizard) with a comb.

So the other night during bathtime, I was armed with some olive oil from the kitchen. While Nellie was playing, I wetted her hair (which she hates) and gave her head a nice scrub with some shampoo. I figured I’d use the olive oil as sort of a conditioner. I rinsed her hair clean of the shampoo (from Nellie’s reaction, I think the water I use to rinse her head is actually acid) and then rubbed the olive oil into her scalp. Have you ever tried to rub anything into a naked, slippery toddler’s scalp? It’s not easy, especially when said toddler is protesting and sliding all around the tub like a greasy seal.

I digress. I got the olive oil in, let it set and then I started combing away her flakes. Much to my delight, they loosened easily and her scalp immediately looked better. I began the process of chasing her around the tub as she slipped and slid and yelled, “I MERMAID! I DOLPHIN! WHOAAAAA!” attempting to rinse her hair (again with the acid, or snake venom, or whatever my water is made of). Nellie wailed and thrashed and complained and after a few decent attempts at getting the olive oil out of her hair, I finally told her we were done and got her out of the tub.

We went about our normal nighttime routine and put her to bed. The next morning I greeted my pajama-clad girl with a hug and a kiss…

And then I saw her greasy little head and I jumped back slightly. It looked like someone had poured a vat of grease (or, you know. Olive oil) on the top of her head. It was then that I realized that after I had doused her head in olive oil, I had failed to do what the instructions on the internet had said, and that was to rinse it with shampoo again after combing the cradle cap flakes off.

Great.

“What’s wrong with Nellie’s hair?” Josh asked as he came into the room.
”Uh. I put some olive oil on her scalp to try and help with her flakes and also the tangles in her hair..”
”It looks awful.”
“Yes. I’m aware.”

I pulled her up into my lap and scooped her greasy curls toward the top of her head, winding a ponytail holder around them.
“There. That’s better.”
Josh gave me a side-eye and went to empty the garbage.

My girl went to school today dressed in a cute pink and plaid dress, Spider-Man shoes, and a head full of greasy hair that smells kind of like a salad. I had to explain to her teacher what had happened and that she wasn’t dirty; her mother was just an idiot.

Sorry, kiddo. Mom fail.

The Gift of Music

Hark the herald, angels sing. Glory to the newborn King

My family sang, our voices echoing in the empty church. We weren’t at a church service, we weren’t singing in preparation for a wedding or a funeral. We were gathered together, my big family and I, to create what is probably the most memorable Christmas gift I’ve ever been a part of making.

It was 1992, I think, and I was eight on the verge of being nine. The gift was for my grandma Nellie, who was legally blind and loved music. My entire family, in fact, loved music and we were all blessed with the gift of song. I don’t know from whom the idea came, to make grandma Nellie the Christmas tape. All I know is that I am beyond grateful that the idea came about when I was old enough to have memories of the experience.

I didn’t want to be involved at first. I was anxious and shy about having to sing on my own. I was an ass about it;  begging my parents not to make me do it and even outright refusing until one day we pulled up to my aunt’s house and my mother stopped the car and locked the doors in the driveway. She looked at me.
“Natalie Elaine,” she began, “You aren’t backing out of this. I don’t care if you’re nervous, or if you are shy about singing by yourself. You are going to be a part of this because we all are and if you are the only one not on this tape, I promise you one day you will regret it and you will be very sad.”

My mother has not ever been a source of advice or wisdom for me, but on this she was dead right. After her talk with me there was no question about whether or not I would sing on this tape. I did it, I sang my song and I am eternally grateful to my mother for locking me in the car that day and telling me in no uncertain terms that I was to participate. She was right: if I had been the only family member left off that tape I would be very, very sad.

Over the course of weeks – maybe even months, time is different when you’re a child – we recorded together at my aunt and uncle’s church and individually in a recording studio. Everyone involved got either their own song, or their own verses in a song. My mother and her two sisters sang a song together.  My father and aunt sang “O Holy Night”; a song that makes me cry to this day from the memories it brings. Mostly because that Christmas tape was one of the last good memories I had from when my family was still whole. My song was “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella”. I sang it in a recording studio by myself. I still remember the weight of the earphones, heavy and professional-feeling; too big for my head. I remember the sound of my own voice rebounding back into my ears. I sang the song in one take and that was it. The thing I had feared so much was behind me.

On Christmas that year, we gathered at my aunt’s as we always do. The air was heavy with excitement and anticipation for the surprise we were about to give to my grandma Nellie. After the presents were opened and the room sufficiently filled with snowman-covered paper, one of the adults in the family came forward with grandma’s present. I don’t remember who it was, but I do remember what they said:
”This year for Christmas, we decided to give you two things you loved most: music, and our family.”

The tape was popped in, and the sound of my family’s voices singing in four-part harmony filled the room. Everyone teared up as my three-year-old cousin Laurie sang the first verse of “Away In a Manger” in her baby voice. Butterflies fluttered in my stomach when my song came on and I was suddenly flushed and red with embarrassment. I listened to the sound of my own voice and watched my family’s faces, waiting for their silent critique. Everyone smiled as they listened but no one’s smile was bigger than my grandma Nellie’s.

In the years since her passing and as I’ve grown up, I am more and more grateful for that experience. It really was one of the last good memories I have from my childhood. Grandma Nellie died two years later, and shortly after that my parents divorced and my family fell apart. But in the Christmas of 1992 I was part of something special. Something wonderful. I was part of giving my blind grandmother the gift of the two things she loved most:

Music, and her family.