Thursday, August 30, 2012

A True Princess Story

My niece, Natty, is an incredible little girl. From that first moment when I held her and looked into her big, baby blue eyes, I knew life was changing. I felt older - more certain and paradoxically more uncertain about life than I had ever been. As I cradled her in my arms, a fierce pride swelled my heart while a new humility simultaneously melted it into a pool of wonder, reflecting everything in the world that had ever been for me and had yet to be for her.

I wondered. Who will she be? What will she do? How can I help her?

Now she is 4 and closing in on 5 (more quickly than I would allow if I got to be in charge of Time). Her personality is growing faster than her arms and legs (and she's tall!).

I don't get to see her as often as I would like since we have about 65 miles of roads between us. Every time we are reunited I am amazed by her growth, even if it has only been a few weeks since I saw her last.

I was sitting on the couch at my Mom's house on Saturday when Natty came in the door. She was a whole room away and barely through the door when I heard her addressing me and saying something about the orange cat. Her chatter made me laugh. I had not seen her for a couple weeks, but she was chatting away like she had just left the room for a moment.

Early evening found us outside, armed with tiny containers of bubbles, surrounded by the warm buzz of late summer. Natty skipped over to the swing my Dad had installed. Awed by her ability to skip in flip-flops, I winced as she narrowly missed tree roots and large, pointed sticks.

I blew tiny bubbles up in the air so they floated down on her as she pumped her legs in the air. She tried to pop them with her toes and giggled every time she got one.

"This looks like an enchanted forest," I mused, almost to myself.

"What do you mean, Siggy?" Natty had slowed her swing, her face inquisitive.

I had been thinking about my own childhood while echoes of summers-past filled my mind, but I wasn't sure how to explain to her that I was unearthing sepia-colored ghosts. My own hours spent on swings, oblivious to insect bites, summer sweat and the passing of time.

I went in another direction. "Oh, maybe like sparkly fairy dust could just float down on us at any moment," I answered.

Natty's eyes doubled in size, "And turn us into Fairy Princesses?!"

"Yes!" I was delighted. "Do we wear dresses now, Natty? What color are they?"

"Mine is sparkly, pink and blue. You wear blue, Siggy."

"Do we have pets? Like maybe frogs?"

"Nooooo... they're horses! And know what? They have wings! Yes, they're unicorns...with wings."

"Wings? Great idea! Well, now we can go wherever we want. Where shall we go?"

Natalie pauses for just a moment. "I know. We will go some place...a place we never been before!"

I nod in agreement. I think to myself that a Princess should always have adventure in her life.

"And know what, Aunt Siggy? We could go to the North Pole!? And see SANTA!?"

I'm giggling at this point. I recall telling a hardware store Santa one year that I wanted to go back with him to the North Pole and become an Elf. He told me I was too tall. I wonder what Natty would think of that.

"Natalie? You seem like you're about the same height as an Elf. I think you would fit in quite well in the North Pole. I may be too tall. Where would I sleep?"

Natty loves a good problem to solve. "I know, we'll just stay for one day. We'll tell them we can't spend the night."  The wheels are still turning though and then, "I KNOW, we still have fairy dust. We'll turn our horses into floating beds!"

"You are a good problem-solver! I'm glad I get to travel with you."

Natalie became quiet again, swinging and looking at nothing in particular. I began to think that maybe she had moved on and we had exhausted her attention span for this story.

"Aunt Siggy? None of this would really come true, would it?" I couldn't tell if she was disappointed or maybe thought Aunt Siggy needed to be reminded that we can't really have flying unicorns.

I decide not to underestimate her or be the dorky adult who says, "Of course it can come true!"

"Natalie, I'm glad you know the difference between 'real' and 'pretend.' It is fun to pretend and use our Imagination though. You know, that's what Grammy does when she writes her books; she uses her Imagination to make stories."

She considers this. "Okay Siggy, We could make this story. You write it and I'll make the pictures. And know what?"

"What, Natty?"

"I think we could even put real sparkles in the book. And know what? We could give every kid the book for free."

"Natalie, you have the best ideas. I love you."

"I love you too, Aunt Siggy."

Friday, August 17, 2012


The final stage of grieving is called "Acceptance." This is the agreed upon term for the final stage of grief by all mental health professionals. It doesn't matter if they're looking at the typical 5-stage model or trying to sell you a book with some extra special stages they have added for novelty. Yes, they all agree on "Acceptance."

Acceptance seemed like a pretty straight-forward concept to me and I wasn't sure why it was considered to be the final stage. Of course I accepted that my grandma wasn't coming back. The finality of death is indisputable.

I had just turned 30 years old a week before Grandma's spirit left her body. Thirty. I know a few people who freaked out about turning the big three-zero. I have known since I was in grade-school that thirty would be special. Thus far, none of my other birthdays had seemed that special. Just another day that felt like yesterday. 19 was not that much different from 18. Pimples, check. Uncertain about the future, check.

"When I wake up on my 30th birthday, life is going to make sense," I shared with anyone who would listen. People had mixed reactions. Usually people who were older than me just smiled. Others engaged me in debate, "Is that so? What kind of answers will you have?"

"All the answers," I replied with confidence.

October 30, 2010 Facebook Post:
Was sitting in a hospital room with my Gram the other day. As I watched a machine do her breathing for her, my Dad turned around and said, "Take this as a lesson. THIS is how fast it goes. One day you're 18 and the next..." I listened to him. I listened to myself breathe. Every breath, every moment is a gift. All you have in life is THIS moment. 30 feels great so far, every breath of it. Much love to all.

October 30, 2010 Facebook message from my Mom:
30 years ago this moment I smiled and you cried...and your Grandma stood with outstretched arms waiting to hold you...

Concordia Lutheran Ministries: Good Samaritan Hospice
Cabot, Pennsylvania
early November, 2010

Grandma's stay in Hospice lasted longer than the doctors and nurses anticipated. In hospice, they take away all the i.v.'s, the feeding tube and breathing machines that keep the body alive. Hospice is a place of transition. They keep the physical body comfortable while the spirit gets ready for the journey back to its first home.

The whole concept of dying seemed foreign and morbid to me.  

Died. Passed away. Those are past tense concepts--news you hear after someone is already in the state of death.


People have said to me, "Well, we're ALL dying a little more every day." Well aren't you clever?

 The family agreed Grandma should not be alone during this time. Agreement coming from a big family who rarely agrees on much of anything seemed like a profound moment to me.

My mom, Uncle Pete and I took the night shift.

The Nurses and Aides floated in and out of the Suite. "Do you need anything to eat or drink? Can I get you anything at all?" They always asked these questions.

See, when you're holding the hand of someone who is on their way to death, simple things like eating are forgotten. The growl in your stomach doesn't even seem like your body's way of alerting you to hunger. It's more of a reminder of how very small you feel in this room, in this universe where someone you love is on their way to death.

Hospice nurses and aides are very special. Angels. They know "dying". They bring comfort to the one who is preparing to leave. They bring courage to all the other people in the room - to the people who have to stay.

An aide was combing Grandma's hair. She marveled at how Grandma's hair still had so much black and very little gray. She wondered, "What was she like as a girl?"

I hesitated. Maybe her question is rhetorical? I thought of all the hours I spent sitting on the floor of Gram's bedroom or cross-legged on the edge of her bed while she sat at her desk. I listened to Grandma's stories, conjuring up images in my mind of what she was like as a child, as a young woman with a nursing career. I loved to hear her tell me about her life before she became a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.

I found my voice. "She was strong. She went to a one-room school house. There was a bully in her class...this older boy who was mean to her. Not just mean, he was abusive. One day he had a long pin or needle...something sharp. He pushed it into her thigh, trying to get her to scream or cry. She looked him straight in the eye and never said a word. She told me that he never bothered her again."

The story led to other stories. I wondered if Grandma could hear me. I hoped I was getting it right.

Stories help. When you're inside of the dying-bubble, you start to feel like maybe you're dying too and that dying is just where you're at and where you will always be. Nothing else really seems to matter.

I couldn't even fathom that death would come. Going to Hospice with Mom, sinking into a soft, leather recliner, holding Grandma's hand, singing "Poor Little Robin a'walkin, walkin, walkin to Missouri..." to her, confessing that I did run that stop sign on Fisher Road when she was teaching me to drive, holding my breath every time her body twitched or sighed, telling her it was okay to let go of us so she could be with Pappy - those are the things that became normal.

You go through grief stages when someone is dying. Then you have to go through them again when your loved one has reached death.

The finality of Grandma's death still managed to surprise me. I felt so stupid.

November 7th, I was sleeping in the leather recliner. I had pulled the chair as close to Grandma's bed as I could manage so I could hold her hand. The nurses came in the room. They were suctioning. One of my aunts had arrived. The air in the room felt different. There was a new heaviness. People were talking about "calling the family members."

As light arrived with the morning, so did family members and relatives. The room became too crowded.

Going Home-

I was driving north on Route 38, just past the Oneida Valley Damn, singing along to Kate Voegel's "Hallelujah" when I got a text from my youngest brother: "Grandma died at..."

I can't remember the time. It was evening. This news still managed to surprise me.

Did I think I could somehow prepare myself for this moment? I couldn't. I can't. You can't. The moment you learn that someone you dearly love has left this world, no matter how long you have been expecting it to happen and no matter how many times you have talked about it, this news of death will take your breath away and crush your insides with a power that is unforeseeable.

Acceptance does not happen at that moment when you know that death has happened. It takes a very, very long time to get to Acceptance.

That cliche about time healing all wounds is sort of true. But it takes more than just time alone. Maybe you will even need counseling, like I did. You definitely need people to talk to. You need people to listen. When you're walking though a department store on a random Thursday and a memory blindsides you and takes you out right at the knees, you need someone you can lean on, even if it's just a phone call to a friend to get your legs working again.

Acceptance is not about accepting the death. Acceptance is about accepting Life. I'm still alive. The other alive-people need me and I need them. When the day came that I was able to share my Grandma's life with other alive-people, that's when I understood what acceptance truly means.