Thursday, January 28, 2010

Thoughts of Mortality and Farewell

Having just returned from a follow-up (and blessedly clean) mammogram, I am pensive this morning with thoughts of mortality and farewell. Three women in my family died last year. The turning of the calendar allows me to distance myself from that fact, as if the new year is distinct and free of the losses of the summer and fall. My sadness, however, stretches across the months and I find it difficult to approach my memories for fear they will overwhelm me.
Perhaps now, finally, I can write out the shards of goodbyes that have been sticking in my heart.

Jan died first. It wasn't unexpected -- she had been anticipating it for a long time, and from a distance her absence wasn't so noticeable.

Will and I visited Jan twice in her grotto in Connecticut. She was invariably cheerful and did her best to host us, although our little family unit is tremendously independent. The noise and suddenness of our young children alarmed her; at the same time it recalled for her the times she was called upon to help her oldest sister with childcare. She took such great pride in helping raise her nieces and nephews, and in all the descendants! Our cards and photos were arranged with care along the shelves of her tiny house, layered in front of one another so they became three-dimensional records of our aging. During our visits I didn't listen enough. I was distracted by the green of the trees and Jan's nervousness regarding my flighty children, so I have scant knowledge of the facts of her life. Instead I have impressions of determination and endless curiosity, of a liberated woman long before that was fashionable, of a life filled with celebrations in New York City, and peaceful times in Connecticut. And I have memories of her with each of my children: tentatively holding Violet, the first in the extended family to do so, and barely having time to embrace Sam, who was vibrating with excitement to go run around and explore that fantastical place. I am grateful for those memories, and saddened by the photos I never bothered to send because I was "too busy", although I know she would have been delighted.

Barb went next. I could say it was complications from a stroke, but really she was tired and the kind of lonely that comes from witnessing too many loved ones pass away.

I knew Barb only as a Grand Dame, rising from the death of two of her sisters to steer our large family in the stewardship of the Bane cabin. Family lore speaks of her mother holding court each Sunday with supper for four daughters, their assorted spouses, and eventually their children. I love the photos of Manna with her family arrayed around her in their Sunday best, cousins becoming nearly as close as siblings. That role fell to Barb late in life, long after the cousins and then second cousins had built separate traditions. Her presence still bound us, if only out of respect. Barb and I both had left Colorado - she to California, I for the East coast - so our relationship was truncated by geography. Yet she remembered my birthday each year with a card, and -- after we each returned to Denver -- with a brief phone call. Only now that I have a perpetually full calendar and often miss dates important to others do I appreciate the thoughtfulness of such gestures.

Finally bright Robin flew away too soon. What started as a surprising shortness of breath revealed itself as lung cancer that gave her a terribly short time to say goodbye.

Robin was on the other side of the family, far away, and I saw her only a few times. My strongest memory of her was a visit when I was tiny -- six, perhaps? My mother was forced by circumstance into a man's world, owning her own printing business and struggling alone to raise a child, which left little room for fashion and frills. Robin visited us, bringing her delightful California style, tall and lean and blond and girly in ways I'd never seen before, and she shared that with me, taking my little hands and painting my nails. I don't think I'd ever felt so glamorous. I doubt I even breathed for her whole visit, I was so awed.

Each of these remarkable women gave me, us, a final gift with their deaths -- they died the way they wanted to. Jan stayed in her home, conceding the need for assistance at the end, but never allowing the help to make her truly dependent. Barb chose her own way, seeing the consequences of failing health and instead setting a date, saying goodbye, and letting go when and how she wanted. And Robin celebrated to the end, adventuring and throwing parties and smiling that marvelous California smile.

I feel unworthy of my grief. To be honest I didn't know any of them particularly well, so my tears are more for myself than for them or the people most affected by their loss. Nonetheless, I want them back. Even knowing that I probably wouldn't pay any more attention to them resurrected than I did before, I feel that I am no longer whole without each one. My family, my life, is diminished without them.

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