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Post Funeral, Where Do We Go From Here?

ImageIt’s Friday morning, exactly one week from my uncle’s funeral. Family is headed back to Florida and for the first time since the death, the house is quiet and the stillness overpowering.

It’s a surreal morning. I had set the alarm on my cell phone for a seven o’clock wake up but forgot to turn up the volume.  I hear pounding on the door and shoot out of bed confused.

“We need to leave in ten minutes!” My daughter yells through the door.  This morning is the first in a series of physical therapy appointments she has, post-back surgery. “We can stop at Dunkin’ Donuts on the way. They have great breakfasts and awesome coffee.” This is a dig against her brother, my son who lives and breathes Starbucks.

I brush my teeth; throw on some clothes and stumble, still half-asleep into the hallway. She is standing by the front door with my purse in one hand and my keys in the other. I find my shoes and struggle to get them on my feet. She ushers me out the door.

We get into my mini-van and I’m seated in the driver’s seat. A revelation hits me, I’m awake and going somewhere. I slap my face a time of two and turn up the radio. Something has to wake me up. I’m driving for goodness sake!

“Dunkin’ Donuts is right around the corner. You can get a large coffee,” daughter tells me.

Before her surgery, my daughter was a three times a week Dunkin’ Donuts regular. We enter the coffee shop. She waves at the staff and rattles off what she calls her regular order. The counter person puts this into the register and looks at me.

I don’t have a clue what I want.  Daughter and counter person spit out several adjectives describing food and beverage choices; eggs with bacon and toast, no toast, no egg, cheese, no cheese, bagels, coffee, iced, hot, latte, espresso, creamer, no creamer, mocha, mint, raspberry.

“Well?” Daughter asks.

I think I heard one of them say coffee, hot.  I remember, the other day after daughter’s post neurology appointment we stopped at Sheetz, a regional gas, restaurant, and convenience store for coffee.  That coffee, ordered for me by daughter, I really liked.  “What was that?” I ask her.

“Iced, white-chocolate, raspberry with soy creamer,” daughter replies but for some reason I can’t wrap my head around all the words.

“Raspberry, chocolate,” I say. Miraculously, a breakfast and hot drink are handed to me and we head back to the car. I drop daughter at physical therapy and head back home.

Walking in the front door, I smell something dead and rotting. I check for the dog and cat. They are both accounted for and alive. Down on my hands and knees, I sniff the carpet, the couches and the afghans. Everything smells like it is supposed to. I’m stumped and tell myself I’ll deal with it later.

It’s been two weeks since I opened my mail or answered my business phone. Life literally has been at a stand-still. I leave the smell of the living room and head upstairs to my office.  It’s a business disaster. Piles of paper and files have shifted around so many times in making room for extra, visiting family that I no longer know where anything is located.

I fire up the computer and find over three-hundred e-mails needing my attention. My office phone is blinking, ten missed messages.  I’m so overwhelmed and exhausted I don’t know where to start or how to prioritize. This is grief and stress, I tell myself.

I sit in my office chair, close my eyes and do some deep breathing. I tell myself an altered mantra I learned at an acupressure seminar months ago.  I have all the energy I need. My body is taking in the energy around me, re-filling where I am depleted. I refuse to let things or people take away my power or energy.

I open my eyes and see five minutes have gone by. That’s okay; I feel refreshed and know what direction to take with the clutter. The dog and cat get into a spit and I need to intervene. I can feel my energy draining and have to fall onto my office couch before I collapse. So much for the mantra working, I tell myself and cry.

Cried out, I lay there watching spider-webbing cracks in the ceiling paint. The house is so quiet. I didn’t realize how much the family being all-together helped keep each of us afloat through the past two weeks. I push myself to go back downstairs; I’ll deal with the office chaos later. I quickly move past the smell of death in the living room and back to the bedroom.

There are several beds we’d assembled for extended family. I decide there’s no time like the present to strip the sheets and start reversing the process I started two weeks ago.  The beds come apart fairly easily and I’ve stowed them, for now, in the dining room next to the left-over paper plates, cups, napkins and plastic ware from the post-funeral get-together. I can’t deal with the things in this room right now. I’ll get to it later.

I have enough time to shower before returning to pick up my daughter. I grab some clothes from the laundry basket in the living room still waiting to be put away.  What the hell is causing that smell?

I shower, pick up my daughter and head home. “There’s a smell,” I tell her. “When I open the front door, find it.”

We open the door and the smell is obnoxious. Again, I get on my hands and knees and feel more like a police dog looking for illegal contraband.

“This would be a good time for a picture,” daughter says. “Did you smell the fireplace? The other day we heard birds in there.”

Birds: Our chimney does not have an enclosed top. Every year starlings nest on top of our flue. When the eggs hatch, we have our own bird sanctuary. We can hear the parents fluttering up and down the chimney, baby birds chirping, singing and screeching. We can tell when a parent bird is bringing food back to the nest by the excitement coming from the behind the bricks. Eventually, the babies learn to fly and everything goes quiet until next spring. I don’t know why there would be a dead bird in our chimney in July.

I lean in the direction of the fireplace and don’t have to go any further. Sh-t, it is a dead bird in the fireplace above the flue. I open and close the flue several times hoping the bird body will fall and I can dispose it. Nothing happens.

A crazy thought, maybe I can smoke or incinerate the body with a fire. Okay, I know its July, but it is cool enough outside that I can turn off the air conditioner. I open the flue, turn off the air and toss a Duraflame log in the fireplace and set it ablaze.

My daughter and I sit on couches watching the dancing flames and my son comes in to join us.

“Reminds me of camping,” he says.

“Reminds me of my step-mom raising and killing her own chickens for food,” daughter replies.

“They’re making a new product called Soylent,” my son says. “It has all the nutrition anyone needs. Soon we won’t have to worry about food.”

Conversation lulls with the flames and both kids leave the room to live their lives. I’m alone with the cat nestled up beside me. The Duraflame log is half its original size but continues to deliver a calliope of blue, green, yellow and orange flames. The house is so quiet.

I realize what I’m really doing is cremating the bird and flash back two weeks ago. Corner’s reports, probable causes of death, cremation and internment paperwork, planning a get-together for everyone post funeral, setting up beds, buying and making food for everyone, military send-off with Taps and a tri-folded flag while we stare at Uncle’s portrait and the urn containing his ashes. It was almost one-hundred degrees that day and with high humidity. Everyone was drenched in a mixture of sweat and tears.

The fire is nearly out now. I don’t smell death anymore but it’s all around me. Every room in my house has at least a small remnant of the past two weeks. I can walk here or there and hear snippets of conversations between family members. I can smell the scent of various shampoos and soaps everyone used. My brother left some cigarette butts behind on the front porch. My mom left her ice pack in the freezer. Aunt Mary left her socks and my dad forgot his belated father’s day card. My uncle’s picture is on the mantel of my fireplace. He is smiling.

Maybe, death is not all around me but snippets of life. Sure, my alarm didn’t wake me up but I got up. I got to see my daughter blossom, knowing she is finally getting well enough to join society. Her car which has been dead since surgery, is going to be fixed free of charge. The smell in the chimney is gone and the method I used got two of my kids together for a nice conversation. I have remnants of the past two weeks all over my house but I got two weeks with people I love more than anything. We had a death to attend to, but in his passing, I reconnected with very close cousins I lost touch with over the years.  We laughed, smiled, sang, told jokes and reminisced about my uncle and our entire family. I had expected people to stay maybe two hours at the get-together. Most stayed at least five.

My house is very quiet and I’m crying. But I realize, this is not the ending.  This is just the beginning of a new chapter for all of us. I should- will embrace finding the how and where we go from here.

Death and Needing to Hear from the Neither World: Grief, Insanity is Thy Name

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When we have loved greatly, we will never walk alone.

My uncle is terminally ill in a Florida hospital with a do not resuscitate order. He is a father figure to me so this is very important. I live 900 miles from Florida’s sunny gulf coast. This plays horribly with my mind.

9:00 am: I get the phone call telling me to expect the inevitable at anytime. Notify the rest of the family on Facebook, keep my phone charged and with me, Mom says.

I’m sitting with my daughter, who is in her second week recovery from spine surgery. We are home, finishing breakfast and morning showers when the call comes in. Immediately, I realize the problematic nature of the timing of everything. I feel I need and want to be in Florida. My daughter needs me home. She can’t do this on her own. Not yet.

Fourteen years ago, my parents, brother and several aunts and uncles heard the calling of the snow bird at the retirement capital of the country – Ocala, Florida. They sold their homes, packed their things, bought RVs and waved goodbye.  Ending what was a very close knit extended family system with all the trimmings. This left me with my own little family.

It’s been difficult to maintain close relationships across the miles. Responsibilities, expenses and health have all played havoc. But we have succeeded with only moderate feelings of loss on my part, especially during the holidays. This is not a holiday, but like a holiday, I feel the pangs of not being in the same location as the rest of the family and it’s taking its toll.

I’ve spent most of my day trying to figure a way to juggle taking care of my daughter and her cats and still fly to Florida. I realize I not only want to be near family, I need to be there for me to nurture them and for them to nurture me. I want another chance to say goodbye to a man who will always be my other father.

It’s 5:00 pm and my phone rings. It’s my mother. I ask her if my dad can pick me up at the airport if I figure out the logistical nightmare.

She hems and haws and says, “Let us go to the hospital and see what’s what. Then we’ll have a talk and call you back between 10:00 and 10:30 tonight.”

Not a problem, I have class in an hour and I still have not figured things out, so this gives me more time.  I take care of dinner for my family, take the dog out another time, another glass of ice water and an ice pack for my daughter and leave for class with my assignment left behind on the table. I have my fully charged cell phone in my hand in case the call telling me it’s over happens.

Class ends and I get back in plenty of time for the mom’s call.  The phone does not ring and this is where insanity set in and never looked back.

By 11:00 I’m concerned. My daughter asks if there is any news – no. 11:30, I get this odd feeling of relief.

Enter crazy thought #1. He’s passed away, no longer suffering and this is the relief I feel.

I tell all this to daughter who says, “Why do you think they didn’t call? Why don’t we call down there to see what’s going on?”

Enter crazy thought #2. They are so busy with Uncle’s death; there is no time to call, too distraught to call.  Who the hell am I to call them during this horrible, intensively challenging time?  I’m not a part of the family anymore anyway. I live 900 miles away! They had a family portrait taken several months ago, of all of them – without me. I’m really abandoned and on my own.

Enter crazy thought #3. I flash back to my sister’s death when I was seven. I didn’t get to say goodbye then either.  She died; they whisked me off to Grandmas while things settled. When I returned, all my sister’s things and pictures were gone. We weren’t to talk about her, it was too painful.  As an adult, I get this. As a child, I did not. Sitting in my room alone waiting for a call that was not coming, perhaps the adult is not too far removed from the child.

Enter crazy thought #4. They are doing this again. Arranging everything with me out of the picture because they don’t think I can handle it.  Just like, I couldn’t handle my sister’s death back in 1968. I was seven years old then! I tell my daughter all this.

She wobbles over, gingerly sits down on the side of my bed and puts her arm around me. Our roles have reversed. She tells me things I would have told her in a reverse situation. The leaves don’t fall far from the tree.

12:00 midnight. Enter crazy thought #5. I tell my daughter, “Well, if I can’t be there to say goodbye, I’ll be expecting a visit from his spirit. At this point, he can probably get to me easier then I can get to him.”

She looks at me to verify I’m serious. I am.  I’ve heard of many people having death-bed visits from loved ones.  Family finding out someone died before the police or hospital called to tell them. Why not have my uncle come to me to say goodbye?

1:00 am. My daughter is back in her room leaving me and my over active imagination to run amok.  I’m writing the next chapter of a manuscript while sitting on my bed.  Behind me is a double window that overlooks a second story balcony. There I have a rocking chair where I drink my early morning coffee. The windows are open.  I have my I-pod on a speaker stand set to shuffle. The music is anything from tribal to Bach, Incubus to Frank Sinatra.

The writing is going well until I hear a noise. I shyly look up from the computer screen half expecting to see the materializing form of my uncle. I see nothing out of the ordinary.  I continue writing, fighting back sorrow. I can’t believe this is finally the end.

The I-pod stops playing and I stop typing, startled by the sudden silence. A sign, I wonder. Cautiously, I turn to see what song is listed on the screen. Was it Edelweiss, the song we danced to at my wedding? No, it says D00045.

That is the code for a series of voice recordings I’ve made. One of which is a lengthy conversation with my uncle where he tells me about his childhood.   I rummage through my computer to find the original clip convinced it is that recording (I-pod will not play it). It’s not.  It’s notes about muses in the Peach Orchard in the Gettysburg battlefield.  Not my uncle.

I laugh at myself and turn off the I-pod. The room grows still with the exception of the tip tapping of my fingers on the laptop keyboard. Behind me, I hear the sound of my rocking chair on the balcony moving. Is it the breeze? I don’t feel a breeze on my skin.

I want to turn and look but find myself griped in fear. What will my uncle look like? What if it’s not what I expect? I get up the courage to look but it’s too dark to make out the chair. Stealthily, I move closer to the screen, cupping my hands around my eyes to block out the ambient light.

Before my grandmother died, we got possession of her rocking chair and my father placed it in our clubbed-in basement. After she died, that chair rocked on his own for several minutes on many evenings. We always said it was grandma. Many a night, I would hear the creaking of the chair and sneak downstairs to watch it slowly move back and forth for just a few moments and then come to a stop.

The rocker on my back porch was empty. A swift breeze pushed back my hair and I sighed. It was the wind after all.

I return to my laptop. My nerves frayed and my mind on red-alert. The auto fan in the far window clicks on and the anxiety makes my skin feel it’s being peeled off my muscles. I push off the laptop, bound out bed and slam shut the windows, locking them and pulling the blinds shut.

If my uncle is going to visit, it’s not going to be through the window or in the rocker! He can visit but only on my terms. Whatever those are?

I go out to the bathroom in the hallway and return to my room, shutting the door behind me. I pick up the laptop and return to chapter three. Something outside my door bangs once, then twice. Everything goes silent except my heart.

I slid out of bed and mosey up to the door. I outstretch my hand to the glass door knob debating if I really want to see what is going on. I think, why in the hell would my uncle try to scare me like this? Followed quickly with the thought, maybe, he doesn’t have many options.

I’m the one that wanted to say goodbye and here I am cowering behind a door. I open it to find the empty hallway which does nothing to calm my nerves. Across the hall is my office.

I listen and notice the outside street sounds are louder than normal. I walk over and find the window open and several paperback books scattered on the floor. Lightning flashes and I assume the wind has knocked the books off an end table. I shut the window and return to my room thinking I’ve read too many Stephen King books and seen too many episodes of paranormal television programming.

3:30 a.m. and my stomach is growling. I need something to eat.

To get to my kitchen I have to go down the stairs and through the living room and dining room. The staircase is completely enclosed with a heavy wooden door at the bottom. I don’t like the staircase at night. In fact, I try to avoid it.

Tonight, my stomach says we’re moving forward through the darkness and down the stairs (there is no light on the stairs). I tell myself my apprehension is ridiculous. I reach the glass door knob and stop. On the other side of the door will be my living room partially lite by the porch light coming through the front windows.

In my living room is my late sister’s Chatty Cathy doll. It is my most prized possession. This doll is also a very special memento for my uncle and ties all of us together. I tell myself (enter another crazy thought) if he has any ability to communicate with me, it will be with this doll. Now I’m afraid to go into the living room for fear I will find the doll moved or moving, maybe talking. It is Chatty Cathy for goodness sake.

I chide myself again for thinking such crazy thoughts and bust through the door. Keeping my eyes firmly on my feet, I quickly work my way through the living room, dining room, slam on the kitchen light and sigh in relief.  Everything is normal. Everything is going to be fine. Uncle is not going to pay me a middle of the night goodbye call. Mom and dad will call later when they are able. I’ll figure what to do at that time.

I pull out a plastic bowl, the box of Lucky Charms cereal and some milk. I wonder what the family is doing now. Are they still up like me? Are they making arrangements for Uncle’s cremation in the morning? Why haven’t they called me? Don’t they know I’m worried sick?

A dark shadow whips by my feet and returns prowling towards me. I scream, dropping the milk, tipping over the cereal filled bowl, spewing Lucky Charms all over the counter, down the cupboard and onto the floor.

I clench my heart in absolute terror, convinced the world is coming to an end when the dark, shadowed creature speaks to me – Meow.

My uncle’s spirit, if it could, did not visit me because he was still alive. My parents didn’t call because they thought it was too late. Never thinking I’d be up all night in grief then terror because someone I thought had died, hadn’t and was coming to visit me but wasn’t.

“Why didn’t you call?” They asked me. A good question and I don’t have an answer. I need to figure that one out.

If this isn’t an example of the power of our thoughts and what happens when we let them run amok, I don’t know what is. I need to ask myself some serious questions about my mental behaviors. I can throw in, yes, I was tired, I have PTSD, and I’m grief stricken and feel helpless. I think while all those things are factors, they don’t negate the fact; I let the whole thing run crazy. I didn’t reality check. I didn’t use the resources at hand to help myself.

It’s 11:30 pm and I’m sitting here on my bed typing this blog. My window is open and there is a slight breeze from the balcony brushing through the rocking chair slats.  I wonder if my uncle will make it through another night. If he doesn’t, I wonder if he’ll come visit.  Perhaps, I’ll sleep with the light on.

Uncle died at 1:30 a.m. My daughter and I were in my office reminiscing through old photos of us with Uncle when it happened. The call from my parents came in directly after that. While there was no ghostly apparition, I still got to say my goodbyes in a much healthier way. Through all the fabulous years of memories that will last not only myself but my children as well. Thanks Uncle Joe, I’m missing you already.