In the year 2050, I became this meme on Spacebook. Here’s why.
Age 0. I was born.
Age 7. My dad died. His heart stopped. My heart broke. My family broke.
Age 8-17. Survival mode training 101, Part 1.
Just add tequila.
Age 18-25. Survival mode training 101, Part 2.
Had husband. Had miscarriage. Had lots of tequila.
Age 25-41. Got rid of tequila. Got new husband.
I got a starter survival toolbox. Some items included: 1-family of choice, 1-Blue Book, 1-Higher Power.
Read some tools, practiced some tools, lost some tools, misused some tools, lacked some tools.
Age 42-55. Put main toolbox in the garage. Got some tools out on occasion. Usually between kid’s events, bouts with cancer, mother’s funeral and Modern Family episodes.
Added second toolbox. Included brightly colored paint, some joy, furniture, brushes. Kept this one in the house.
Age 55. Life and my immediate family, as I knew it for 26 years, blew up all over the living room.
Main toolbox found, under the rubble. Second toolbox proved to be a lifesaver.
Age 56-60. Did not die. Learned how to live. Took a minute. Got out the main toolbox. Added more books, more family of choice. Upgraded Higher Power. Added the Stuff that Dreams Are Made Of to my second toolbox. Used frequently.
Age 60-62. Got a wake-up call that I am gonna die. Don’t know how long I have. Estimate just under 30 years.
Found open door to a road less traveled. Walked through the door. Drove down the road. Led me to the beach. Brought both toolboxes. Put in the front seat for safety, like eggs and bread.
The main toolbox got upgrade. New Red Book added. New family adopted. Higher Power got another upgrade.
Realized Higher Power has their shit together. And I am not far behind.
Age 62-64 Continued using toolboxes. Got rid of tools that no longer worked. Upgraded to new and improved tools as more was revealed. Leaned into love. Burned fear in effigy. Surprised myself.
Age 64-90 Continued waking up with direct access to salt water and sunshine. Adapted toolbox and lifestyle to fit each other. Continued to upgrade and maintain Higher Power connection. Like electricity. Paying the bill by fully expressing my gifts and sharing. Wrote one kickass book. Or twelve. Won award for most fun grandmother in the history of time. Lost award for most humble grandmother of all time.
It was about five years ago. I had just walked into the church where the meetings were held. And there she sat. Raging red hair up under one of her beautiful knitted creations. Yellow was the yarn color I think. The people had begun to come in, most going to the back to get their coffee from the giant pots with spouts that were up on the counter in front of the kitchen. It was early thirty in the morning when these men and women of all walks gathered for a spiritual start to their day. On many days to follow, she would be in that kitchen. With those pots, filling giant paper filters with coffee grinds to make coffee for people who needed it. Giving back for what she had received.
But on this day, my first time here, I saw her first. Almost as if she were the only one in the room that had easily a couple dozen sleepy people, exchanging hugs and greetings. Without a word, her look at me spoke volumes. I was guessing it to say, “Who is THIS new person? I don’t know her, and I am not sure I want to.” Deluded by my thought that I could read her mind, I approached her table and sat down, introducing myself, almost defiant. Reluctantly, she received my gesture. She was kind and smart and funny right off the bat, as she sat knitting, which she was always doing when we were at meetings together. We bonded immediately.
I was new to this group, but not new to the rooms. And this became my family and my home. And she was one of my closest siblings there. A former student at Harvard University, she was as brilliant as her red hair. Articulate too. And if you looked up the phrase rigorous honesty, you might find her picture there. I loved her for that, among other things.
I remember one time with her that stands out from the rest. (The rest includes a wild weekend we shared in a room together for a conference with 2,000 other people and her indulging my boy watching when my eyes should have been focused on a podium at the front of the room.) We were all seated in a children’s Sunday School room, a bunch of full-grown children, also known as adults, in tiny chairs, humbling and beautiful in my experience. When it came to her turn, she opened her book to read. This was not one of the books that were stacked up on the table for the use of the members who might grace the meeting on any given day. This brown paper-covered pocket-sized book belonged to her. And you could tell she had used it, loved it, devoured it. Had it been one of those cardboard children’s books, the ones that teething children can chew on and still understand the story, hers was the adult version. Warn from the turning of the pages and the copious notes in her hand there in the margins. That book spoke louder to me than anyone’s share that day. Except for one. Hers. After she read from her loved on Velveteen copy, her opening remark was “This shit’s hard.” I don’t know if she said anything else. And it didn’t matter to me. What mattered was that I loved her from that moment on. And wanted to know her better.
She was slightly younger than me, but our inner kids got along great. Two quick wits, both single, commiserating about that and who we each thought was cute that we knew. Her home was humble and spotless. Bed made, dog well-loved. She always had the Cadillac vacuum cleaner, which she used in her cleaning jobs and every day in her home. I have to tell you, I felt vacuum shame. Mine only comes out about once or twice a month. And after learning that she vacuumed every day, I always think of her on those two days a month I get my jalopy out of the closet.
I learned in time that our connection was for good reason. We shared more than just trouble with substance. We had a common bond of being in bondage to brain chemistry that can be quite challenging to live with and painful to be sober for at times. I have been fortunate to maintain my sobriety during the dark times in my life. She was not so fortunate. I suspect demographics and available care and money played a part. Trauma had a starring role. I do know that her journey had been a struggle from the start. But for most of the years I knew her, she always pushed off the bottom. Until she didn’t.
About a year after we met, we were both in the same safe place dealing with those brain chemistry issues that could be plaguing. We had shared stories of our experiences here over the time we were friends. That is a bond only people like us who know each other can comprehend. I can only imagine it resembles the bond of soldiers who have seen action. I only wish she had gone there one more time. For her sake, and for the sake of her two children.
A mutual friend called me today to say that she had died. I learned from another that she had been found, alone. My first thought was that I did not act on it the last time I had the urge to reach out. I am not saying that I think I could have saved her. All I am saying is I wished I had heard her voice one more time.
After hearing this news, I tried to do what was in front of me. I walked into the grocery store to get a few things. And before I could get to the fifth and final item on the list, I broke down in the aisle. I was on the phone with a friend and while I stood there sobbing, A woman walked up to me, seemingly out of nowhere. She was several inches shorter than my 5’10” frame, had gray hair, neatly done, pretty blue eyes behind perfect fake lashes and she was wearing black. She reached up to me, gave me a hug, as if she had been assigned to me and spoke deliberate words into the ear that did not have the phone to it. “I understand. My father died yesterday.” And with that, she turned on her heel and was gone.
I had debated stuffing my feelings until I got in my car. I was shaming myself for even feeling sad. But I permitted myself, with the inner pep talk to say there was no shame in grieving out loud in public. And look what happened. My grief was seen by her grief. And we were able to comfort each other, even if for just a moment. Then, as I turned towards the next aisle, my friend still holding me up on my phone against my head, I looked through tearsinto the eyes of a man in a golf shirt mouthing the words, “Are you okay?” And the woman with the cart coming up behind him came to see if I needed anything. These words cheapen the experience. But it was spiritual. God was all over that grocery store.
I got my fifth item, a drink called Peace Tea, which I am sipping as I write, went into my day with the reminder that life is fleeting, precious, and can end at any moment. I had already been mindful of this because I had been reflecting on the fact that this weekend, I will be 19 years free of breast cancer. And a couple of days after that marks the one-year anniversary of a longtime close friend’s death, who also went to that church for morning coffee, from Covid. So all of this has me wanting to honor their memories, while giving proper respect for their loss, by living my best life. Something I take for granted at times.
The picture I chose here is one I have hanging in my house. I bought it in the months after Kate Spade’s death in 2018 to go with my black and white polka-dot Kate Spade bedding. I named it Kate in her memory. Her death made me sad too. But for my purposes here,I thought it was a beautiful way to picture my friend who has passed on, perhaps in a blue knitted hat around that beautiful, long red mane.
This poem by Emily Dickinson, was sent to me by a friend who was also a fixture in that same kitchen I referred to earlier. I think it is a good goal to aspire to.
I am writing this because you died today and dad died yesterday. Actually, as you know, he died 54 years ago and for you it has been 10. But the days are still right next to each other for me to go through without both of you.
I have been numb for both days. Until tonight.
I just got out of the shower and was thinking about you mother and how much I wish to feel something for you today. But I could not. And I don’t like feeling numb, as much as grief is no fun either because I know it comes out, eventually.
So I began to recall the day that you died. You were 88 years old. A shrunken version of your vital self. In that smelly nursing home, where your best friend told me last summer that when she visited you there and walked up to the desk to say, “I am here to see Phyllis Bunn,” she recounted that they pointed to a woman in a chair in the hall there, saying that was you and she said, “That is not Phyllis.” Because it was not the you that she knew and loved. Who was forbidden from touching her kitchen cabinets because your hands were always sticky from chocolate or candy. The you that when you were my current age of 61, you were a vital, stunning, vibrant, dynamic woman in the fashion world and community of Tulsa, OK.
You got a late start “getting it right” as a parent. Something I always held compassion for. I am referring to the fact that you started a 12 step recovery program for the family members of alcoholics and became a born again Christian seemingly all at once at that latter part of life. You often said how bad you felt for our family that you did not seek the support of this recovery group as it was recommended to you some 30 or 40 years earlier. I get that today. As I have just begun a new support group too. This one dealing with the issues of growing up with an alcoholic or dysfunctional family system. And as a mother myself of a daughter of two very dysfunctional parents, I even have empathy for what you said you felt about regretting not starting to find that solution when your children were still children.
I went on there, standing in the bathroom, thinking how earlier today I spoke of you to a friend I was painting with, sharing that when you were taking your last breath, we were singing you out. With “Jesus Loves Me” I think. They say the hearing is the last to go.
I went on to think about how you would have been there for me when my marriage of 24 years ended, abruptly to me, just six years ago. That is when the feelings came. I began to cry, missing you, knowing that as I comfort my daughter in tough times like no one else could because I know what trials she has had her entire life, the same comfort came to me from you in those last 20 some years. You weren’t perfect. But you tried to make things right.
You were supportive during my many struggles with depression and anxiety. You did what you could when I could not care for Abby due to postpartum depression so severe that I was forced to leave her at 3 weeks to be hospitalized. You attended the support groups of NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill to learn how you could best be there for me.You were there as much as you could be when I had breast cancer. And this was what made the feelings come stronger. I began to talk to you, as I stood there in my robe, wet hair, body aching and heart a little too.
“I miss you mom. You would have comforted me when my marriage ended. You would have been sad and angry that more challenges were coming my way. You would have held me.” And the tears came, so I decided to write, fearing that I would otherwise distract myself. With something outside of myself. A movie, a cookie, a man. And while writing does delay the feelings of sitting to read until I am done writing, at least it has a healthy motivation. So here I am, typing away.
And now, as I continue to go through growing pains in life, particularly dealing with the year long imposed isolation as an extrovert living alone during a global pandemic, if you were here and still independent, I feel sure I would have come to your house, and laid on your couch where you would have rubbed my neck or tickled my scalp.
Your ashes are part of my stand up routine, something you would also approve of. Because you were there that first night I got up on stage over thirty years ago. Sitting in the back. Sounding like you were up front. Rooting for me. I referred to you as “my mother, the one in the back with the 88 teeth.” Because that was how big your beautiful smile was.
Here is how you were a part of the act. What I would do is go up on stage, and say nothing. Then, I would take out the cute little french provincial chair that your ashes sit on today, with a picture of you as a young ingenue, alongside a long strand of knotted pearls, your signature accessory. I would have added your infamous black high top Converse, but that would have been cumbersome.
After setting this up, I would take the microphone and begin my routine. “This is my mom. She died 8 years ago. Her ashes have been in my closet for 8 years. She was homophobic, so I decided it was time to get her out of the closet.” Some of the laughs were out loud, some were on the inside. But you were laughing the loudest. I would continue, referring to the ugly burgundy drawstring bag that houses the box with your ashes in it. “She would never be caught dead in this color. “ That killed. Pun intended.
This morning, when I walked into the bathroom, I had a surprise from my cat. He had taken the little diva character that I keep with your pictures in the living room, and dragged you into the bathroom.
Below are the pictures, followed by the text I sent out to friends who would appreciate my dark humor today, when I walked into the bathroom to discover the scene of his crime, along with the pictures: FYI-My cat’s name is Atlas. He has one eye, a scrunched up ear, a bit of an attitude and all of my heart. And while you weren’t much of a cat person, you would have loved him. Because he’s orange, the same as your old jumpsuit and orange flip lipstick and because he is mine. And by the way, a text is something people do on their phones because they forgot how to actually make a phone call.
(Text message) “So now Atlas has decided to play The Clue game.
(Please note dark humor to follow.) As you know, today marks 11 years since my mom died.
The little character you see resembles her as a stylish fashionista and is normally sitting in front of a photograph of her.
I’m guessing it was Atlas in the Bathroom with the Claw. I win.”
I just put on Diana Krall and set a thirty minute timer so I could give this proper time and be sure to get up and stretch. I bet you really hated the aging process. I am not a huge fan myself.
I’d like to add some pictures now and post it on my blog. I think you’d be proud of me today. Since you were a journalism major and our whole family has some expertise in writing, I never thought I had any talent mother. It was a lot to be the youngest by a stretch of years, surrounded by the stage performance, news celebrity, Emmy and Peabody award winning talents of my older siblings in my formative years. But I know that I do have it. And I intend to use it. To share my stories with others. In the hope that they are moved, inspired, encouraged or perhaps all three. I hope to be a published author one day.
I am glad I have taken this time to reach out. I was numb to dad’s death for most of the fifty years I did not have him. That letter got written last year. And boy, did those musty tears flow. All over the Village Inn on South Yale in Tulsa. They have closed since then. I’m guessing it was water damage.