Friday, May 29, 2015

Seeking order again

A family death has a way of throwing your life into chaos, while also freezing things into a sort of suspended animation. Your life becomes filled with what amount to tedious tasks, while your normal life, your home, and everything else is put on hold; left as it is, so you can deal with the things that come alongside a death.

My mom's passing was, by most standards, an easy one.  She did linger a bit, but not too long. We had a memorial for her last Sunday at her Assisted Living facility; and there were hordes of people there. She had her stroke on Sunday, she was actually present for Sunday night and Monday. She had to be medicated for pain as the brain bleed increased pressure in her skull, and so she was pretty much non-present from Tuesday, when my sister arrived, to Thursday, when she passed away.

Hello Auntie. This is kid. Where is you at?

My sister has regrets, not being able to speak to her while she was still responsive. I had lots of things to say to my mom, some things that would have been hurtful and painful, but the fact of the matter is, she was dying, and it isn't about me. And I would not have felt good sending her off to her eternal rest with negativity weighing her down.

I'm not sure how I feel, honestly. I spent the week going in and out of emotional spikes and lows. I found that sorting through her stuff was particularly difficult, because one can see how the sum of a person can be represented so well by what they leave behind. The culmination of her hopes and her in some cases, her delusions.

We found many RMLS real estate listings scattered in with her papers. We found a pile of fabric 18 inches tall, bought for all the projects she never got to. There was one piece of fabric she'd cut into some kind of mumu.

Cycling down at Aunt Rosa's house on Monday.
My sister and I spent more time laughing about things. We'd fall into brief spates of tears, but they never lasted very long.  My last cry was on Sunday at the memorial. With all those people there, it was hard not to become overwhelmed. Seeing Irene cry because my mom was her best friend. Hearing people speak with amusement at her volatile spirit. And hearing how she touched so many people in a positive way. Hell, even the lady she abused most horribly stood up and spoke so beautifully about how my mother challenged and stretched her, and how no matter how harsh she was with her, that she could not help but respect her.

My aunt, with whom I have not spoken in years, came as well. And it was an opportunity to heal that rift that was purposefully widened by my mother's manipulative games of speaking negatively about one while visiting the other.  We had dinner with them on Monday and had a cleansing discussion about mom. And my aunt made an observation that sort of stuck with me.

"I thought a great deal about how your mother was such an innovator. How much she gave back; how much she loved. Her lifetime was dedicated to doing for others and being creative and social.  And then I thought about why she was the way she was when it came to family and her children, and it made me think that my sister may have had a touch of madness."

Aunt Rosa, encouraging the little ones
in maximum brattiness.
If you look at the description of a person with Borderline Personality Disorder, my mom is textbook. We had some family friends in Brussels who both practiced Psychology/Psychiatry and I remember her telling my father once that my mom showed he classic symptoms of this way back in 1988 or so. I was reading a thing about Mommy Dearest when I stumbled across the term again. I sent it to my sisters. My sister Anna is also convinced this is the case.

My mom was always an ass. A sociable, lovable ass. When she became full on bitter and intolerable is when she first had her mini-strokes back in 2004 or so.  She was almost impossible to deal with from that moment on if you were family, or one of her chosen targets. For some at the memorial, they knew only good things about her and for many, they knew both her dark and miserable side and her creative and brilliant side.

A part of me will miss my mom. Like I said in my note to her in the last post, I will miss the good moments, few and far between as they were. I'll miss her creativity. And the moments when she was relaxed and laughing.  But I do not miss being treated badly, I do not miss being spoken to with cruelty while I was going out of my way for someone who clearly did not deserve my attention.

Alex, all dressed up for the memorial.
The one thing that stood out at the memorial is how my sister's, my aunt's and my little talks sort of melded together beautifully in spite of being written separately.  I will post them down here so you can understand better who my mom was in life, before her strokes; and why so many people love and respected her. She was a community builder, an entrepreneur. She loved the beginnings of things. I mostly dealt with the trail of unfinished and abandoned things she left behind. But let's not focus on that. Let's focus on who she was.  We'll start with my sister's speech:

June first would have been my mom’s 77th birthday. Some say too young to die, but she lived a hugely full life. Myrta, Marty, Mom, Mama; she was known by a couple of names, but by so many roles in her lifetime. My mom touched so many people.
You may just know her as the cantankerous grey-haired lady at Avamere, but she was so much more.She worked at the US Embassy in Belgium; hobnobbed with diplomats and was constantly recognized for her community building.

She founded and ran a very successful minority employment agency in one of Massachusetts’ toughest towns and was recognized by Ted Kennedy and John Kerry for her outstanding work. She was a 120 pound maverick that fought hard and fierce for the underdog.
She wasn’t always the most nurturing mother, but she taught us to be smart, how to laugh infectiously, to take on new challenges without fear and most of all, how to be empathetic and compassionate to animals and humans alike.
As her eldest child, we butted heads, laughed until we cried but always had a strong connection. I wish her peace, and know she will always be with me. I love you Mom.

Then there's my letter to mom. It's an expansion of my original one.

When I was in the sixth grade, during a presentation during school, a student passed me a note. I replied with a note that said: Stop writing notes.  As I slid it back towards her, I felt five fingers dig into my arm. I was yanked out of my chair, and the vice principal proceeded to scold me, and tell me some pretty nasty things. 
Every day, I waited for mom to pick me up. She was a bit late that day. I was so upset by the event with the vice principal; I was huddled by the guard-shack, away from the school, where nobody would see me. Mom pulled up in her huge oldsmobile. It was a land yacht.  She pulled up and I climbed into the car. I was cowed and sullen. She started driving down the road. Then she noticed how quiet I was, and how I was holding my hand on my upper arm. 
“What’s wrong?” she asked me. I did not reply. Her hand snaked up in a flash and she pulled my hand away and her eyes popped wide and turned hot white with fire when she saw the five clear bruises on my arm. The Oldsmobile came to a screeching stop, and she asked me between clenched teeth what had happened. 
I told her in a tremulous voice, unable to look at her burning eyes.  
I’m not sure what the turning radius is on an early 80s Oldsmobile sedan, but I think my mom might have broken some laws of physics that day.  That car wheeled around and the motor roared, and it it was lurching to a stop in front of the school in what seemed to be no time flat. 
Without a word, leaving the car running, she stormed out of the car.  I followed to the lobby.
I wasn’t allowed in the administrative office, but I could hear the screaming from outside. I could also make out some pretty explicit language. 
The next day, the Vice Principal of the school personally apologized to me, and from that day forward, never made eye contact with me again. 
My mom could be a pain in the ass, but my mom could also be glorious. 
No matter what our relationships were over the years, my mom was always ready to lock horns on our behalf at any time. No matter where we are in our lives, when we needed help, she was there. That was my mom. 
She wasn’t just strong willed. She got what she wanted. She fought like a gladiator for what she believed in. She faced off with people twice her size and just as fierce and came out on top more times than I can count. That tiny little woman was a warrior. She was endlessly creative, endlessly filled with ideas and energy. She was an unstoppable force. 
Living here [at the assisted living facility] was a double-edged sword for mom. She both loved her friends, but hated giving up so much of her freedom. She never did too well with limitations. But she had a time here filled with friends and love. She established relationships, and captured the heart of people in spite of her fiery nature. If you could earn her respect, her friendship was a privilege. And she would fight for you to the ends of the earth. She lost some friends and it broke her heart. 
I would like to imagine that mom is somewhere where she is without restrictions. She’s having beer and tomato juice with Lynn, and having a good laugh with Betty. She’s with her annoying dog Jack. I like to imagine that wherever mom is, that she is happy and at peace.  I hope she is fighting less and loving more. And I hope she knows how beloved she was. 
And finally, the words my aunt Rosa wrote:

On occasion of a celebration of life for my dear sister Myrta: Good Afternoon; thank yo for sharing our last conversation with Myrta. 

Thomas Aquinas said: "The things we love tell us what we are." Because Myrta loved so many things and so many people, I'll try to define her. 

Mostly above and all, she loved her family. She adored her children. She adored Alex. 

She loved horses.
She loved dogs.
She loved nature: the mountains, the rivers, the trees and the flowers. Oh how proud she was of her beautiful, traffic stopping garden that she put up every year. 

She loved to cook. No occasion was complete without famous arroz con pollo, or her roasts. Family friends, neighbours, co-workers and students, they all looked forward to savouring her food and her bakery. 

She loved sewing; from her beautiful dresses for her girls to their Halloween costumes, and don't forget her beautiful curtains, bed covers and anything to match them. She loved creating. Her artistry with flower arranging was coveted. Table centerpieces and details for parties and weddings were inspired. How much sh enjoyed working on those project! she could write elegantly, from complex and successful grant proposals to gracious thank you notes.  

She loved the underdog. She would put herself all the way out for the downtrodden. She actively and relentlessly would advocate for her Latino community in court, in jails, with local, state and federal governments. She would not quit until their rights were allowed and respected. She believed in empowerment. For all that, then president George H. W. Bush awarded her one of the 'Thousand Points of Light' awards.   

I could co on and on talking about what Myrta loved: 

She loved good times.She loved good friends.She loved good whiskeyShe loved good conversation.She loved a good argument.She loved to win.She loved to tell you what to do and how to do it. She loved to do things her own way.She loved to buck the system and convention. 

So I was able to write a list of what my sister Myrta loved, but I am loving this chance to love her back again and recognize her for all that she loved. We have learned to love all that life offers and to love  her for all she was. 

Thank you for being yourself.
Rosa Elena Maldonado.
That wasn't the sum of what was said about Mom. But it describes her pretty well. I'm still trying to figure out what I feel right now.  I'm focusing on taking care of Alex and trying to get my house back in order.  Over a week of coming and going without any housekeeping has made it almost too much of a mess to tackle. I'm doing it. Bit by bit. Attacking the job in pieces, just like I'm facing what my feelings are over the whole thing.

As we goodwill and sell her belongings, it's becoming clear how easily we come and go in this world. All of a sudden you're gone, and you leave behind a shuffle for people to manage. It boils down to that. A shuffle of material things and a shuffle of memories we have to put in order so we can move on.

Time to finish cleaning this house.  I feel like I'll never finish. LOL.

See you on the other side mom.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The end of an era - Days 121-140 of project 365 conclude in sadness.

My mother died this morning. Early. At 12:39 am. Sunday night, my mother had a massive stroke.

The center scan shows one layer depicting the size of the bleed. It was huge.
I got the call at about 9:30 PM, we were settling into bed and we had to rush to the hospital. She was unresponsive, and had vomited over herself.  A vein burst and filled the right ventricle. That slice that is shown shows only the upper layers. It was massive. The doctors said it was rare to see a bleed this large. The pressure had paralyzed half of her body. Her eyes would not open. She could still clutch my hand and respond that first night and next day, but that did not last.  By Tuesday, she was only able to communicate the pain in her head from the pressure. They then sedated her, and per her wishes, they transitioned her to comfort care where she languished until this morning. I'm glad it wasn't like Daddy, who lingered for a long time.

So now she's gone. My sister Anna flew out immediately and has been here through most of it. We've been leaning on each other. Neither of us really expected it to be as hard as it is. But as a friend told me recently; "Losing her means you will never have a chance to have that warm mother/daughter connection you crave." It is an insightful thing to say. She is right.

All these past twenty days, I've taken photos for the project 365 thing I'm doing here. And it was so jarring how the twenty days concluded with such stark and stirring photos. So I'm going to share them all here today. Along with a note I wrote my mother this morning after I found out she had passed away.





125/365 - Alex is Skyping with his aunties


127/365 - my first new dress in a long time

128/365 - the Coos Bay Manour B&B - Topsails & Tea 2015

129/365 - Wisteria

130/365 - My favourite picture of all so far.


132/365 - someone stole mom's toe socks


134/365 - Nootka roses blooming

135/365 Hat shapes

136/365 Bath time


138/365 - Monday Morning.

139/365 - Tuesday - My child clutches my sister's and husband's hand

140/365 - Wednesday - Anna tends to mom
Dear Mom,

Things were prickly between us. No doubt.  But your leaving us brings back the good things. I guess that’s the positive aspect of death; you remember all the wonderful memories you have with that person; and the negative that you dwell on while people are living seem to fade into the background.

I think about the day that the Vice Principal of Brussels American School bruised my arm, and how infuriated you were, and how you stamped into the school and ripped that woman a new asshole.  I am thinking about the glorious moments when you stood beside me when I needed you to, and how you were always there for me, even when we were locking horns; even if the intent was not always selfless.

Mom. You were my mom. That never changes; and you are gone. And with you are the vain hopes of you ever becoming the mom I needed you to be. Gone is the chance to understand that demon inside you that made you sometimes resent us. Gone are the moments of laughter and gone are the moments of conflict. 

I hope, in whatever way it is, that you finally find peace with yourself, and with that demon that tormented you for your entire life. I hope that you know that in spite it all, that I… we all love you and that all is forgiven.  We let you leave us with open hearts. Be at peace and know that you were loved and you were not alone in death.  We were there. All of us in one way or another.  And most importantly, Alex was there with his ‘joyful noises’ as you called them, filling the hollow and sterile room of the hospital with his laughter and his beauty. I know you loved him above all else. He was there with you too.

Mom. I love you. Even though sometimes I despised you. I think there was a fine line between the two, and that the resentment was fueled by how much I wanted to love you. I will miss you. I’ll miss those moments where your face glowed with laughter, and you were the glimpses of the mom we all hoped you could be. 

Be at peace.


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Daddy - Five Years

This month, on cinco de mayo, five years ago, my father died.  I’ve been sitting on this post for a few days now, vacillating on whether or not to post about death and loss. A few of my friends have lost people and I thought perhaps it was too fresh. Not to mention that I do get dark sometimes, but I figured death and loss is part of life, and this blog is about life in many respects. About my life—my hobbies, my child, my ups, and invariably y downs. So I decided to move forward with it.

My father’s death was a drawn out affair. Even long before, his decline involved visits to the east coast to see him in rehabs after his various health crises. My father had given up, and he literally wanted his life to end. The numerous hospital visits ended with his being released into my mother’s ‘care’ which meant he was neglected, so invariably, back to the hospital he would go, with new bruises, new issues like malnutrition and dehydration. Then to rehab where they would bring him back to a health that would mean he would go home and start the cycle all over again.

During this time, I begged my mother to let him fly out to Oregon. I would care for him. When they did finally arrive in the fated cross-country trip, he was at death’s door. He died nine days after he arrived.  This exodus was explained at the time it happened on this blog. So if you’re curious, just look at May 2010, and even before that to the time that leads up to my father’s death. It was insane, it was miserable, and it was without a doubt, one of the most difficult times of my life.

Today, I look at how other people grieve and wonder at my own grief. When my father arrived, we had to hospitalize him immediately, and I was wrapped up in dealing with my mother, who was more concerned about how much attention she was receiving over my father, who was literally dying.  I was not allowed to grieve. My husband and I were coordinating getting my mother and brother settled into a home while daddy languished in the hospital. My dear husband did the lion’s share of work with my mother just so I could be by my father’s side.

My father and I were not always super-close. As a very young child, I adored him. I remember cuddling up to his side, asking for affection from someone who was awkward with physical expressions of love, let alone verbal. The reason why I love ‘Despicable Me’ so much is because Gru reminds me of my dad. Not just the crazy accent, but his awkward, clumsy affections. That was my dad. My parents’ marriage was a stormy one. With huge fights and slamming doors, and flying fists. It’s no surprise. My mother played emotional games with all of us, and for a long time, because of my father’s fiery temper, my mother was able to convince me he was the bad guy. He didn’t help in negating that, by any means, taking his frustrations with life and marriage out on me in a physical way. 

When I reached my twenties, the line was drawn. I was pushed one day to respond to my father in ‘his language’ of violence.  And it was the first time his eyes snapped into mine and he SAW me. It was the first time my father came to the realization what he had done in raising us the way he had. He was knocked about as a child, he carried that on with some of us (not all of us kids). And from that point on, my dad’s demeanor towards me changed.  And it was only THEN that we came to look at one another as equals, and he showed me respect and I did likewise. It was only then, that I could freely love my father, and he could freely love me. He accepted my forgiveness, and he also accepted that I would never forget what he had done.

My dad and I grew close. And when I moved out to my own apartment at 27, he was devastated. He had come to rely on me and it saddened him greatly that I was leaving. I made time to spend with him on common hobbies, and I called him when I could not visit. His gravelly voice, his chuckle, and his glistening blue eyes are things I miss most about my father.

The last words I exchanged with my father were expressions of love. So I don’t have that to regret. I told him how I felt, and he told me how he felt, and I cherish that memory every day. I’m sad I didn’t get to talk to him again, and that my last time with him was spent in watching him lie in a hospital bed, wasting away. I held his hand; I tried to sleep in an uncomfortable cot by his bed, the din of hospital equipment preventing any real rest.  I arranged phone calls from the other kids; I sang to him, I spoke to him about what was new and what was past. I moistened his lips and mouth with a foam dauber, and listened to him breathe. I read to him.

He was not dying quickly enough for the hospital. So they sent him to hospice. A day after arrival, he passed away. He died in the morning before I could actually get down there. I remember getting the call and just breaking down into tears. But that did not last long. The hospice needed me to find a funeral home and then the arrangements had to be made.

I did not spend much time crying or grieving over the next days. I had to go to the funeral home, and discuss the cremation, and pick an urn. The only things that really stick with me from that time are, one, a particularly morbid display of an open casket at the funeral home, in which someone had draped a military uniform, and a flag on the open door. I remember how hard that struck me. The second thought was the idea of what cremation really was, and I thought of Daddy’s body being destroyed, but oddly, it did not bother me. As an atheist, my dad was objective about death. I think his objectivity carried through. I think I handled that moment, as I have come to realize I handled many moments, by imagining what he would say or think on the matter. And knowing dad, he would have waved his hand and said: “I vouldn’t feel anytheeng, don’t be stoopid.”

This is where I found my strength to go on and cope with the grieving after his loss. I was back to work on the 12th, and the most upsetting part of that was discovering that my co-worker had unilaterally decided to clean and organize my office; and she took every personal belonging on my desk and stuffed it in a box and put it on top of the cabinet as if I’d been fired or I’d quit. I’m not sure why that bothered me as much as it did, but it really irked the shit out of me. Work was there, my mom and brother still had needs, and grief did not really come. I guess the closest thing to a breakdown I had was when I yelled at my mother when she pushed me too far. Other than that, there was a hollow starkness to life, an emptiness… but I did not cry much. I did not grieve.

You see, my dad was a fatalist throughout his life. I would make an observation about the future and my dad would invariably remark about how he probably wouldn’t be alive then. So all of us already had a clear understanding of death and loss. Never mind the countless dogs we lost on the busy streets in Belgium; never mind that. Daddy was always on about the day when we would no longer have him around, and he was quite vocal about it. When it came to death, he found it irritating when people lingered on it.  I’m here, now I’m not. I was here, you are proof of it. Your children will be proof of that. My wisdom, my quirks, my habits, my genes. That was his attitude, and he would likely grumble at anyone who would whine or moan about his absence. I can totally imagine his reaction if he saw me blubbering about his death. He would gruffly tell me to stop. Tears made him uncomfortable.

He wasn’t a particularly sentimental man. I’ve seen him tear up when he heard the Hungarian national anthem being played. He missed Hungary—as a deserter, he would have been hanged before October of 1989 if he had returned. He had fled in 1956 while still serving in the military.  He never got the chance to go back.  Other than that, he was a stoic, often awkward character. A pragmatic man, with a prickly edge to him, with rare but amazing moments of tenderness.  He did the two things I needed the most from him before he died. He told me he was proud of me, and he told me he loved me. I hold onto those things like treasures. What I no longer hold onto is the grief.  Very occasionally, I’ll have a sharp pang of missing him. When I see some technology I just know he would be tickled by; when I think he would have enjoyed how sharp and inquisitive my son is, how much he would have delighted in the fact that we named him Alexander—and how sometimes, I miss his blue, blue eyes, and his five o’clock shadow; the sound of his fingers rasping on his chin… I get pangs. I’ve had moments where I’ve shed tears, but they’re short. Because I immediately hear daddy’s admonishing voice telling me to stop blubbering. 

So what kept me from being miserable about the physical truth of what cremation entails basically helped me cope with grief. And that was to imagine what my dad would think of my behavior. And trust me, he would hate it if I was dragging my bum around, weeping and lamenting his loss. I keenly miss him, but I have accepted the finality of his no longer being present in my life. I have decided to instead focus on how he has influenced my life. I seek the evidenced of his being every day.

Ultimately, as Daddy once told me, grief isn’t about the person who is dead. It’s about the person who is grieving. It’s about their feelings about the loss. I’m not sure if how I grieve is normal, but I know it is what Daddy would have wanted.  That’s what matter’s most. I think it’s the best and only way to honour him. I can find solace in the little bits of daddy that are carried on in Alex. From his lips, to the little stories and little bits of wisdom daddy passed on to me. That is the beautiful part of death, and that is the sort of immortality that comes from it. He’s still here. He’s in me and he’s in Alex. However other people choose to view it, in spirits or heaven or in the case of atheists, genes and memory… the lost ones are always with us.


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