Postcards of Grief

Mourning is a process.

Comments on breast cancer by proxy, written by a woman coping with the loss of her mother.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

"Aunt Emilin just saved your life!”

Brooke mentioned the other day that she was surprised I hadn’t blogged about last weekend. I think I was under the impression that blogging about it would be bragging about it. After all, what is a blog except an outlet for all of our narcissistic tendencies? Right now, I feel like bragging is kind of okay, so here’s the deal about last weekend.

Nana is nearly 18 months old. Some toddlers move cautiously about the world. Nana is totally and completely intrepid, and she’s fiercely independent. She also loves the pool at her grandpa’s house, and that is where our story takes place.

On Friday, Paul and Hope spent their last night alone before their son arrives, and Nana stayed with Dad, Brooke, and me at Dad’s house. Brooke and I put Nana in her usual spot: the portable crib in the large guest room where we sleep. She woke up at 5:30 and was able to be lulled back to sleep, snuggled between her aunts. At 7:30, she was up for good. We ate breakfast and woke up her grandpa. She seemed mostly happy but easily frustrated. Brooke and Dad walked around outside with her until she was overcome with rage at being so closely supervised around the pool. Brooke, not a swimmer, didn’t want to let the toddler so close to the pool. Nana, fearless, didn’t want anyone to tell her otherwise. One twenty-minute tantrum later, she was in my arms sniffling and pointing back outside toward the pool. We tried again. Again, tantrum.

The farmer’s market was a hit. The health food store was fascinating. She was getting dozy as we drove home. We decided it was time for a nap.

After an hour of sleep and some lunch, everyone was doing better. Her parents had arrived, and she was pleased to lead them around the pool, to sit on the edge and kick her feet, but God help you if you tried to hold onto her shirt as she leaned forward to touch the water. Some time around 3:00 P.M., as Hope, Brooke, and I were playing with Hannah, she fell into the pool. More precisely, she walked toward the pool, bent forward to look down, and tumbled into the deep end head first. A moment later, I was in the pool, standing on the ledge that ran around the perimeter inside. Nana was on the deck, spluttering, soaked, and cold. Her diaper wasn’t wet at all on the inside, and I don’t think she even coughed. She sat on the deck, realized she was in my arms, and screamed. It was a “Fuck you!” scream. It meant, “I hate you! You did this to me! It’s all your fault!”

After Hope picked her up and stripped her wet clothes off her, I realized I was still in the pool. I was in my jeans, t-shirt, belt, undies—the works. The ends of my hair were a little wet, and I was soaked up to, but not including, the very top of my right shoulder. I also realized that I still have it in me to be a lifeguard. All of those years of training and employment actually mean something. I didn’t wait to take off my belt. I didn’t sit on the edge of the pool and try to reach her with my arms. She went in. I went in. I didn’t think about it at all.

Thinking about it now makes me a little shaky, and I’m not sure if it’s terror or some kind of adrenaline rush that surges through me. Hope and Brooke both reported being mid-thought of, “Gosh, the baby’s kind of close to--” when Nana fell in. They also reported finishing that thought around the time that I plopped the wet baby on the concrete deck.

Nana wouldn’t let me hold her for the rest of the day (“Aunt Emilin just saved your life!” her mother admonished), but she didn’t appear to be unnerved by the pool at all.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

A letter I cannot send

I dreamed about you last night. It wasn't like the other dreams. You were sick, but you were there. You were talking to me and not dying. I was telling you about all of the dreams I've been having about you, about your illness and death, about how I wonder if you would have been able to get better if we could just keep you alive. I was crying and you were there and you held my hand. We were sitting across a table from one another, like we did at Panera that time we went shopping together. It was the last time we went shopping alone. Maybe it was the last time you went shopping.

I was able to talk to you, with you. We were talking about the things that worry me, that make me upset. You were there, and I could almost smell you. Maybe it was the bag of your clothes in the next room that I was smelling. Maybe it was the smell of your perfume on the clothes on my bedroom floor. When I try really hard, I can still smell your skin and the warmth of your neck when you held me.

I'm reading a book, a memoir of sorts, written by a woman whose mother is dying. The book isn't about her mother's ovarian cancer, but it plays a major role. I get so angry that she got to keep her mother until she was 41, and I lost you at 24. I can't believe her mother survived almost six years, and I couldn't have you for four. She had a baby in time for her mother to meet it, to love it, to be a grandmother to it. Why couldn't I?

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross died last night. Some day, I'll read her work. For now, it's too much.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004


I learned the other day that I drive a subcompact car. This fascinates me because I don’t consider myself a subcompact person, and yet the car is the perfect size. I was average for a long time, although I often considered myself fat. That’s the burden of my white middle-class background. Even my height was average until I left my Dutch-American hometown to go to college. In the midst of people of more shapes and sizes, I was definitely tall. Not outside of one standard deviation tall, but above average to be sure.

In the past few years, I realized that I’m small. My girth, my features, and my shape are all misleading, and I’m usually pegged shorter than I really am. I’m narrow, long, and pointy. I fold easily. I’m flexible. But size and flexibility be damned, I’m not subcompact.

I’m torn about what this means, what this represents, and because I write about it, it must have some kind of meaning. Does this subcompact car mean I’m making a subcompact impact on the environment? Or on humanity? Is my ambition subcompact, too? Can a subcompact person achieve anything beyond sub-standard success?

If you haven’t seen Super Size Me, I recommend it. It’s the movie that made me want nothing to do with anything but broccoli, brown rice, and yoga for a week. It doesn’t take much for me to be goaded into better behavior, but this even goaded McDonald’s to clean up its act. SSM makes the point that we live in a world where everything is big, a luxury, and exists to seduce us into consuming more.

We tried to buy a couch a few weeks ago. Our small living room, built to 1942 proportions (as was the rest of the house, as illustrated by the tininess of the single bathroom), cannot hold a couch longer than seven feet/84 inches. Searching for a petite couch that was a couch and not a loveseat was painful. It was an exercise in futility. House of Sofas was annoying. Art Van was impossible, what with its expansive showroom offering no size context at all, leading us to walk up to couches nine feet long to check the price. Our best bet is the Ethan Allen Tribeca, an expensive couch we hope will last long enough to move into our children’s first house. Our current couch, after all, is a 30-year-old Ethan Allen, which explains why it hasn’t fallen apart even though I climb over the back one of every four times I sit on it.

With my subcompact car, 1942 house, and 79 inch sofa, maybe I shouldn’t work too hard on those last ten pounds I’ve been trying to gain.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

O citizens of the United States of America

Register to vote.

Vote by mail.

Please do whatever it is that you need to do to participate in this democracy.

Pieces of a plea to myself

The prayer I need to pray

Spirit of gentleness
blow through the wilderness
calling and free

Spirit of restlessness
stir me from placidness

Wind on the sea

You moved on the waters, you called to the deep,
then you coaxed up the mountains from the valleys of sleep,
and over the eons you called to each thing:
Awake from your slumbers and rise on your wings.

You swept through the desert,
you stung with the sand,
and you goaded your people with a law and a land,
and when they were blinded with their idols and lies,
then you spoke through your prophets to open their eyes.

You sang in a stable, you cried from a hill,
then you whispered in silence when the whole world was still,
and down in the city you called once again,
when you blew through your people on the rush of the wind.

You call from tomorrow, you break ancient schemes,
from the bondage of sorrow the captives dream dreams,
our women see visions, our men clear their eyes,
with bold new decisions your people arise.

Thank you, John K. Manley.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Paint the town

I'm tired and frustrated. Quitting my job and moving, running away really, isn't the solution, but I'm sore for something new lately. I want something that feels safer, more manageable, with greater potential. I think I need to get out of this small town and into a bigger city with more opportunities for myself and for my family.

I want to go to Chicago.

Ben and Brian are back from Dresden. Sue has recovered from her kidney transplant. Flea is there. Old pals from college are there, living in glorious queerness at Roscoe and Halsted.

I'm angry with my pastor for deserting us, and now I realize that he was one of the main reasons that I stuck with my church. My first church. The church where I had my first communion. But I could leave. I could be happy at Holy Trinity. Holy Trinity could make me sing again.

I want to live in a place where Brooke and I can be the legal parents of the children we want to raise and both be allowed to provide them and one another with health and dental insurance. I want to raise children. I want to have a baby.

Chicago is near enough to Dad, Paul, Hope, and Hannah (and Brock, my T = (minus)1.5 months nephew) that a weekend trip is not unbearable. With the exception of my brief time in Grosse Pointe Park, I'll live closer to one of the Great Lakes than I ever have before.

But I just refinanced the house. We haven't even closed on that yet, and it will take us 18 months to break even on this refi. It hasn't stopped me from house hunting. I found a lovely place in Irving Park for which I'd give my eye teeth plus the asking price. I have this longing to go home, but I guess I don't know where that is right now.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004


Two years ago today, I hurt my mother. I got married.

My wedding was technically planned over the course of one year, but the reality is that most of it was planned in the last four months, and even the bulk of that was in the last few weeks. I loved my wedding. I loved getting married. I loved the reception and all of the people there to see me. I loved dressing up in the big white dress, having my hair done, and being, with Brooke, the center of attention.

I didn’t love planning it. It wasn’t fun. Trying on dresses was fun. Orchestrating vendors and schedules and supplies wasn’t, not at all. Brooke and I made all of the decisions together, just the two of us, with the exception of the flowers. Brooke’s mother had a florist she wanted to use, and I know next to nothing about flowers, so I left it to them.

In the meantime, Brooke and I were sifting through all of the chaos involved in buying our first home. We looked, bid, and negotiated, ordered inspections and contractors and moving trailers, and we moved in about one and a half months before the wedding. We worked to get our home ready. I interviewed for a job. Most significantly, Mom had 70% of her liver removed, and her eight week recovery period was up the day of the rehearsal dinner.

My parents’ home is almost two hours from ours. It’s not the kind of distance conducive to family meetings for wedding planning, but I should have known better. I knew how much my wedding meant to my mother. I should have known to make her a part of the planning, to invite her to be involved. Brooke and I had enough trouble agreeing on the picky details of the wedding that it seemed unwise to bring another person into the mix. And truthfully, I wasn’t thinking about my mother when I planned my wedding. I was thinking about Brooke and me.

There were some things that we had Brooke’s mom get involved with, things like picking up the food we ordered for the rehearsal dinner, like picking up the maid of honor at the airport, like being the one to review the bill with the caterer and pay with our Visa.

I read Mom’s journal the other day. I wanted to know what she had to say about the wedding, and now I wish I hadn’t.

Yesterday was Em’s wedding. I couldn’t have felt less involved. I guess there is only one mother of the bride—Brooke’s mother.

I remember talking about this with her after the wedding, how hurt she was, how I was so completely oblivious, how Brooke’s mom wasn’t more involved than she was. I don’t know if my explanations ever made sense. I know that it took a few weeks before her anger subsided, and that she wrote about what we did together to move past it.

But still, I look at my wedding pictures differently now. I look at her and see her struggling not to appear hurt. That journal entry, no matter how resolved the issue ever was, is still there. It’s burned into my brain. So while I’m thrilled to be married for two years (almost to the minute, now), I’m so sad for what I did in the process. I hurt my mother. I got married.

Friday, August 13, 2004

In the last week, I have

cleared out the spare room
taped the spare room
caulked the spare room
removed the doors, window fixtures, and all other hardware from the spare room
painted the spare room
cleaned the spare room
installed a new bathroom light
installed a new medicine cabinet
caulked the bathroom
run ten loads of laundry


washed paint off every part of my body that wasn't covered by underwear
washed paint off the cats
finished off a six pack of Corona and three or more bottles of red wine
eaten way too much takeout, and
slept for a total of forty hours, tops.

Thanks for coming to visit.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

The check might be in the mail

Don't quote me on this, but I think the tile work is done. Two months and twenty-six days after I embarked on the regrouting adventure, it's finally done.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Two days left

Guess who called in sick today.

Yes, that's right. The guy who was coming to finish my tile work. Guess when Mr. Tile Jackass called me. Thirty-five minutes after the guy was supposed to show up. Someone named Dave is due to come in tomorrow.

I can't believe this is still going on.

When you piss someone off, don't assume she's not blogging about it.

When you piss me off, assume that I am.

Monday, August 02, 2004


I miss Mom so much lately. Everything makes me think of her. We're thinking of getting a new couch, and I wonder what Mom would suggest. We got the new shower curtain, towels, and rug in the mail the other day, and I wanted to call her to tell her about them. I realized that the bathroom saga started after she died, that we never got the guest room cleaned up enough to put guests in it, and that my vacation last summer was her last vacation ever. I see pictures of myself, and time is divided into Before Mom Got Sick and After Mom Got Sick. Anything between November and March is this free-floating sick time, the time I call "That was when Mom was." The sentence is never finished. Was dying. Was newly dead.

Now that we're cleaning up the guest room, buying a couch, choosing paint colors, actually decorating this house we own, I'm missing her more than ever. I just ache.

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