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I lost a parent. I gained some family.

Dad died last month, and it’s been a lot of things. It was closure, and sad, and frustrating. That was in the first ten minutes, and then it settled into my bones and became real.

Grandpa and Grandma Maggert

I went to Iowa for the funeral. I connected with people who are my flesh and blood, but have never met. It was an uplifting, somber, joyous mess of a day sandwiched in between two twelve hour drives with my own thoughts.

I miss my dad, I ache for my mom, and still have flashes where I think both are alive. I don’t know if that will ever pass.

My cousin Richine– well, I saw her and knew we were kin, and it felt like a gift. She sent me a hundred or more pictures of my family that I’ve never seen, dating back to the 1930s. It’s a treasure. My cousin walked me across the old farm and pointed out the place my grandmother was killed in 1955. I miss her, even though we’ve never met, and wonder how life would have gone for all of us if she had lived.

It’s a time of possibilities and sadness, metered through a lens of my own family. We are unique, identifiable, and now that I’ve been back to Iowa, more connected.

I’ll be in Columbia, South Carolina on Nov. 11 for the Authors Invade Columbia Event. Stop by and see me if you’re around. Check out the page here: Sakarlina, Y’all! Come see me!

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My dad passed away.

Dad passed away last night. He’d been fighting cancer for six years.

Life is going to change a lot even if I think it won’t. He was a complicated man who never truly recovered from the loss of his wife. When mom died twenty-one years ago, we lost our family despite our best efforts to keep it. He loved his family because we were everything he never had as a child.

We were a 1970s family. Dad was a lineman. Mom raised us kids. We never lacked anything because of how hard they worked. I learned by watching, even if it took me years to understand what real commitment to a family means.

I’ve thought, over the years, about the good things that are  part of me. He taught me how to be good to animals, how to interact with the natural world, and about loyalty and the value of work.

Losing him means being honest about a lot of difficult things. My own age. Our relationship. Wanting a family that is gone. Wishing for a life that can’t come back. Thinking of him as a person, and not a personification. Being thankful, even when I miss him. With each passing hour today, there’s a lot more hurt. I miss him. I miss my family. I don’t know how to explain wanting something that’s gone for good.

You can think you’re ready for things, but you’re not ready. You’re never ready. I miss him today, but I think I’ll miss a lot more things tomorrow, and beyond.

Cancer took another friend.

Cancer– the scourge of our lifetime– took Dr. Lloyd Elliott this week. He was fifty, he was our family veterinarian, and he was a rare individual.

My wife and I love our animals. We regard our relationship with them as a kind of covenant, and Dr. Elliott was a huge part of our lives for the past sixteen years. He was kind, intelligent, patient, and gifted. He was empathic. He was a friend. He took care of our pets in health, and helped usher them on when disease and age made their lives unbearable.

He was with us on the very best of days, and on the worst as well. He cried with us, cheered with us, and cared for our friends as if they were his own. On the last day of Bernadette’s life, my Great Dane was too weak to walk. She weighed two hundred pounds, but Dr. Elliott met me at the car and helped us into the hospital, where she would take her last breath as we all cried, missing her even as her spirit left the room.

Dr. Elliott was– and is– a special human, and I will miss him. I cannot fathom what his family is enduring. I buried my Mother due to cancer, as well as my Nana, my Aunt, and my Grandfather. It’s a ruthless, implacable and capricious killer and I hate it with all of my heart. We lose good and great people to it, and through it all, wonder who is next.

I hope and pray that Dr. Elliott’s family can, in time, find some measure of peace. What do you say? I don’t know. I didn’t even know what to say when my own mother died, how can I articulate the loss for another family? Is compassion really enough? It feels hollow, somehow. I don’t want that kind of hurt to exist for a family who gave us someone loved by so many people.

Sometimes, it feels like sorry isn’t enough. This is one of those times.

Breast Cancer, Mom, and the Number 19

Mom died nineteen years ago today. Breast cancer. She got sick when I was a kid– it was a rare time when she cried, but she did so in the car while we were going somewhere unimportant.

“Why are you crying, mom?”

“They found a lump in my breast.”

A short sentence with long consequences.

She was sick for years– after six surgeries, she said, “I don’t want them to cut me any more.” 

So, we didn’t let them. 
For some people 20 is a more important marker based on our fingers and toes, but I damned near lost a finger nine years ago (they sewed it back on, it works) so 19 is important, too. I could be counting to 19 save for a dollop of good luck and a great surgeon.


She died from radiation tumors. They killed her just as surely as a slow moving train, but in the end, it was too much. She missed us before she was gone; we miss her still. I fed her a tomato and mayo sandwich ( her favorite) and then on a Tuesday she couldn’t eat. Then, she couldn’t speak, and then, she was gone. I scrubbed a small spot of urine ( there is no dignity in cancer) from the blue shag carpet, and I wondered if she would be standing there when it was clean. She wasn’t.

I think I mock activists too much, but it might be my own bitterness ( I still am, always will be), but get checked out. She was 34 when she got sick. She was 52 when she died. There were a lot of horrid nights from the chemo. I don’t know if it could be avoided, but I looked to see how long a mammogram takes– it isn’t long– but I guarantee you the wait in a doctor’s office for that procedure is far shorter than a day like she had.

So get checked out, that’s all.

Terry

Between Loss of Family and Myth.

It’s February.

My mom’s birthday was this past week, had she still been here, she would be seventy. She died when she was fifty-two. I’m forty-six, so that seems quite young– in fact, it seemed that she was really young when she died.

I have a son who is six. I find myself placing a hand on his forehead when I enter or leave the room. It’s a sort of reassurance, probably more for me than him. My mom did the same thing to us kids. Even when she was sick, her hands felt warm. I remember that warmth as something other than just a touch; it was a remembrance of her presence as she moved about the house.
She died almost nineteen years ago. At what point do the factors of my own memory and aging begin to overtake the brilliance of her impact on my psyche? Will she pass into a state of legend? I have learned more about my mom since her death than I knew of her during her life– not the details, or the “mom” aspect of her, but who she was as a human.
She was a person before I arrived. She lived for twenty-four years. When did she decide that something as simple as touching her children on the forehead would be the right thing to do? Was it natural? Or learned?

For me, it was learned.
It seems like an anchor that keeps her memory closer to me than just a myth, or a legend. I think that when we lose someone we love so much, our goal is to stop them from becoming a part of history.
History is distant; loved ones are now, even if they are giants in our memory.

Stillborn: A Lesson In Fiction

Bad things happen. Frequently.

Bad things cause vivid memories, and if they linger, and you write, you can turn those same images into fuel that churns the waters of your imagination.

I’m writing a character who is totally enmeshed in loss, and I reach back to a short poem from 1998 to find the fuel I need. I hope you enjoy it, and that the emotion is real, maybe?


Stillborn
His physician’s coat rustles
as he leaves-
 the door glides shut, to leave my wife
and I alone with the fluorescent hum
of the lights, a cold steel table
and our sadness.
Our spirits as empty as her womb
her shuffle is tender,
towards the door
to the car
each step normal
just like my stop at the nurse.
Her smile is pasty
she hands me my son in a bag.
On the ride home, I stare at his face
hoping he fogs the plastic
but the bag is as still as the air in the car.
We walk, the yard is frosty
she watches me from the window
as I stop near the hickory
and start to dig.
The pit (grave) is tiny
and the walls collapse
on his face.
Bones pull hardest
when they are small.
The walk back to the house is long.
Summers later, we lay rigid
next to each other
the fear of each furtive union causing wonder:
Will I dig again?