Tag Archives: death

Words Matter

Tomorrow is my brother’s birthday. He would have been 53.

I didn’t even know the woman, but I bristled when she spoke. Of course, her words weren’t even intended for me and I’m sure she had no idea how capably they would seize my joy and take me back in time to a day I’d rather not remember.

I was standing in the card aisle of a local department store of all places, wrestling with indecision famously. As I read and reread each of the selections I was considering (encouragement for a woman battling cancer and a birthday wish for a dear friend who had moved a world away), I weighed the words contained within each heartfelt message carefully, recognizing their power to connect souls in good times and in bad.

“CARDS DON’T MATTER,” I heard her grouse through clenched teeth, chiding her children who were likely picking out a birthday greeting for a friend or a favorite cousin. “We’ve already gotten a gift, now choose a 99-cent card and let’s get out of here,” she spat, indignation spilling from her lips. “He’ll just throw it out anyway,” she reasoned.

Though a towering wall of Hallmark’s finest separated us and I could see exactly none of what had transpired in the adjacent aisle, the exasperation that wafted over the transom was palpable and left little room for misinterpretation. Without question, it had been a long day and patience was nowhere to be found. Clearly the novelty of traipsing around K-Mart with kids in tow had long since worn off.

Granted, I had been there and done that as a parent, patently consumed by a simple yet impossible wish to be somewhere else in this life besides searching for the perfect gift for yet another Hello Kitty-themed birthday party. That said, I have frequented the brink of insanity while shopping with my brood more often than I’d care to admit, shamelessly enraged by something as ridiculous as a rogue wheel on a cart from hell coupled with my children’s irksome demands: “But we have to smell the smelly markers before we buy them, Mom. We have to make sure they smell juuuust right. And then we have to look for a birthday card with a little dog on it. Wearing a pink tutu. Maddy likes little dogs. And tutus.”

Frustration, I understood.

What rankled me to the core was the premise of this woman’s argument. That “cards don’t matter.” Because sometimes they do.

Like most people who learn of things that are unspeakably difficult to handle, I unearthed this little pearl of wisdom mired in grief and plagued by guilt. As if it were yesterday, I remember rummaging around my brother’s house in the days that followed his suicide, searching for answers or perhaps a tiny glimpse into his troubled world. Granted, I didn’t know him nearly as well as I could have…and probably should have. As I sifted through his CDs and thumbed through his books, eager to gain even a modicum of insight, I stumbled upon a drawer with a handful of cards neatly stacked within. Cards he had saved. Cards that likely meant something to him. Cards filled with words that apparently mattered.

It was at this point, I’m quite certain, that I felt a deep sense of regret and shame, for none of my cards were among those he had harvested. Surely, I had sent him a birthday greeting (or twenty), a congratulatory note regarding his beautiful home or his wonderful job, an irreverent get-well card to brighten an otherwise unenjoyable hospital stay, a wish-you-were-here postcard from Myrtle Beach or the Hoover Dam. Hadn’t I?

Incomprehensibly, I couldn’t remember. All I could wrap my mind around were the missed opportunities and the paltry thank-you note I had written that lay on his kitchen counter. Unopened. The one my four-year-old daughters had drawn pictures on as a way of offering thanks for his incredible generosity at Christmastime. The one that mocked my ineptitude and chided me for failing to mail it sooner…so that he might have read it…and felt in some small way more valued than perhaps he had before. The one that reminded me that words left unspoken are indeed the worst sort of words.

I’d like to think he occasionally sat on his couch and sifted through that cache of cards on a lazy afternoon, warmed by the messages scrawled within—a collection of remembrances worthy of holding close. Likewise, I hope he knows of the countless times since his death that I’ve been overcome with emotion in the card aisle of many a store, pausing in the section marked “brother” to read and reflect on what might have been—an odd yet cathartic sort of behavior.

So as one might expect, the horribleness of that day flooded my mind the very instant I heard CARDS DON’T MATTER. But instead of letting it swallow me whole, I turned my thoughts to why I had come—to find the most ideally suited messages for two special people, knowing they would feel special in turn.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live. Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2012 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under "G" is for Guilt, Family Affair, Love and Loss, The Write Stuff

Daughters and Dads: Love and Loss

IMG_0232I hated feeling powerless. As if there was nothing I could do to positively affect anything in the universe, let alone my dad’s pain and suffering. Yet that’s exactly how I felt as I stood beside my ailing father’s bedside after his stroke, holding his hand, attempting to interpret his garbled speech, pausing briefly to take in the jumbled masses of wires and tubes that were now heinously tethered to him, wondering like crazy why he couldn’t move his left side and why his eyes seemed drawn only to the light coming from the window and not to my face, which was surely fraught with dread.

I remember he called me “Sweetheart” when I first entered the room and he turned his head toward the sound of my voice as I moved closer. He kept straining to see the sky behind me, his dark eyes darting back and forth and looking right past me, never really focusing on anything—which seemed odd to me at the time. Maybe he was unable to see, I later thought. Again and again he tried to climb out of bed, telling us all he had things to do, occupied always with the notion that life wasn’t meant to be lived as an idle person.

He seemed so small lying there, a shell of the man I remembered from my childhood. Alzheimer’s had stolen so much more than his memory, and now the stroke had taken what was left. I remember feeling cheated—as if I were losing him in bits and pieces, and even the pieces I no longer recognized were being taken from me in some cruel twist of fate.

Just that morning I had talked with him on the phone, after his fall. It was five days before Christmas and his caregiver had called me, alerting me to the news. He seemed fine aside from a horrendous headache and a few distorted words here and there, sounding as if he were chewing on a bit of gravel as he spoke. But that was the Alzheimer’s, wasn’t it? It was also possible he had hit his mouth on something during the fall, causing his lips to swell, making it difficult to speak. Wasn’t it?

“Dad, did you bump your mouth this morning? When you fell?”

No. He hadn’t. Why couldn’t I just hit the rewind button and revisit our conversation? Did I tell him I loved him? I can’t be sure. I do remember telling him that my husband was on another phone calling an ambulance and that it would be there soon. The people at the hospital would get him all patched up. Just like new. I promised.

Not surprisingly, I had a number of angry discussions with God that week about the unfairness of it all. About how desperately (almost incredulously) I wanted things to return to the fucked-up “normal” I knew—the life that came to be defined by a certain uncertainty. Some moments in time, I was his wife. Other times, his mother. And when the Almighty was smiling upon me, I was his daughter. I’d even settle for the days during which he informed me he never had a daughter, as deeply as that hurt. Needless to say, I longed to see him get up out of his favorite chair and make his way across the living room to hug me when I visited, welcoming me with a warm and genuine embrace. Always. I could envision him in his khakis, pinstriped oxford shirt and matching sweater, the most dapper 80-year-old man I knew—clean-shaven, a splash of cologne and a smile. This was, of course, a testament to Agatha, his caregiver, who knew how important his appearance was to his happiness.

At any rate, as the week wore on I found myself bartering with God, eager to hear my dad tell me how his day was going, even if that meant acknowledging his addled state and mixed-up reality. I wanted to talk about the apple crumb pie and pumpkin cookies I planned to bring on Christmas Day, about how lovable our dogs were, about the ridiculous dearth of snow this winter. Again and again I replayed the details of the last day I had spent with him before the stroke, trying like mad to harvest it from the depths of my mind. Vividly I recall sitting next to him on the couch as darkness fell, both of our faces bathed in the soft glow of Christmas lights that enveloped the tiny tree my mom used to decorate. Who knew this would be the only year of my entire life that I wouldn’t spend at least some portion of the holiday with him? It would be only the second Christmas without Mom.IMG_0130

But the doctors didn’t know everything, did they? Surely they didn’t know my father. He had overcome a frightening bout with hypothermia and frostbite following last November’s near dawn excursion through the neighborhood—sans shoes. Hunters had found him a quarter mile from his house, huddled in a rock-strewn ditch, badly bruised and cut. Months later, he bounced back. He had survived the loss of his true love—his wife of 56 years to cancer as well as his son’s suicide almost a decade earlier. He weathered the loss of his beloved father at the tender age of 19 and battled the horribleness of dementia every damn day since his diagnosis, managing to preserve both his dignity and his sense of humor. No small feat.

Nope. The neurosurgeons didn’t know my dad. And I hated discussing his prognosis with them over his bed, so we went to a little room filled with a smattering of chairs and an enormous conference table—the place where we reviewed his CAT scans, tried to digest the awful news and cried into the box of tissues they reflexively offered. I wondered how many times they had done this before, shared the dim outlook with the next of kin, pointed to the screen and tried to make us understand that things would never be the same. My husband and I emerged from the room shaken, saddened and numb to an extent. One foot testing the waters of reality, one still squarely planted in denial.

That said, I can’t imagine my dad would have liked all the hubbub—the constant whir of activity in and out of his ICU room, the annoying buzzes and blips of machinery, the squawk of the intercom, the helicopter landings on the roof, the incessant poking and prodding of his veins, the hideous crown of wires atop his head. He seemed plagued by frustration wrapped in angst, as if he were lost in a deep forest, separated from all that was familiar and good by an impossibly dense thicket that he couldn’t manage to escape despite his best efforts. And he was trying; there is no doubt. I studied his face, even as his eyes were closed, and watched his restless body struggle amidst the tangled wood to find a way home. And I could do absolutely nothing to help him, which was the hardest part. All I could do was tousle his hair, hold his hand and tell him I loved him. On my last day at the hospital, during a rare moment when everyone happened to have left the room, I whispered in his ear the message that it was okay if he had to go. I let him know that we would be alright and told him, once more, how much we loved him. It was not a Christmas Eve message I had ever envisioned delivering to my father.

Late that afternoon, it was clear he wasn’t coming home. He had had another “neurological event,” as his failingsIMG_0211 were not-so-affectionately termed. And there were decisions to be made. Hard decisions. I remember sobbing alone in my car on the way home, pounding the steering wheel and shouting at God, at my dad, at the meadows enshrouded in fog at the edge of twilight. It was hard to see the road through my tears, let alone the milky mist that hugged the tree line, and I vowed to continue my sob-fest in the shower—the very best place to cry, apart from my husband’s shoulders.

Christmas Day was a supreme challenge. I tried to be cheery as a mom and a wife, watching my kids unwrap their gifts and graze on the ham we had planned to take to my dad’s later that day, but it was difficult. To say that I was preoccupied was an understatement. I felt impossibly torn, wanting to spend time with my family making holiday memories, wanting to be there for my dad should he rouse from his slumber-like state, somehow benefitting from my presence at his bedside.

He died the next morning, removing from my plate the awful choices I would have had to make, erasing from my mind the all-consuming worry and torment over what the future held, opening the door for me to grieve his passing and to celebrate a life well lived—which is how he would’ve wanted it, I’m sure. Looking back, I wish I could’ve been there for him at the moment of death, but it was not to be.

I never thought I’d be glad that I chose to view his broken body, but I am. His face clearly revealed that he was at peace. There were no more wires or tubes, no more struggles to swallow or to speak. No more frantic searches for the life and people he once knew. At the very least, I could be comforted by that—knowing he had made it out of the darkened woods and was finally home with those he sought for so very long.

Copyright 2016 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under Love and Loss, Sandwich Generation

A Walk to Remember

photo
I remember the walk with my mom as if it were yesterday. The towering pines stretched with all their might into the vast expanse of blue above, touching what had to be the floor of heaven itself. The half-foot of snow that had fallen the night before glistened in the afternoon sun and crunched beneath our feet as we wended our way to my brother’s grave.
It was a good day to say “hello” to him, our faces warm and ruddy from the trek, and our spirits buoyed by what was surely a whisper of spring in those boughs of evergreen.
I can still see her merrily trudging along, nearly swallowed by her red, winter coat and hood, a tinier version of the woman I remember as a child since cancer had begun its dreaded course of consumption. Nevertheless, she wore a smile and the most striking hue of lipstick…red, of course, echoing the beauty that emanated from within. The mom I knew and loved was still here, walking and talking with me, soaking up the sun, drinking in the sky, which was impossibly blue, eager to seize the day.
I don’t recall exactly what we talked about on that wintry jaunt, but I remember being genuinely happy and inordinately grateful, thinking, quite simply, “This is one of those moments in life where everything is perfect, despite life’s inherent imperfection and the unbearable nature of loss that no one can escape, because I get to spend this delicious wedge of time with my mom.”
Copyright 2014 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under Gratitude, Love and Loss

If Only You Had Known

Today I can’t help but be reminded of that awful chapter in my life…and in the lives of so many who were affected my my brother’s passing. Depression is an unmerciful beast and those who battle mightily against said beast (http://thebloggess.com/2012/01/the-fight-goes-on/) deserve both our deepest compassion and highest praise.

Part of me wants to believe that your death was preventable. That something someone said or did could have kept you from making that horribly irreversible decision to end your life six years ago today. Perhaps if circumstances had been different, you too would be poised to usher in the warmth and sweetness of springtime in a few short months and together we’d be putting winter’s chill behind us.

But another part of me realizes that it couldn’t be so. Too many hardships had come your way and the weight of your world had simply become unbearable. No, I’m not making excuses for what you did. I’m merely slipping into your shoes for a while so that I might come to grips with how ill-fitting they actually were—to shoulder your burden for a time, if only to acknowledge its oppressiveness.

I still long to understand and to “feel” the reality that was yours.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t find the “what-if-ing” game pleasurable in the least. The pain and sadness I feel as a result of thinking things might be different if this or that had happened is inconceivable. Yet, I persist. And without question, the events immediately following your death led me even further down that path of certain uncertainty—because it revealed to me, for perhaps the very first time, the profoundness of your impact on this world. I just can’t stop wondering if all this could have been avoided if only you had known the true measure of your worth….

Nothing could be clearer in hindsight.

For starters, over the span of the two-day event, more than 1,000 people (YES, ONE-THOUSAND PEOPLE!!!) came to pay their respects, to say goodbye, to offer oceans of comfort—and to share with us how you had touched their lives forever. It soon became very apparent that you had done just that. The endless line of callers, both young and old, snaked its way through the door and all the way out to the street, continuously—for five full hours. That steady stream of mourners endured both the cold and eventually the darkness just to be near you and to deliver those all-important words—that you MATTERED to them. You had made a difference in their lives and would never be forgotten.

Of course, friends and family already knew you mattered. Or at least we thought we had a handle on how greatly you had influenced others. But I doubt anyone could have ever envisioned such an outpouring of love and support—such a tremendous tribute to you as a person. I think it stunned us all. Naturally, I felt proud of the man you had become; but at the same time, ashamed that I hadn’t recognized it myself. I regret not giving you the praise you surely deserved.

Your students were the toughest to console. It was pure agony to look into those sorrowful faces—so young, so innocent and so completely devastated by their loss—and ours. You were their guide, their inspiration and their rock in many cases. Some wore broad smiles and bore the gifts of tales that indelibly touched our hearts—of time you had spent…of lessons you had taught…of hope you had instilled. Others arrived teary-eyed and spent, with loads of baggage and intolerable grief at their sides. Still others carried anger and resentment in their hearts and truckloads of questions on their lips. Tell me, won’t you, how were we to explain the inexplicable? To assign meaning to that which seems completely senseless? To order their disordered worlds—along with our own? It was an impossible task to say the least.

Parents, counselors and staff members were there too—as much for the kids as for themselves. Together we tried to assure them that “things would be okay,” that you “would always be watching over them,” and that they “should continue to try and make you proud.” High schoolers are tough sells, however. No surprise there. They wanted you—not a bunch of words. And a rewind button—not the ugliness that had become reality. It killed me to see so much disappointment and so many broken spirits. I can only hope they’re faring better now.

Needless to say, hugs were plentiful that night as were the tears.

Still more profound…scores of individuals have visited your gravesite, now bursting with the scent of pine and new fallen snow. A multitude of lovely mementos have since joined the dozens upon dozens of sweet-smelling roses that dressed your casket in a blanket of red on the day of your burial.

More recently, I learned that many have driven to the canyon itself—to quietly lay bouquets at its very edge, the site where you willfully and tragically ended it all. No doubt, some felt it more fitting to toss their floral offerings into the cavernous abyss below, so that they might somehow reach what remains of your spirit, now mingling amidst the soft and silent snowflakes.

Some of your students not only left flowers but also carved initials and heartfelt messages into that infamous Grand Canyon railing you breached. Perhaps, to them, it will offer some comforting assurance that their words of farewell will never be forgotten. Nor will the bonds you shared be erased.

More evidence still of your apparent worth on this planet was the bizarre, yet moving turn of events on the morning of your funeral. Oddly enough, a bomb threat, rumored to be in your honor, was made that day. As a result, school was canceled and more people were able to attend your services. Standing room only, as I recall. I have to think this would have made you smile (despite the felony charges that could have been levied against someone who apparently ignored the risk that day).

I truly do wonder…that had you only known how many people would be affected by your absence (and how greatly those same individuals would suffer), you might have decided not to take your own life. But then again, perhaps it was inevitable.

Sadly, we’ll probably never know.

Copyright 2006 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Bittersweet

Just completed a survey on grief, which, of course, triggered a deluge of grief all over again–inspiring me to re-post this…

www.melindawentzel.comThey say something good always comes from the bad. I heard that a lot in the weeks and months following my brother’s death. And for a long time I found the cliché positively detestable. I hated hearing what I believed was a lie. As if well-meaning friends and family didn’t know what to say, so they just slapped on something that appeared fitting for the occasion, filling the void with words that not only fell flat, but stung each time I heard them.

How were they to know such statements would do more harm than good? Surely none of it was intended. Maybe they figured the more I heard it, the closer I’d be to believing it. Perhaps they thought I’d be comforted in the knowledge that someday, somehow, someway—something good would come about as a result of losing someone so dear to me. Robotically I nodded my appreciation and understanding and put on a perfunctory smile, but down deep I harbored a sea of doubt.

The sweet scent of his cologne, as I leaned in to kiss him one last time, still lingered in the corners of my mind. The haunting memory of his pale hands, cold and lifeless under the warmth of mine, was as fresh as the marmalade skies last evening—only more indelibly cemented. Thoughts of standing there next to his rose-draped casket and running my hand along its silky oak finish—as if my touch could protect him and keep him near me forever—were still too vivid and too painful to believe something good would ever be a byproduct. The hollow clang of the church bell, singing its sorrowful song, rang ever clear in my ears as did the soloist’s heartfelt rendition of Our Father. I knew then and there that life would never be the same, so to listen to everyone’s spiel on how this would eventually turn into something good seemed to me an asinine thing to do.

Suffice it to say, there was little anyone could say to convince me otherwise. Strangely enough, it was my youngest children who first opened my eyes to the possibility that, in fact, something wonderful could arise from a circumstance so indescribably horrible. All I had to do was drink in the magic of their innocence and undeniable wisdom as it unfolded before me.

Ironically, one of the initial glimmers of hope arrived on the morning of the funeral—although I didn’t view it as such then. My husband graciously shared with me something one of our twins had answered while dressing for the occasion. “Come on, Hon,” he coaxed, thinking it might be a struggle to get one or both to the church in time. “We need to go and send Uncle Jeff to Heaven now.”

“But Daddy, he’s already there,” she stated with an air of assurance far beyond her years, literally stopping my husband in his tracks just long enough to wipe his eyes and marvel at the gravity of her words. “Wow,” was all I could manage in response.

The girls drew special pictures to include as parting gifts for their uncle—ones we promised to tie up with pretty pink ribbons and carefully place next to him, amidst the river of satiny folds lining his casket. “Uncle Jeff’s gonna put ‘em on his refrigerator I’ll bet,” chirped our curly-haired wonder to her blue-eyed counterpart.

“Hey, God doesn’t have just ONE refrigerator, silly; He has LOTS and LOTS! Maybe even 100!” she fired back, prompting a discussion I had never myself imagined having—but they did.

“No He doesn’t; He has MILLIONS!” the other corrected. And so it continued; but not once was it suggested that refrigerators DIDN’T exist there in that special place, or that God hadn’t thought it would be important for uncles to display the artwork of favorite nieces. Maybe that’s precisely what my husband and I needed at that moment—to learn that hope and faith and unwavering belief dwell within beings barely old enough to tie their own shoes. It happened again when they penned letters and expected us to mail them to Heaven. Of course, we did just that—using two “Heaven stamps,” in lieu of tying them to balloons—the preferred method.

Something good had indeed arisen, albeit bittersweet. But sweet nonetheless.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live. Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2006 Melinda L. Wentzel

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