funeral prep

Today I went with mom to make her funeral arrangements.

She’s doing well and feeling good, and it seems those are the times she can talk about death and dying openly. When she’s ill, or when the spectre of death seems too close, the last thing she wants to think about are the details of funeral planning and obituary writing. It’s too scary. Only when the idea is abstracted can we face it directly.

I didn’t hesitate to say yes when she asked me to go.  My stepdad didn’t think she should do it, and he wouldn’t go with her to do it.  He defaults to dark humor to slap away any serious conversations about death and dying. I think it’s how he was raised…you didn’t talk about such things. Having studied Buddhism for so long, I know it’s a fool’s errand to pretend that we won’t die. One of my favorite quotes says, “The problem is you think you have time.” It’s attributed to Buddha and it says everything.

We arrived early to the funeral home, and I felt a bit awkwardo because people were also arriving for a funeral/showing. I always want to show the utmost respect for those grieving, and I wasn’t expecting our business to be handled in the same areas as people who were crying for a loved one. I mean, we were in different rooms, but I would have thought we would have been in a different part of the building. Maybe I overthink things.

Because we were early, we waited in a cafe (yes, the funeral home had a cafe and were serving Starbucks coffee. Say what?) One of the reasons mom wanted me to come, besides giving her general support, is because she plans to be cremated and wants to buy me and my brother a keepsake where we can hold her ashes. Something small so she’ll always be with us. The cafe also displayed a number of urns and other ways to remember loved ones. We were walking around, commenting on these items. We saw a brochure listing items that could be used as carriers for cremains, and it had a section for jewelry.

JEWELRY!

Now, I don’t know if you know me personally, but I love jewerly, particularly turquoise. It is my favorite stone and I wish to be bedazzled in it. And when I opened up the brochure, one of the first items I saw was a silver medallion with a turquoise bead.”I want that!” I said, pointing to the photo of the pendant like a child picking out a christmas present. “I love it!” 

We walked to one of the couches to look at the brochure, and I remembered I was not simply picking out a necklace. “Mom, I have to say this is one of the most bizarre conversations I’ve ever had. It’s kind of weird being so excited about a necklace, then remembering, Oh, Yeah, this is going to carry mom’sashes.” She laughed and said it didn’t bother her. This was the time to talk about such things.

The meeting took two hours and there were a lot of details to go through. I mean, a lot. It made me want to get my arrangements made just so no one has to do it for me because it’s a lot to deal with. They have all her family members’ names for the obituary, and some fun facts about her. I tried to get her to include her cat’s name in the obit, but she thought that wouldn’t look too good considering she’d opted to not name all seven of her half-siblings, which cracked me up.

Her urn is a beautiful biodegrable box with buterflies carved in to it. It’s a work of art. She loves it. We specified the details of her very small service. There were so many details to consider. So many.

When we left, she thanked me for being there with her, helping with decisions and asking questions. I asked her if she felt better.  She said she felt much better now that it was all taken care of. 

And that is what matters.

Invigorated

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Our finished masterpiece at the street painting festival. 

I spent the last few days in South Florida, luxuriating in the perfect weather, and having delightful and inspiring conversations with some incredible people.

This trip to Florida has become an annual event for me and my friend, Cyd, and I hope it will continue for as long as it can. We go in February to participate in the terrific Lake Worth Street Painting Festival, something we participated in when we were both living in the area.

What I tend to realize while I’m there is how much I miss these people I’m visiting. They are hard working, dedicated, talented, stylish, interesting, fun, and funny. They are easy to talk to and have thoughts and opinions about the world around them. They are passionate. I find that all my favorite people embody these traits. Their friendships bring me pure delight. I’m thankful for them (in Florida and beyond).

While there, I have pangs of wishing to return to Florida because of ALL THE THINGS there are to do. So many options! SO MANY! I didn’t appreciate it while I was there because I lived in it. Now, transplanted back to the midwest, I miss it something fierce.

But the other thing I realize while I’m there is how happy I am in my little nook of the world, with my hubby and my pups. Always looking for the next adventure (New England, maybe?), but enjoying ourselves in the meantime.

10 years since then

I dreamt about my dad last night.

We were in my childhood home; I was visiting and aggravated he was still using the microwave from when I was a kid. It was, like, 85 watts or something, and I couldn’t cook anything.

“Dad, why are you still using this microwave?” I asked. “I’ll get you another one. We could probably find one at Goodwill.”

That’s all I remember.

My dad died on February 19, 2006–the ten year anniversary is next week. I’ll be in Florida then, visiting with dear friends; a welcome celebration of life and living.

However, the week leading up to the day of dad’s death is also saturated with beautiful and painful memories. 

It all started on the 13th, when I took him to a new oncologist for a second opinion.

I could smell sickness on his breath. He had shrunk and his dark circles surrounded his eyes.

I won’t go into all the details, but we left that meeting with a glimmer of hope about the future, though the future was much shorter than we could know.

He wanted to stop to buy his girlfriend flowers for Valentine’s Day. He couldn’t walk far, so I told him I’d go in and pick out things. I bought a bouquet and a stuffed animal, and when I came back, I climbed in and he said, “I should have told you to get something for yourself, kid.”

I’ll never forget that sentence.

He insisted on paying me and wrote me a check that I never cashed. I still have it upstairs in my office. Probably the last time he ever wrote his name.

We surprised his girlfriend completely. I left the flowers in my car until I could sneak them in. When she saw them, there were tears and laughter. She was amazed he’d think of her while feeling so lousy. Six days later, he’d be gone.

I’ve been working on the following essay for quite a while…a few years, I think. I’m trying to strip the language down to make it precise and lyrical. I don’t know if it will ever be “finished,” but on this anniversary, I thought I’d share it:

People were making foolish decisions on The Price Is Right. Underestimating the cost of cough syrup. Overbidding in the Showcase Showdowns. “What are they doing?” I asked dad, who was reclined on the hospital bed Hospice had provided. It took up space next to the woodstove. “Don’t these people have any idea what things cost?”

*

When he dozed off, I would march out in the frigid, February air to get more wood for the stove. As a teenager, I couldn’t keep a woodstove burning. I would arrive from school to a cold, empty house, and curl up in my heated waterbed until dad returned from work. He’d tease me for my inability to get the fire going, and ignite the woodstove with little effort. Now, throwing wood in the stove and adjusting the air grates, I don’t know why it was so difficult when I was younger. Add oxygen and the fire burns. Deplete oxygen and the fire goes out. 

*

At night, we would watch Becker, his favorite show. I’d fall asleep on the couch, and the days before Hospice had given him his hospital bed—the days when he had to sleep upright in his recliner because he felt like he was drowning when he lay flat on his back—I would wake often to see him staring at the television, blue light dancing across his ghostly face, dark circles ringing his eyes, the volume nearly inaudible so as not to wake me. “Are you alright, dad?” I’d ask. “Yeah, I’m fine, kid.”

*

On a Monday in February, we went searching for a second opinion. The doctor who had been treating him for colon cancer for the last three years had already said there was nothing more to do. I stood in the new doctor’s office, sick with fear, anticipating this doctor to reiterate the last doctor’s prognosis. Instead, she gave him the gift of hope. She said, all was not lost, all had not been tried. I left there upbeat, because this bit of news made him feel a little better. “Are you afraid to die?” I asked him as I drove us home. “Kid, none of us know when it’s our time,” he said. “I’m not going to go before the Man upstairs calls me, so there’s no reason to dwell on it.” I could sense he didn’t want to discuss it any further. 

*

Six days later his oxygen waned. We had a tank of it in the house and his girlfriend put a mask over his mouth, told him to breathe in. He didn’t feel right. We didn’t know that an artery had given way—that he was quietly bleeding out through his colostomy bag. I couldn’t wait for the Hospice caretaker, so I called the squad. When they arrived, a young woman tried to take his pulse, but couldn’t find it. “How are you feeling?” she asked. “Not too bad. Just having a little trouble breathing,” he said. I rushed to my truck, and watched as they lifted his gurney into the back, his eyes open, alert. I followed the squad. They stopped at a traffic light near the highway, and sat there for several minutes. I could see the top of dad’s head through the windows of the back doors as emergency workers moved around. They switched on the emergency lights and sirens, and the vehicle rocketed down the highway. I watched from my truck, unable to keep up. I called and woke my brother.

*

When we got to the emergency room, he was behind a curtain. The nurses were talking amongst themselves, and I heard one say she needed a colostomy bag for him. I had one with me—his girlfriend had anticipated this need and gave me one before I left for the hospital. “I have a colostomy bag,” I said, and I moved into the private, curtained area. I handed it over to a nurse and looked at dad. His pupils were fixed; his eyes glided effortlessly back and forth in perfect, mechanical time. 

There was oxygen, but the fire had burned out. 

Unflinching

Today I wrapped my hair in a scarf, pulling it all away from my face. 

I know this is No Big Deal. It truly isn’t. And yet it’s taken all this time to get here.

You see, I’m actively trying to accept myself as I am. Today. Not dependent on anything other than the fact that I’m here and this is how I look. Good/bad/indifferent. This is me.

I’ve lived most of my life completely taken in by the mainstream definition of what is “beautiful” and what types of women get to wear what styles of clothing.

I grew up brown and chubby in a rural midwestern town where the faces were primarily white, and beauty was genenerally defined as slender and/or petite and preferably blonde.

I’m astonished at how strongly such experiences hold on to us, even as we grow into adults.

I remember two comments from my teenage years that had a lasting effect on my confidence. One was simply a student in the lunchline pausing by my table and calling me n**ger lips and n**ger nose. The second was while at a neighbor’s house, and this lovely blonde girl telling me she wouldn’t mind looking like me, except for my nose, of course. She’d prefer to keep her own. (My mom has always felt self-conscious about her nose, believing it to be too flat.)

Here are my facts: I have a round face; it is asymmetrical; my nose is kind of broad; my lips are wide; my neck is short; I’m always on the verge of having a double chin. 

One way I dealt with (disguised) all these perceived deficits was through having long hair.

I like long hair, and I liked the way it framed my face. It was a security blanket for a long time.

Even as I’ve cut it over the years (and that decision took FOREVER, in spite of the fact that I longed for a long bob), the one stipulation to my fantastic hairdresser has been that I have to have long pieces around my face. I still stick to that rule, even as I shave the sides now. Still need that touch of security around my face.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve met friends who’ve encouraged me to question this notion that women need to look a certain way to wear certain styles. Says who? they ask. Says the mainstream culture, I say. And why should they get to dictate to us, if we like what we’re wearing and how we look? Excellent question. 

It’s taken so long to see that these are false parameters of beauty I’ve been setting for myself all this time.  There is no single definition of beauty. There never has been, though for many years we’ve been sold one and I bought it completely.

I don’t have high cheekbones, a thin face,  a long neck like so many of the women I see photographed wearing head scarves.. 

But I sure do like the look of head scarves, and that’s all the reason I need.

Observations after a week of basically vegan

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Black bean brownies with peanut butter swirls. Weird but delish.

I feel lighter. Not in the sense that I’m losing weight, but in the sense that my gut–which has never given me problems, thankfully, feels even better (is that the right way to say it ?) than usual.

The closest example I can think of is that heavy feeling you have after eating something quite greasy, fish and chips for instance, and how it feels like a brick in your stomach. I feel the opposite of that. Make sense?

I think my stomach looks less bloated, too. I don’t expect this to be noticeable to anyone but me, but when I look at my profile in the mirror, I see a difference.

I’m becoming more thoughtful about eating because I have to (and I want to). I start thinking about what I’m making for dinner as I drive home. Typically I would plan on popping in a frozen cheese pizza because they are fast and good. Now I get home and snack on avocado and crackers to ease my hunger pangs, and then make spiced quinoa and zuchini.

Avocado. It has become my cheese replacement. Happily, it provides me with the same flavor satisfaction as cheese did. Maybe because it’s also high in fat?  I don’t know, but I plan to have our kitchen stocked with them all the time. And when they get really ripe, they can go in the refrigerator where they will stay in that state for a while.

I feel more creative in the kitchen; I feel more frustrated in the kitchen. It depends on my hunger. It’s hard to rethink my default modes (of grabbing cheese and snacking on it), but it’s also enlightening to see how automated my eating has been. I was quite proud of myself last night for making a vegan “cheese” sauce to pour over a bowl of broccoli and pasta. It tasted pretty okay–I had to diverge from the recipe a bit and deal with the ingredients we had on hand, so I think it will be tastier next time with all the proper ingredients.

It’s fun, however, finding alternatives to all the usual recipes. I’ve made brownies twice this week–once with black beans and once with bananas (plus cocoa/maple syrup/etc.) I brought the black bean brownies to a vegan dinner with friends, but didn’t tell them what they were made from until after they had all tried one. We all liked them, even if they didn’t taste precisely like dairy-based brownies; they were still good.

And thank goodness for culinary adventurous friends. The two people I spend the most time with (in addition to my husband) are the wonderful HK and MC. HK has been a vegetarian for a long time, and MC is not a vegetarian, but she likes interesting food. MC has probably cooked more vegan dishes than I have because she likes to cook and she likes to experiment. It helps so much to have friends who not only sympathize with your vegan efforts, but are willing to indulge them in their own cooking in order to have you over for dinner. And their cooking provides continual inspiration that vegan food can be delicious!

I have another lovely friend I will be seeing in Florida soon; she is moving toward vegetarianism for similar reasons I did. When I learned of a (sort of new) vegan restaurant down that way, I invited her immediately because I knew she’d be game to try it. And she is. So happy to have companions in this effort.:-)

My next culinary experiment is making a supposedly delicious “cheese” sauce from potatoes and carrots…I don’t see how this will work, but that’s part of the fun.