Oh, little blog, how I have neglected you so ...
It is now August — exactly three weeks until I will step foot once again into the classroom. Hard to believe. I had big plans for this summer, and some of them actually came to fruition. But most did not, and that's OK. Life happened in a very big way for us this summer. Some of it has been good, usual summertime stuff, like a trip to the beach, lots of iced coffees, reading books just for fun, drinks with friends, and a garden overflowing with basil and cucumbers and tomatoes. But some of it has been truly awful.
I have always felt self-conscious about writing about myself or my family (ask any of my grad-school cronies, and they will testify that I did so very relunctantly — a bit of a problem for a student in a nonfiction-writing MFA program). But the past few months have been so big and so shattering in many ways that I've finally decided to grow a set and write, dammit. After all, isn't that the point of all of this?
This is what has happened, that Life with a capital L to which I was referring: My husband lost both of his parents less than three months apart — his father in April and his mother in July. And my 2-year-old niece had a kidney transplant the same week of my mother-in-law's death. Vera's transplant needs to be chalked up in the "very good" category — little V is thriving and has recovered more quickly than anyone anticipated. For the first time, she is eating real food. She no longer needs dialysis. For the first time, we have allowed ourselves to think about life beyond the transplant. But the hours from when we learned a donor kidney had been found until our sweetpea was out of surgery were crazy tense.
For much of the summer, I have felt as if I have been bumping around in a fog, like I can see just far enough in front of me to navigate around the furniture. During times like these, the big things become the only things. Everything else — the minutia, the details, the trivia — gets lost. My husband is an only child, and he lost both of his parents in just under three months. There is this one thought that springs into my head sometimes when I look at my husband that I cannot shake and that shakes me to my core: You don't have any parents anymore. It is not a thought — or a reality— that is welcome, and it is beyond heartbreaking.
On the day my father-in-law died, I felt as if I needed to play the part of the comforter. I don't think I was very successful at that — it was an un-comfortable situation — so I think now I was more of a witness. A witness to great love and a witness to great loss.
My mother-in-law was too exhausted and too devastated (and too sick with cancer, but we didn't know that yet) to be with her husband at the hospital after the ventilator was removed. My husband stayed with him, and I went to her house to stay with her. I watched her on that chilly, rainy afternoon put on her husband's jacket, which appeared to be about 10 sizes too big for her, and curl up in his recliner. She had lost so much weight in the months she cared for him while he was ill (and because she had cancer, but, again, we didn't know that yet) that she looked like a child playing dress-up in her parents' clothes. Even her own clothes hung on her frail body like bedsheets.
She aimlessly flipped through channels on the TV until she settled on golf. "George and I always watch golf together on Sundays," she told me. She said watch, I thought. Present tense.
After about 15 minutes, she fell asleep, still a tiny ball on his chair, still enrobed in his jacket. It was so strange and sweet and sad, and as she slept, I watched her. Her husband of 45 years was dying. Forty-five years, now coming to an end.
After she woke, I decided she needed to eat something, and we settled on soup. She didn't have any in the house, so I offered to drive to Panera to pick up some of the broccoli-cheese soup I knew she liked. I wanted to pick up a sandwich for my husband, too, because in my brain, as ridiculous as it seems now, I thought he might want to eat a little something as he watched his father die.
I can't help doing things like this. It's the Italian in me, I think, to immediately wonder if someone is hungry and to feel compelled to feed them, whether they are celebratory or despondent — whether they're anything, really. (And whether they have expressed any desire to eat is entirely irrelevant, and the fact that I am now someone's mother has only made this instinct stronger.)
And so I made my way to Panera, its tables and booths stuffed with families chatting and chewing and busy bees clicking and clacking away on laptops, and I stood in line and ordered soup and a sandwich for my mother-in-law and my husband. I looked like every other person ordering a take-out cup of soup and a sandwich, but I felt marked, other. I was a daughter-in-law and a wife, doing what little she could to make two people feel just a little more comfortable on the worst day of their lives. I had that thought, which was immediately followed by this memory:
The day my niece Mileva died, in February 2008, my parents, my sister, my grandmother and I drove home from the hospital (in the rain that day, too). We had spent months praying and hoping beyond hope that this baby would not be stillborn, and then praying and hoping beyond hope that she would live. I prayed more during that time than I had ever prayed before. I asked nicely. I made bargains. I begged God or the universe or whom or whatever was out there to please not let my niece die.
It didn't work. Seventeen days after we'd all gathered for her birth, we gathered again to witness her death. And here we were, five of us stuffed in my dad's car, silent under the weight of having just seen what we saw, when suddenly, my mother announced that she wanted pizza. She got on her cell phone and proceeded to order five pizzas from the pizza joint near their house for us to pick up on the way home.
"Ma, do you think you ordered enough? Five pizzas for five people?" my sister and I joked when she finished the order.
She sighed and said, "Well, we don't know who will come over. And I don't know when I'm going to feel like cooking again."
That day, my mother stepped out of the car and into the rain and returned with five boxes of pizza. We drove to their house and poured out into the driveway and filed inside into the kitchen. My mother plunked the boxes down on the island and grabbed plates, napkins, glasses, the pizza cutter, cans of soda, and whatever else she could find that we might need, and we ate pizza. Because, really, what else are you supposed to do?
When I arrived at the hospital with the ridiculous sandwich, I saw immediately that my father-in-law was close to death. He was really dying. I put the brown bag on an end table and moved toward my husband, who was sitting in a chair next to the bed and holding his dad's hand. We stayed there together, the two of us then joined by a minister, who was a family friend's friend, whom we'd never met. He took our hands and said a prayer. We are not prayerful or religious people, and I was surprised at how comforted I was by this gesture from a stranger. I stood behind my husband and didn't know what to do with my hands, so I rested them on his shoulders.
Scott watched the numbers on the heart monitor as they grew smaller and smaller, but I kept my eyes glued on my father-in-law. I felt very strongly that I needed to see that moment — that surreal moment that seems to be both sudden and slow — when he died. When he did, I allowed myself to look at my husband, to see his grief. I saw him that day for the first time as a son — every other role and title of his stripped away. Not a husband, a friend, a father or anything else — just a son.
The weeks and few months that followed became consumed first with my husband helping his mother straighten out the legal and financial issues of the estate. She seemed to be wasting away. At first we thought it was grief, which seemed like a perfectly reasonable explanation. That was a lot of it, but there was more. She had lung cancer, very advanced, and she didn't know. Three weeks after she received a formal diagnosis — four days after my niece's transplant — she died. The last time I saw her, she had called to ask me to bring her raspberries and blueberries from the farm stand near her house. I bought way too much — more than she'd asked me to. I don't know if she ate a single one.
Her funeral was in the exact same funeral home in the exact same room with the exact same people as my father-in-law's funeral. Surreal doesn't even begin to come close.
We wrestled with how to tell Benjamin about his grandfather dying. Because we aren't religious and because we had never attempted to explain death to a 3-year-old, we didn't have a script. We told him that Pappy had gone to live in heaven — it seemed more reasonable to tell a toddler that he went to live somewhere else somehow, even though our own ideas about all of that are murky at best —and that he was OK but that we wouldn't see him anymore. That seemed to suffice.
But then we had to tell him about his grandmother, so soon afterward. "Grandma went to live with Pappy in heaven so that he wouldn't be too lonely," I explained to him. And that seemed to make sense to him. It almost made sense to me when I said it out loud.
There will be more questions, I'm sure, and we'll have to do our best. It was most important to me that he not be scared. What is so sad, particularly for Scott, is that Benjamin probably won't remember them at all. He won't know how much they loved him, but we will do our best to remind him.
I didn't know that I wasn't going to have more time with my mother-in-law, that the day of too many berries was going to be the last time. I didn't have the chance to ask her to tell me more stories about Scott when he was a kid, because our son is so much like he was when he was a boy. I didn't have the chance to ask her to tell me about her own stories, about her parents and friends and fears and dreams, and how to make the cake she made for Scott every year for his birthday. I didn't have the chance to tell her that the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship is strange and sometimes a little uneasy but that I loved and respected her. I suppose this will have to do.
This is heavy stuff, I know (and if you are still reading, I thank you), but it is one last act of witnessing I wanted to do for them.
We were there. We saw it. We heard it. We felt it, and still feel it. All of it —your love for each other, your love for us, your life, your sickness, your death. And we miss you.
Hooray! I'm happy to announce the winners of the first SmittenBlog Uncommon Goods giveaway! The winners were chosen completely at random using Random.org.
Winner #1: Erica W. won the owl tea set.
Winner #2: Shawn D. won the owl bowls.
Ladies, please contact me with your mailing addresses, and I'll get these shipped to you this week. Thanks to all who entered.
It's no secret that I have a thing for birds. I've been "putting a bird on it" long before putting a bird on it was a thing (and before that thing got a hilarious send-up on "Portlandia." Watch it and love it below.) I don't know how it happened, but one day I looked around my house and saw birds all over it—on salt and pepper shakers, on tea towels, on tote bags. I had put a bird on my life and didn't even realize it.
When I was a kid, we didn't have central air in our house until I was finishing high school, and I never had an air-conditioner in my bedroom. Sometimes, the heat was pretty unbearable, but I loved waking up to the sounds of birds in the morning (provided those birds weren't too early).
We're all drawn to different things—patterns, shapes, silhouettes, colors, typography—for reasons that may be obvious or may be unexplained. While I do feel a sentimental attachment to birds—a dear friend's nickname for me, a tattoo I share with my sister and sister-in-law in memory of my niece, the necklace my husband gave to me after our son was born—I am mostly drawn to their independent natures, their whimsy. Or maybe I just like the way they look. Hard to say.
One thing I know is that birds say springtime to me, so to celebrate the start of May, I wanted to curate a collection of bird-themed lovelies I've found on the Interwebs.
And, as a special treat, my friends at Uncommon Goods have sent me TWO ITEMS to give away to lucky readers! I'll post instructions for the giveaway at the bottom of this post. Be sure to enter!
Without further ado, some pretty tweet (sorry) bird goods from around the web:
Clockwise, from top left:
1. A whimsical way to add a dash of color. Mid-century design–inspired bird poster print (A3 size: 11.7 x 16.5 inches), from Peanut Oak Print, Etsy.com, $19. (Frame not included.)
2. Tea time feels a little fancier with an actual tea set, but these big-eyed owls keep it from feeling stuffy. Handpainted owl tea set (stainless steel and stoneware). Hand-wash only, not microwave safe. Made in Japan. From Uncommon Goods, $50. WIN THIS!
3. The perfect ice cream bowls! Jewel Japan glazed ceramic owl bowls (set of 3). Dishwasher and microwave safe. Made in Japan. From Uncommon Goods, $30. WIN THIS!
4. For the snarky among us, may I offer this greeting card/magnet set. (Don't miss the shop's Golden Girls magnets and Joan Crawford Mother's Day cards.) From Seas and Peas, Etsy.com, $4.
5. This hardcarved rubber bird stamp has a '70s vibe. I can almost hear the Partridge Family now. From Sweet Spot Stamp Shop, Etsy.com, $7.99.
6. Charley Harper's wildlife illustrations are amazing, and I love that this one is called "A Good World." Check out this print and more at Charley Harper Prints, $50 unframed.
7. I have lots of online calendars and reminder thing-a-ma-bobs that are supposed to keep me organized, but I still manage to always come back to an old-school paper planner. This one is bright and cheerful enough to make you actually look forward to tackling that to-do list. And it includes a reminder on the cover to "write every day." Wise words indeed. Avian Friends Planner, from Galison/Mudpuppy, $14.
8. Caged bird no more! I love the "Be Free" sterling-silver sparrow necklace from Devin Michaels, Etsy.com, $18.50.
So, interested in winning something? Two winners will be chosen at random for the tea set and the owl bowls. Here are the rules:
1. Add a comment to this or another post here on SmittenBlog. Tell me what you like, what doesn't work for you, or what you'd like me to write about next.
2. Post a link to this page on Twitter OR like Uncommon Goods on Facebook. (Please include @stephwit and @UncommonGoods—in your tweet.) You can post a link to this page on the Uncommon Goods Facebook page, too, if you'd like. (http://www.facebook.com/uncommongoods)
Optional, but your entry will count twice:
3. Sign up to receive the Uncommon Goods newsletter and to vote on a product on the UG website. (It's quick and painless, I swear!)
The contest ends on Sunday, May 20, at 12 p.m. The two winners will be selected at random and will be announced here and on my Facebook and Twitter pages on Monday, May 21. I'll be shipping the prizes soon afterward.
Spread the word, and good luck!
And for more gift ideas, check out these other collections from Uncommon Goods:
• Fun gifts for the ladies in your life (ahem, Mother's Day is right around the corner!)
Today was the first day that I could hang clothes on my brand-new clothesline. (Yes, these are the things that excite me now.) It's one of those cool, retro, umbrella-like ones that are metal and spin when it's windy. I've wanted one for literally years, but we never got around to getting one until just recently. Every time I did laundry on a sunny, warm day, I felt guilty tossing the wet clothes into the dryer and felt like I was wasting the sunshine.
It felt momentous, hanging clothes on the line to dry, like I'm a real grown-up. It's strange, the times when I feel like an adult and the times I don't. I'll be 36 in a few months, which is closer to 40 than it is to 30. 40! I have a child, a husband, a house, a Subaru. I went to bed at 9:00 last night (a Saturday, mind you), and it felt like the most decadent thing I've done in a while. I'm getting gray hairs like it's my job. But during my day-to-day, I don't really think much about those big, obvious neons signs that point to my adulthood. Instead, grownup-dom hits me hard at odd, unexpected times, like in cartoons and old movies when someone steps on a rake and smacks themselves in the face. (By the way, has that ever happened to anyone in real life?)
Compare this to the night before, when my book club went to the movies to see "The Hunger Games" and felt like five old ladies in a sea of tweens. Right before the movie started, I dropped my iPhone into the theater toilet. Thanks in part to my Katniss-like reflexes and a bag of rice, I was able to save the phone, but did I feel like a grown-up yelling "Nooooooooo!" and plunging my hand into a public toilet? No. No, I did not.
Moving on. This afternoon, Benjamin was taking a nap (or not taking one, as the case may be, opting instead to chat with the multitude of stuffed animals in his bed) and my husband was puttering or something somewhere, and I decided to give the new clothesline a whirl. The sky was cobalt and dotted with whipped-cream clouds, and a slight breeze rustled the new, tentative leaves on the trees. In other words, it was perfect clothesline weather. I pulled the damp clothes out of the washing machine, mounded them into the basket, and made my way to the backyard. I picked up one wet towel after another, one wet undershirt after another, and hung them in rows, clipping pins to them. It was almost completely quiet, save for an errant dog bark or passing car. I found myself absorbed in the task, its mundane repetition hypnotic.
And then the wet scent of the clean clothes interrupted the reverie, and I thought of my grandmother and my mother. I thought of watching my grandma from my seat on the porch, gently rubbing my fingers across the hens and chicks planted in old men's shoes like bookends on the steps, looking away embarrassed when she hung my grandfather's boxer shorts or one of her bras on the line. I remember talking to my mother as a preteen about troubles with the mean girls at school as she hung the clothes on our line, weaving in and out of the rows of towels and feeling hidden, safe and secure.
When I was growing up, my mother rarely used the dryer to dry clothes, except during the winter. Our sheets, towels and clothes always felt crisp and were a little wrinkled. I couldn't understand why she didn't use dryer sheets like my friends' moms did, just like I couldn't understand why she bought wheat bread and made us recycle. Our clothes never smelled like Spring Meadows or Fresh Rains---they just smelled like clothes. And it was wonderful.
I was looking forward to taking a shower and using a crunchy, fresh towel tomorrow, but the weather had other plans. Not 30 minutes after I hung the clothes, the clouds started to spread across the sky and turn a pale gray. Oh well. It was nice while it lasted.
Before I forget, I've got some exciting news to share! I've been invited by Uncommon Goods to pair up to review and give away some of the company's awesome gifts and home goods. It's one of my favorite shopping websites, and I've been a regular customer of theirs for years, so it's a huge honor to have been contacted by them.
Stay tuned for my next post and to enter for a chance to win a most excellent item from Uncommon Goods!