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Daily Affirmation

20 May

Beginning tomorrow, I’m starting every morning like this:


Has It Really Been Five Years?

22 Jun

In honor of my grandmother, Mabel O’Niel Hollingshead, who passed away five years ago, I reposted two blogs written about her.  “Everything Nice” is a recounting of our family’s first week following her death.  “The Beachcombers” was written for her memorial service.



Everything Nice

22 Jun

Five years ago yesterday I received a call early in the workday from my mother in California. “It’s Maga,” she said. “She’s gone. My mom is gone…” Immediately I clicked into fix it mode. Fix it mode is one of my favorite defense mechanisms. It makes me feel like I’m back in control of something when everything around me is spinning horribly out of kilter. The checklist of crisis management questions rolled off my tongue. “Who is with you? What needs to be done? I’ll be on the first flight I can catch today. I’ll call you as soon as I know when my flight arrives.”I hung up the phone, closed my office door and called my wife to deliver the sad news. “Maga passed away this morning and I have to find a flight to California today.” Only static and pink noise came from the other line. Then, Dana’s soothing voice. “I’m so sorry, honey. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Really. My mom is not in good shape so I need to go help.”

“Okay. I’ll see you soon. I love you.” My wife, Dana, is a woman of few words but always knows what to say and when to say it. I’m convinced it is evidence of her deep inner strength. She would have come with me but our son Andrew had been born just a month earlier. Again I hung up the phone and went online to find the next flight from Nashville to San Jose. Once my flights were secured, I let my boss and team know I was leaving and I’d be back in a week but would have access to email and would be available on my cell phone. Of course I would. I was in control.

The drive to my house was a blur of mental checklists for both my trip and for my job. Packing and leaving for the airport was a frenzy of flying underwear, clean shirts and hurried yet poignant goodbyes. Fix it mode was coming through for me, as usual. It got me through security with flying colors (I always know exactly which shoes to wear in airports and I never get stopped), to the gate in plenty of time to choose the gray vinyl and chrome chair of my choice, and onto the plane near the front of the line to choose the brown vinyl and beige plastic chair of my choice. Carry on luggage in the overhead bin, safety belt secured tightly around my hips and all electronic devices in the off position and stowed for take off, I took a deep breath and adjusted the air control above my seat to the perfect angle and intensity. The plane took off with no delay and we experienced no turbulence. Everything was going according to plan. Everything was under control.

And then it happened. About twenty minutes into the flight, I relaxed just a little too much. I let my defenses down just long enough for emotion to find a chink in my armor. My grandmother was gone. Not sick. Not on vacation. Not two thousand miles away, alive and well. Not able to pick up the telephone when I called. Not able to write or read a letter. Just gone. For the rest of my life. The tears began to well in my eyes, defying gravity, pooling above my lower eyelids. My vision went blurry. The first tear took a giant leap from my left lid, plunging to its inevitable end on the back of my hand with a great splash. Startled, I sat up straight, shifted in my seat and wiped my hand on my jeans. I just need to read something. Let’s see, let’s see. What did I bring to read? I leaned over to pull the brown leather shoulder bag from under the seat in front of me. As the top of my head pressed against the unforgiving seat back tray in front of me, the other tears that had queued up just outside my tear ducts made a mad dash through my eyelashes and down my cheeks. Betrayed by my own traitorous body. Still bent over and submitting to the uncomfortable head butting of the seat back and blinking faster and faster in a vain effort to distribute the subsequent excess fluid evenly across my eyes, I discovered that I had neglected to pack any reading materials. Action item #46 had somehow been overlooked. I needed to read something, ANYTHING, to shore up the reservoir of emotion fighting to break though the weakened dam. The in flight magazine. Yeah, that will work. Or the SkyMall catalog. I’ll see how much those hose-hiding garden gnomes cost. Or roll my eyes at the new line of Successories. But Maga is gone. I already miss her so much…

Defeated, the dam failed and the emotion came roaring down the causeway, obliterating every house, tree and telephone pole in its raging path. I sat back up, tears streaming down my face, nose running, chin quivering, just as the flight attendant arrived at my row to take my drink order. She pouted her lips as if I were a 6 year old whose scoop of ice cream had just rolled off the cone and onto the grimy asphalt. “Can I get you anything?” she asked through her pouty lips. I simply shook my head and smiled, tightened cheeks milking even more tears from my now bloodshot eyes. “Are ya’ sure?” she asked, tilting her head to one side. I nodded my head and mouthed the words, “I’m fine.” She left me to my emotional outpouring and made cutesy faces for the calm passengers more deserving of complementary beverages than I. They smugly sipped their sodas and juices and Bloody Mary mixes while I spent the remaining 3 ½ hours suspended six miles over the country battling waves of raw feeling with swollen eyes and a wet shirt collar.

It was 10:30P by the time I arrived at my mom’s house in California and the swells of deep pained emotion had mellowed to a degree that was somewhat more bearable. It was a bittersweet reunion, comforting to see the faces most familiar to me yet difficult to read the sting in their weary eyes. We all hugged and reassured one another and reminisced for a while. We agreed it would be best to wait until morning to draft our game plan for the week that loomed before us and all went to bed, some sleeping better than others but everyone crying themselves to sleep because it came naturally and, at least for me, it felt better than holding in the grief. I think WASP culture has it all wrong, holding in our feelings until it poisons us, all in the name of dignity. I’ve decided there’s nothing dignified about holding in one’s emotions during a time of loss. Where on earth did that practice come from anyway? If we are happy, we smile and laugh. It’s only natural. So why is it that we feel like we can’t grieve publicly? Openly. LOUDLY if we feel like it. It too is only natural. I’m tired of being afraid of emotions. My new rule of thumb is purge, purge, PURGE.

Over the next 48 hours, the planning and the consoling and dealing with our tender hearts went on as smoothly and as naturally as could be expected. Then we arrived at the memorial chapel with the clothes we picked out for Maga to wear in her final resting place and to fill out some paperwork. The chapel was a small yet modern concrete and glass structure situated at the heart of a pristine cemetery nestled at the foot of the hills just south of Santa Cruz. It was also situated just across the street from the local hospital and the retirement community my grandmother called home for over fifteen years, an ever-present reminder of the inevitable and yet conveniently located should the inevitable present itself to either set of occupants.

Marvin the mortician greeted us in the main lobby decorated with an enormous floor to ceiling fish tank. I know the fish were put there to relax visitors but they only made me uneasy, staring me down with their lidless eyes and blowing bubbles with their full lips and slowly waving their fins, either welcoming me in or shooing me away. Marvin the mortician was a solid man in his early fifties, sporting Dockers, a plaid short sleeved button down shirt and a mere suggestion of a comb-over covering his bare scalp. He immediately struck me as far too cheerful for a mortician, or anyone sharing air or space with corpses for that matter.

“Welcome! Welcome!” he said as he gestured to us a touch too eagerly. “Now you just sit right here and I’ll be back with the paperwork!” He whooshed from the room in a joyous rush. My mom Judi and my birth mom Bonnie, sisters and Maga’s daughters, looked at each other and me in mild disbelief from across the small round table. Just as we began to discuss Marvin’s unusual attributes, he came back into the room with a file.

“Here we are then! Mabel’s death certificate and paperwork!” he announced with glee. The sisters began looking at some of the information at the bottom of the page while I read the top of the document upside down. Veteran? Maga wasn’t a veteran, was she? I thought to myself. Then I looked at the name at the top of the page. Vernon Callaway? What in the world? This isn’t even Maga’s paperwork!

“Excuse me, Marvin. I don’t think this is the right file,” I said with calm.

“Of course it is!” Marvin replied, still grinning from ear to ear.

“Um, no it isn’t. Her name wasn’t Vernon Callaway,” I volleyed, still calm but with a more stern tone.

Marvin stared down at the certificate. “Oh my! So it isn’t! Ah, well, we’ve had little fingers at work here today!” And he leapt from his chair and glided from the room. The three of us were alone again.

“Little fingers? What does THAT mean?” Bonnie asked us. We looked at each other, shrugged in unison and began to laugh. I think there must be a recessive “uncomfortable giggle” gene in my family because we all react the same way to awkward situations. It’s bad enough when we’re not around each other but get two or more of us in a room together and it’s a lethal combination.

“Shhh! Shhh!” I pleaded with them through my own hushed laughter. “He’ll be back in a second!” Sure enough, Marvin returned with the correct paperwork this time and we composed ourselves as best we could, signing documents and discussing preparations for the memorial service.

“How will you do my mom’s hair?” my mother asked Marvin. She was very concerned that Maga looked her best. After all, it’s what she would have wanted.

“Oh, I’ll probably just slick it back,” he replied with great enthusiasm. Slick it back? Maybe he’ll just comb it over, I thought to myself. He clearly has some experience in that department.

My mom didn’t subscribe to Marvin’s hairstyling philosophy. “Really? I was thinking you could wash and blow-dry it. Make it pretty. You know, give it some volume?” she urged with firm politeness.

“I’ll see what I can do. You know it’s just me around here right now. Our hair and makeup girl is home with a new baby. He’s just so cute!” But by the look on his face I could tell Marvin got the message loud and clear. Good thing. My mom has a way of making her point with strength yet with poise. Unless she thinks you aren’t getting her point. Then she makes things quite clear and quite quickly. No beating around the bush with Judi. It’s an admirable quality I wish I possessed more of.

She could tell she had been heard as well. “Thank you, Marvin,” she said kindly. “Now, we can’t seem to find our mother’s watch anywhere. I know she was wearing it in the hospital but we didn’t receive it from them when they gave us the rest of her things. Have you seen it here by any chance?”

“Why, no, but I can tell you this,” Marvin said with pride. “We try to be as thorough as possible, especially with the bodies we prepare for cremation. Sometimes the hospital will put personal effects in the body bag and if we’re not careful everything just goes up in smoke!” he continued, chuckling. Oh great, I thought. More mortician humor. This isn’t really happening, is it?

“I see,” said Judi with a smirk. “I’d appreciate it if you’d just keep an eye out for it.”

“But of course we will!”

Thank you so much,” she replied, smiling and squinting her eyes. She does this when she’s determining how to handle a situation. I’ve seen this look many times. At my elementary school in a parent teacher conference. With a doctor who had a foul bedside manner. The occasional cranky nurse. My first boss. It’s the look that says, “don’t even think of messing with my loved one because if you do I already have a menu of options of how to deal with you and you won’t like a-n-y of them.” It’s a look that makes me feel safe but makes me feel pity for the poor soul on the receiving end. I’m convinced that hell hath no fury like a mother protecting her children. Of course in this case she was protecting her own mother, but the rules of engagement remained the same.

A brief, thick silence filled the room like second hand smoke in a crowded corner bar. Then my mom asked Marvin a seemingly routine question to which the resulting answer will be retold in our family for generations to come. “Marvin, we know our mother wasn’t embalmed but we were thinking of having an open casket service. What do you think about that?”

“Oh, she should be just fine, Judi. I mean, when Mama died, I took her home and she was just fine there for a good week or so.” Marvin said, not skipping a beat.

More unfiltered, nicotine-laced silence. It took an unnatural period of time for the three of us to process what had just been spoken, out loud, within earshot. The words echoed in my head: when-Mama-died, I-took-her-home-and-she-was-just-fine-there-for-a-good-week-or-so…Mama-died…home…just-fine…week-or-so…week-or-so…week-or-so…

I’d be lying if I told you I remember how we got out of there with any grace or dignity. I think Bonnie, the most tactful of our motley crew, must have said something charming to excuse us. I have no recollection. I was too busy holding myself together, biting the inside of my cheeks to shreds in an effort to not roll with laughter around the little room, past the ominous fish tank and into the parking lot. The last thing I remember was Marvin’s license plate frame, mounted to the back of his white Cadillac. It read, “My other car is a hearse…”

The rest of the week was one of a family finding their way together through the void of their matriarch. Long walks on the beach. Stolen moments at Starbucks. Tears. Laughter. Together. And one year later we’re still finding our way. Still feeling the loss of one of the most amazing people we will have ever known. Still crying, but laughing maybe just a little more. Still together.

Maga had a deep treasure trove of sayings she loved. One of them was, “Everything nice!” She used it when she felt things were not quite as they should be. It was her way of smoothing any ruffled feathers. Her way of telling us that at the end of the day, we have everything we could ever need, especially each other. It was a verbal salve and it worked every time, soothing the minor irritations and rashes family members give each other from time to time. Is everything nice these days? For her, absolutely. For us? Not quite, but we’re getting there…

you can’t keep a good blog down…

2 Jan

Well, after a slight mishap with not being able to update my credit card info with my previous host (don’t get me started), I was forced to scrap the old and start anew.  Looking forward to writing MUCH more this year! M