Burying My Parents: Part Two

When my brother, sister and I buried our parents in a cemetery on May 1, I knew it was just the beginning of saying goodbye.

My Father was 64 years old when he died in 1995 and my Mother kept his cremated remains on her dresser. She was comforted having him close by and resisted every effort my brother made to encourage her to find a burial plot and lay Dad to rest. It was what my brother needed her to do, but what she needed was what mattered.

She died last October a few weeks before her 89th birthday. It took some time to decide where they would be buried. We were smack in the middle of the Covid pandemic and we felt they deserved at least a small ceremony with family and a handful of friends.

So – “Hooray Hooray, the first of May” – was the date we chose. That was the formal burial. A blue urn with their combined remains went in to ground. A headstone was installed a few weeks later.

Mum asked that we hold aside some of their combined remains and scatter them. She mentioned three places she wanted us to go: the family farm in Nobleboro, Maine; off the back of a Friendship Sloop in an ocean locale of our choosing; and to a tidal river in Cushing, Maine, where her sister remains were scattered many years ago. My brother and sister left it to me to managed the ocean and river requests.

Breast Cancer robbed my Aunt Natalie of her life in 1985. She was much too young, only 58. She left before she had a chance to see the remarkable and compassionate people her daughter Melissa and son Peter would become, meet the man and women her children would marry, and meet her grandson, Kyle.

Her husband George, Melissa and Peter took her remains to the river in Cushing. Then, 10 years later, to the day that Nat died, my sweet uncle George passed away at age 69. Melissa and Peter took him to the same place on the river.

Melissa came back the river with me yesterday. It was fitting that she was there, in the place where she let her mother go with the tide. She was with me at hospice when my Mum left to be with my Dad. If you believe such things, he was there with us too, and took her by the hand to be with him, with her sister, her parents, her pup Freddie, her granddaughter Penney Jean, and others that fed her soul in her earthly years.

As it was on the first of May, yesterday (June 23) was a beautiful day. The earth was blanketed with the green of leaves and grass for as far as we could see, and the water in the river sparkled and offered a gentle welcome. A seal and a blue heron checked in. Or, were they my Mum and Dad, watching to be sure I’d do this the right way? Is there a right way to do this?

I opened the black glass jar and poured my parents into the river. Slowly, a little at a time. Melissa tossed petals from a bouquet of flowers into the water. It was peaceful and oddly healing.

To my knowledge Dad had nothing to say about his final resting place.  Maybe he and Mum talked about it as his health declined. She never mentioned his wishes to me.

Yesterday we gave her the first of her three requests, to be in the river with her sister. Next month I will fill her second, and take them to the ocean off the back of a Friendship Sloop. When he is ready, my brother will fill the third and take them to the family farm.

Each step in its own time. There is no need to hurry or rush these processes. We have the gift of time now, to hold on a little longer, to let them go when we are ready.

While we were not ready to have them leave us, they were ready to be with each other again. It was not for us to keep them apart. Now they will never be apart again.

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Dad’s last birthday gift

This morning I bought my father what may be the ultimate birthday a present – a headstone.

Today would have been his 91st birthday. He died in 1995, never reaching 65 years of age.  My mother opted to keep his cremated remains on her bedroom dresser. Among her last words to my brother before she died last October were, “Don’t forget to get your father.”

Ted did not forget.

Last week Ted selected a burial lot at Riverside Cemetery in North Reading. Today I selected and designed a memorial marker. On May 1 we will gather with our sister and family members and bury Mum and Dad.

I’ve had more than 26 years to be used to fact that my Dad is gone but am struggling with my Mum’s death. She was ill for several months before she died and it was tough to see her fail. She was missing my Dad and ready in many ways to go and be with him but obviously not yet ready to let go of a few things that were not settled in her heart.

I miss her the most when I’m driving my car. That was when I called her. She’d talk me to my destination. I always called when I was on the way to a wedding and again on the way home. She wanted to hear all the details about the couple, their ceremony, the beautiful dresses and flowers, handsome gentlemen and lovey ladies. She wanted to hear about the quirky things that always go down at a wedding, the miscues and surprises, and the on-the-fly changes that smoothed out the rough edges.

I know my Mum and Dad are together, safe in each other’s company. I know she is surrounded by people who waited patiently for her to get to there – her granddaughter, her parents and her sister.

As I’m writing this I hear music coming from the other room. James Taylor’s “Never Die Young”

“I guess it had to happen someday soon- wasn’t nothing to hold them down.

They would rise from among us like a big balloon, take the sky, forsake the ground.

Oh, yes, other hearts were broken, yeah, other dreams ran dry,

but our golden ones sail on, sail on to another land beneath another sky.”

And my Dad would say, “Sit down, I can’t see the mark.”

Sail on.

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The Gifts

Two thoughtful gifts came my way this week.

My friend Pam sent a doily table covering that she inherited from her grandmother’s estate. As Pam downsizes and clears out cabinets and closets (something we all do, or should do), she is sharing some of her special possessions with others.

Pam knows that dragonflies are a significant symbol for me and receiving this ­­­­piece is meaningful. It measures 26 inches across and so will have a prominent place in our home.

The second gift came from my mother’s cousin Nancy.

My mother’s parents are buried at Puritan Lawn Cemetery in Lynnfield. She lived most of her adult life without them; her father died in 1952, two months after she was married and her mother died in 1954. Mum always found the cemetery a difficult place to visit, and when she moved to Maine, I took over looking after her parent’s grave sites for her.

Back in the 50s, my grandmother Ruth’s sister Hazel and her husband Johnny purchased the two adjoining plots at Puritan Lawn so the sisters could rest together into eternity. But as time passed, Hazel and Johnny made other burial arrangements, and when they died, their daughter Nancy acquired the Puritan Lawn through their wills. Nancy offered our family the plots so my Mum and Dad can rest with her parents.

The two gifts come on the day before the 11th anniversary of our daughter’s death. It’s hard to believe she has been gone that long and, and the same time, it feels like she’s been gone forever.

It’s shocking when you realize that you’ve become used to someone no longer being here. The day comes when you stop thinking you need to call to share news or just to talk. It starts another level of grieving, one that is more cruel than the other levels you passed through, because it leaves you feeling that if you’ve stopped looking for them in your daily life, you have stopped loving them.

You never stop missing and you never stop loving them. It’s just a different kind of missing and loving.

Missing my mother is still very fresh. She was my talking buddy when I was driving my car. I called her every day when I left work and continued the daily call after I retired. I called her when I was on way home from a wedding. She always wanted to hear about the couple, what the bride wore, the venue, the guests… all the details.

I think about her every time I get into the car. I asked my car’s Bluetooth connection to call her a few days ago. I got a recorded message advising me that the number is no longer in service.

None of this is easy. It’s supposed to be hard on your heart and to test you at every opportunity. If you’re lucky enough, it’s how you learn to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward. It’s how you learn when and how to be kind to yourself. How to pause and collect yourself. How you figure out how strong you are. How to live in the quiet and what not to say to someone else who is grieving.

I miss my Pretty Girl. I miss my Mum and my Dad. I’m grateful for these new gifts. In all the sorrow it’s easy to feel the love.

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The Ride

I am so damn tired. In a given moment I have no energy, no motivation, no spark. In another I’m smiling and laughing and enthusiastic. But for this moment, I’m tired.

My mother died two weeks ago tomorrow. She had been ill for a long time and we didn’t know why. Her docs ran lots of tests and saw nothing. She lost almost third of her body weight and no one knew the reason. Then she fell going into her bank. An ambulance ride and CT scan later delivered a diagnosis of metasticized lung cancer in her spine, eating her vertabrea. No wonder she spent 6 months in pain. No wonder she fell.

No time for “what-if.” No patience for “what-the-hell-were-those-doctors-doing-all-that-time.” She opted for hospice and comfort care and was gone in less than 72 hours. She is at peace.

Among her last instructions were, “Don’t forget about Bruce.” My Dad died in 1995 and his cremated remains have been on her bedroom dresser all these years. She wanted him to be there, much to the dismay of my brother Ted, who longed for the ritual of a burial plot and a burial ceremony. My opinion was that she got to decide where Dad would spend the years until she went off to be with him. She needed him to be with her, and what she needed was the only thing that mattered.

My brother got Dad and took him and my Mum’s pup’s remains back to his house. A week ago, I drove to Maine and picked up my mother’s cremated remains. I brought her to my house and set her on the piano in the living room, flanked by two beautiful bouquets of flowers sent by sweet friends.

In time we’ll mingle the remains and take them to places special to my Mum and Dad – Cushing and Nobleboro, Maine; off the back of a Friendship Sloop into the ocean; perhaps a few more places; and then into a burial plot with a burial ceremony.

Good plans and in good time, all that will happen. But as long as I had her with me, it felt like there was something I needed to do with my Mum. She and I took a few “Mommy-and-Me” trips through the years and I wanted to take another but knew we couldn’t go by ourselves.

I called my brother and asked if I could come and get Dad.

This morning I took Mum and Dad (and the dog) for a ride. We went to 72 Warwick Road in Melrose, where Mum grew up, then past the Melrose Highlands Congregational Church on Franklin Street, where Mum and Dad were married on September 6, 1952.

We went to Spring Street in Greenwood/Wakefield, where Dad grew up. We went by 50 Hopkins Street in Wakefield, the home they built went I was a toddler. We drove by 42 Main Street (dad lived there as a young man) and then past their second home together at 190 Main Street, along Lake Quannapowitt.

We went to the Quannapowitt Yacht Club, where Dad had a Town Class sailboat (sail #91, red fiberglass hull, named “Redhead”) and Mom was a porch sitter. We went on to the former office of the Reading Chronicle, where Dad was the Editor and Mum a typesetter for many years.

The last stop was 60 Park Street in North Reading, their third home and the last place they lived together before Dad died.

I dropped rose petals at every stop along the way.

When I left my brother’s house to set out on the journey, I asked Ted if he wanted me to bring Mum along when I brought Dad back. He said, “No, they can have a sleepover at your house.”

They are together again. On the piano.

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I didn’t get old, you got old

I worked earlier this week at the polls for the State primary election. I see people I haven’t seen in a while, others I haven’t seen in forever, and some I’ve never met before. It’s fun work and I’m always happy to be called on to fill a shift (plus I get paid, not much but I don’t complain).

I saw two gentlemen in particular and was struck by how much each has changed in appearance. They both used to sport healthy, thick heads of hair. Not any longer. Both have gone gray, their hairlines have receded, and those previous full heads of hair have each thinned dramatically. These two guys got old.

For the sake of full disclosure, I’ve aged too. My hair has turned gray, I’ve got wrinkles and age lines, occasional curb feelers sprouting off my chin and patches of brown in my skin. I carry a few extra (plus a few more) pounds that I used to.

The difference in my being old compared to them is that I haven’t seen either of them in more than a couple of years and their new older age is dramatic change.

My aging has come along slowly. I look at myself every day and rarely notice changes, even as I have to admit that I certainly have changed. I notice most that I have aged when I look at old photos of myself. I tell myself that I like the new old me. It may be a lie I tell myself to better mentally cope with the new old me.

I don’t know if older is better but it’s what I have. There isn’t much I can do to change it. I will continue to age. What is left to learn is whether I will do it gracefully or with attitude.

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Ham for Thanksgiving

I killed a turkey yesterday. I hit it with my car and as it bounced off the grill and hit the ground in front of the passenger-side front tire, I added death to injury when I ran it over. The image in the rear view mirror was an explosion of brown feathers.

She (it was a female) appeared so quickly that I didn’t have time to avoid her. She came over the guard rail on my right and our meeting was destined. Oncoming traffic prevented a reflexive swerve to the left.

I am left with many questions.

Why did the turkey cross the road? Actually she didn’t.

Where was she going? The apartment complex on the left didn’t appear to offer much worth dying for.

Was she the leader of the advance team on scouting mission?

Is there a flock of poults waiting for their mumma to come home with dinner? A tom wondering whether his partner slipped away with a gentleman gobbler?

Do turkeys have a wake and funeral? Is there a rafter of hens preparing to gather with lacy hankies pressed to their beaks? Preparing acorn casseroles and baking fruits and insects into loaves of yummy goodness for her family?

How long will they be respectful to her memory? How long will be before they start swishing their tail feather for her man or gossiping about her?

So many questions.

Out of respect, should we have ham for Thanksgiving?

 

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“The Story Teller” Introduced

I am pleased to announce that I am expanding my work as a Justice of the Peace to include memorial and eulogy writing.

I planned to launch this service in another month or so, when I could update my web site (pennyrichardsjp.com). But in this time of self-quarantine and social distancing, families are limited as to the number of people you can include at funeral services. Helping you share your loved one’s story is more important now than ever.

Everyone has a story, but not everyone is a ‘Story Teller.’ I have been telling stories for years, as an award-winning journalist and more recently as a Justice of the Peace. I have written and shared with their guests the stories of more than 200 brides’ and grooms’ journey from first acquaintance to their moment of “I do.”

Over the last eight years I have also conducted wedding vow renewals, baby naming, and baby welcoming ceremonies. I have experience writing memorial messages, including eulogies for two of the most important people in my life – my father and my daughter. It is a natural next step for me to formally extend my writing to help share life stories for families and friends who are saying goodbye to a loved one.

Many people have the desire to share their feelings in times of immense sadness but are reluctant to do so for different reasons. It may be a perceived inability to put words on paper or not knowing what to say or how to say it.

Others may wish to craft their own stories to be shared at the time of their passing. Many want to tell their stories in their own words. I can help them prepare their stories to be shared with family and friends when they depart this world and make the journey to the next.

I know how difficult it is to cope with loss. I would like help you tell the story of your loved one during a difficult and sad time.

For the foreseeable future, we can work by phone and over email. Once this crisis is over I will be happy to meet with families in person and at their convenience.

Let us work together to tell the story of someone who meant so much and share with others the importance of a life well-lived.

Please call 978-815-4339 or email pennyjrichards@gmail.com. My web site will be updated shortly.

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Ringing the Bell

I’ve been volunteering at the infusion center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Danvers, where my daughter worked. It’s been a dream on mine to work there, certainly not in her place (I am not a medical professional) but in her memory. It’s been a dream of mine to find a small way to continue her good work toward excellence in patience care.

If MGH had allowed me to create my ideal volunteer job, I’d have developed the job they gave me. I fetch beverages and warm blankets. I deliver lunches. I chat with patients and their guests who are receptive to conversation. I’ve shared a few of my paperback crime novels with one gentleman who was reading one by a favorite author.

My job is the perfect job for me at this point in my life.

On my first day on the job I met Nancy, who is fighting her cancer with style and determination. I admired her the moment I met her and her sister, who was in from New York City to support the fight. Something between Nancy and me clicked and I felt a pull to her in my heart. It was as if an old friend was sitting in that chair with those toxic healing poisons dripping into her veins.

I looked forward to seeing her each week, which is kind of a shitty thing to say, that you look forward to watching someone endure chemo. Chemo is probably the least fun you can have under any circumstance. That said, I joke occasionally that I’d “rather have chemo” than do something I find unpleasant (like watching last night’s State of the Union address). I can say I’d rather have chemo because I’ve had chemo. It’s pretty miserable experience.

Today Nancy had her final treatment and got ring a beautiful brass bell that hangs on the wall in the radiation area. Ringing it symbolizes the end of this part of the cancer experience. When someone rings the bell, it is with relief (it’s over), trepidation (it might come back), and a bit of fear.

Fear. You’re walking out the door, away from the medical team that became your lifeline. They held your hand, coaxed you, encouraged you, laughed with you, and worried with you. They share the relief (it’s over) and the trepidation (it might come back).

Finishing treatment is a little like being a baby bird and having your avian parent push you out of the nest or your human parent take off your training wheels. It’s exhilarating and it’s terrifying.

When Nancy walked down the hall to the bell she found her medical team waiting for her. They were as proud of her and she was of herself. They presented her with a lapel pin with a graduation mortar board and they led the applause when the clapped hit the bell.

She had tears in her eyes as she rang it. She rang it three times–once for family, once for friends, and once for the community that rallies around the patient. And then she walked out the door.

I mentioned earlier that she is recovering with style. Today she wore socks woven with marijuana plants.

Today was a good day for Nancy and a fine day to be her friend. We have talked about seeing each other again, with cocktails in our hands. That will be another good day.

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Country Apple

country apple.jpgI’m snowed in (temporarily) following two days of snow and thought it a good day to clean out the hall closet.

It’s cathartic to throw away things I haven’t used and see no reason to keep to use in the future. It’s embarrassing to admit there were medications that expired in 2015.

Among the things I found was this bottle of Bath and Body Works Country Apply Body Splash.  I uncapped it, hoping to catch the sweet scent of apples and spices.

Like the old meds, the spray has seen better days. There is a faint hint of apple scent but it has blended with an alcohol scent. It needs to go into the throw-away pile.

Today is my daughter’s 36th birthday. She is not here to celebrate with me as I’d like. This Apple Body Splash was one of her signature scents. I hoped for a small miracle but didn’t get one.

It’s OK. I can still find a reason to smile by just holding the bottle.

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The question I hate to answer

You can ask me anything you wish and I’ll probably give you an answer. Whether it’s the truth is another matter.

There’s one question that I hate to hear and hate answering.

”How’s your daughter?” or any variation thereof, like  “How is Penney?” or “What’s Penney up to these days?”

The question doesn’t come up as often as it used to. In a few short days we will reluctantly mark the 10th anniversary of her death. But someone asked the other day and I reduced her to tears as I answered.

I was standing at the hostess station in a local restaurant when she came through the door. I recognized her immediately—the mother of one my daughter’s youth softball teammates—but I could not have told you her or her daughter’s name.

She looked at me with the same flicker of recognition and when I offered up the connection, she said, “My daughter is 35 years old. That was so long ago! How do you remember that?”

We exchanged our first names and daughter’s names. We smiled as we remembered each other’s girls. She told me that her daughter launched a successful career, has three-year old twin boys and just bought a house in a neighboring town. I was happy to hear all that wonderful news.

Then she asked about Penney and I made her cry.

It gets harder to tell Penney’s story the more time goes by. It seems harder for people to hear—they react as if they should have known and feel guilty for bringing up my painful past. I respect that many may never have heard. It gives me comfort to hear them remember her with glowing words and smiles, even smiles through tears.

Those of us who continue on as we miss someone appreciate when you talk about our loved ones. Tell us a story about them, share a memory. It helps us know that you remember and miss them too.

The fear our loved ones leave us with is that others will forget them. Help us know that you remember.

melted-candle

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