Sunday, October 30, 2011

But Where Does it Go?

I celebrated my 50th birthday this past week, and I have to say that it was one of the best birthdays I've ever had.  My family and friends went out of their way to make it very special.  I had two of my best friends from high school visit and spend the night with me.  We talked about old times until 3:00 AM, and then picked up right where we left off when we got up the next day.  It was so nice to talk about the past and relive the times when our lives were so much easier (too bad we didn't appreciate then just how easy it was).  My family and some of my friends surprised me with a party the next night, and I was genuinely surprised - I had no idea they were planning anything.  My class gave me a party at school along with gifts, flowers, and cards.  In all I had three different birthday cakes - and no I didn't eat them all myself - I shared!  I couldn't have asked for anything more, and it really made me realize and appreciate who and what I have in my life.

If anyone had asked me 25 years ago when I was just starting out as a wife, mother, and teacher where I would be at 50, I don't know how I would have answered.  But I feel pretty sure I would have never predicted where I actually am now.  I never thought I'd be a grandmother before I was 50.  I wouldn't have predicted that at 50 I'd be a college student again.  I certainly in my worst nightmare wouldn't have dreamed I'd be a widow at 50.  But here I am celebrating 50 years and all of those are true.  The grandmother part is wonderful.  I wouldn't trade that role for anything.  The student part, while not so great right now, will be worth it when I finish and have my specialist's degree.  It's the widow part that I could definitely do without and would love to be able to change.  Unfortunately that's not possible.

The question now is where do I go from here?  I guess you could say I'm content with my life right now.  I don't know if I would say that I'm necessarily happy, but I'm not sad either.  I've just accepted the way things are.  I stay very busy with work, classes, family, and friends.  I really don't have time for anything else.  But I won't be a teacher forever - I can actually retire in just under four years.  I definitely won't be a college student forever - this is my last degree, and I'll be finished with it in less than a year.  I'll always be a mother and a grandmother, but Trey has his own life now, and I know as Emily grows up she'll need her Nana less and less. 

So what do I want for the rest of my life?  Do I want a relationship sometime in the future?  I really don't know.  Sometimes I think yes, it would be nice to have companionship, someone to talk to and do things with.  Sometimes I think no, I'm not sure it's worth the effort it takes to make a relationship work.  A part of me still loves Eddie and always will.  But his alcoholism and suicide had an effect on me that I'll never completely get over.  In some ways the effect has been good - I'm stronger now than I ever was before.  I'm a survivor, and I know I can make it on my own.  On the negative side what Eddie put me through has caused me to build a wall around myself, both to keep me from getting too close to anyone and to prevent anyone from getting too close to me.  I don't know what the future holds now anymore than I did 25 years ago.  The one thing I do know though is that I don't intend to ever be hurt again the way I was when Eddie died. 

A Birthday is a Gateway
by Helen Steiner Rice

A birthday is a gateway
Between old years and new,
Just an opening to the future
Where we get a wider view.
For it takes a lot of birthdays
To make us wise and kind
And to help us judge all people
With our heart and not our mind.
Every year brings new dimensions
That enable us to see
All things within a kinder light
And more perceptively.
So birthdays are the gateway
To what the future holds
And to greater understanding
As the story of life unfolds.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Flood of Memories

I traveled to Trion, Georgia yesterday for my uncle's funeral.  I made the trip alone because my father was already there, Trey is working in Gainesville, and my mother was getting ready to return to Atlanta today for her next chemo treatment.  I don't really mind driving somewhere by myself.  Sometimes I use the time to think about things, and other times I turn the radio up and try not to think about anything.  I knew my uncle's service would be an emotional time, but I wasn't prepared for the memories that came flooding back during my trip.  I was born in Trion and lived there and in Rome until I was almost eight years old.  Both sets of my grandparents lived in that area while I was growing up.  I spent many nights and weekends with them over the years.  I remember playing "Mother May I" on the steps in front of the house, going to Lake Winnapasoka (a local amusement park), and playing with my Barbie dolls when I was with my father's parents.  When I stayed with my mother's parents we made home-made ice cream, went to the lake, and attended church where my grandfather preached.   I used to sit on the bench beside my grandmother in church while she played the piano.  I hadn't thought about any of those things in years until yesterday. 

At some point on the drive, I think it was somewhere between Bremen and Rome, I came to the top of a little rise in the road and for the first time could really see the north Georgia mountains covered with trees in different colors.  It was then that all of the memories started.  I remembered a place in the road between Rome and Trion called Taylor's Ridge that I was always scared to travel across because I thought the car would go over the side of the mountain!  My parents have told me about one time in particular when it had snowed, and I pitched such a fit about crossing the ridge that they had to take the back roads (which added MANY miles to the trip) to take me to and from my grandparents' house.  When I reached Taylor's Ridge yesterday I still felt a little flutter of nervousness as I went around it.  I think I actually held my breath until it was behind me.  As I drove through Rome I looked for the pond where I used to go to feed the ducks when I was little, but I couldn't find it.  When I went through Summerville I thought about the times I used to go to school with my grandmother who was a teacher.  I slowed down but didn't stop as I passed the church in Pennville where my grandfather preached.

The hardest part was when I got to the cemetery in Trion.  I arrived early so I had a little time there before other people came.  When I reached the Magnolia tree under which my uncle was going to be buried I could see the graves of my cousin Hugh who died in 1970, my grandfather who died in 1982, my grandmother who died in 1983 (the day before my birthday), as well as the spot that had been prepared for Kenneth.  As I stood there looking at so many family members together I wondered for the first time if I had made a mistake in not allowing Eddie to be buried at the cemetery in Fleming where his family plots are.  I thought I was doing the right thing at the time, but now I'm not so sure.

After the service and a get-together at a cousin's house, I started the trip back home.  I made one stop on my way at a small park just outside of Summerville called Veteran's Memorial Park.  At the entrance there is a monument similar to the Vietnam Memorial Wall with the names of veterans from the Trion and Summerville area.  My grandfather on my father's side was a war veteran, and I knew his name was somewhere on the wall.  I searched the wall until I located his name.  I stood there looking at it for a long time then said a final good-bye and left.  I didn't want to think on the ride back home so I put in my Zac Brown and Kid Rock cds and turned them up as loud as I could.  As I pulled into the driveway of my house and turned off the car, I thought about how lonely, empty, and quiet it would be when I went inside.  I realized this was what it was going to be like for my aunt Brenda now, too, and my heart ached for her.  I've always heard the saying "silence is golden" - sometimes this is true - but not always.

Memory Rendezvous by Helen Steiner Rice

Memory builds a little pathway
that goes winding through my heart.
It's a lovely, quiet, gentle trail
from other things apart.
I only meet, when traveling there,
the folks I like the best,
For this road I call remembrance
is hidden from the rest.
But I hope I'll always find you
in my memory rendezvous,
For I keep this little secret place
to meet with folks like you.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Will to Live

My uncle Kenneth passed away two days ago after complications resulting from his treatment for cancer.  I had not been as close to him in recent years as I should have been.  As happens in all families, we each had our own lives that kept us busy.  We kept up with each other through my father (Kenneth was his brother) and exchanged Christmas cards and occasional phone calls.  But there was a time when I was much closer to him.  When I was growing up I called him "Uncle Kinky".  I really don't even know where the name came from, but it stuck until long after I became an adult.  I have many memories of my uncle - some I can recall on my own and others that are from stories my parents shared with me.  The first story I remember is them telling me that when I was born he asked the doctor to go back and look to see if there wasn't a boy "in there" - apparently he wanted a nephew instead of a niece!  I also remember them telling me that when I was a toddler they went out one time and Kenneth babysat.  When they came back home, they found he had tied me to the leg of a chair with a belt.  When they asked him why, he said because I kept crawling away.  Of course I wasn't hurt, and this became something they never let him forget!  The last story I remember them telling me was about the time Kenneth came home from the service and brought me a doll as a gift.  It wasn't just any doll though - it was about three feet tall and was African American (though he insisted it wasn't).  The funniest part was that he made the trip home by bus and because of the size of the doll had to ride with it sitting in the seat beside him - a white man in the 1960's riding the bus with an African American doll sitting in the seat with him - a priceless image!  These three things show just a little of what my uncle's personality was like.  You couldn't spend much time around him before you were laughing at something he said, something he did, or a story he told.

Unfortunately, my uncles' life wasn't as easy as his personality.  He (and his wife) suffered through more than anyone should ever have to in a lifetime.  After Kenneth married my aunt Brenda, they had a precious little baby boy.  His name was Hugh.  When Hugh was two years old, he and my uncle were in an auto accident.  The accident killed Hugh and almost killed my uncle too.  Kenneth spent a long time in the hospital and underwent multiple surgeries.  Brenda was pregnant at the time and had to be hospitalized herself.  Neither she nor Kenneth was able to attend their own child's funeral.  I was young at the time (less than 10), but I still remember it myself.  I guess the funeral for a child is something you just don't forget. 

As if this wasn't enough, the baby (another boy they named Benji) was born severely mentally handicapped.  He was later diagnosed with profound Autism.  Kenneth and Brenda kept Benji at home with them as long as they possibly could.  They cared for him and loved him just as they would any other child.  However, there came a time as he got older when they were no longer able to care for him at home.  He became too big and too strong for them to handle and required more help than they were able to provide.  So they made an extremely difficult decision to put him in a group home.  It was the best thing they could have done for him, but it was very hard on them.  He still lives there today, and I can't help but wonder if he will even know that his father's gone. 

At some point during all of this Kenneth became an alcoholic.  Considering everything he went through, it's almost understandable.  His drinking went on for many years and very nearly killed him - but not quite.  He apparently had a very strong will to live, despite everything.  He eventually became involved with Alcoholics Anonymous and at the time of his death had been sober for over 25 years.  He and Brenda had another baby - a boy they named Clay who looked very much like Hugh.  Clay was born healthy, grew up happy and safe, and today is married with three girls of his own.  Kenneth bought a farm in northwest Georgia where he loved to spend time relaxing and "piddling" around with his cows.  He also joined a group that does Civil War reenactments and enjoyed traveling all over with them.  Despite some health problems, things finally seemed to be looking up.  Then Kenneth was diagnosed with cancer.  He went through surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.  He improved for a time but then got worse.  He went from the hospital to a rehabilitation center to hospice.  He lapsed into a coma, his kidneys shut down, and he passed away without ever waking up Thursday evening, October 13, around 6:00 PM. 

Kenneth never gave up on life - he endured and withstood everything it threw at him.  There have been many times over the past few years that I've thought about him when I was having a hard time and felt like giving up.  I always told myself that if he and Brenda could live through everything they had, then I certainly could make it through my difficult times.  Without knowing it, he was an inspiration to me.  I just regret that I never told him so.

The Comfort and Sweetness of Peace
by Helen Steiner Rice

After the clouds, the sunshine,
After the winter, the spring,
After the shower, the rainbow -
For life is a changeable thing.
After the night, the morning,
Bidding all darkness cease,
After life's cares and sorrows,
The comfort and sweetness of peace.

Rest in Peace "Uncle Kinky" 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Still Searching for Acceptance

I was rearranging some pictures in my bedroom last night when I realized I had stopped and was just staring at two particular pictures.  One was of Eddie and Trey taken at the beach several years ago.  They were so obviously happy, both smiling and laughing, and it struck me for the first time how much they looked alike.  The other was of Eddie and Emily at a softball game when she was not quite a year old.  Eddie was holding her, and she was waving.  Emily looked so serious like she was really concentrating on what she was doing, and Eddie looked so happy and proud.  Looking at those pictures made me realize I still don't understand why he took his own life.  I know he was depressed about not having a job.  I know he was still struggling with his alcoholism.  I know he had some issues from his past that he had never dealt with or resolved.  But I also know how much he enjoyed life.  Eddie loved to exercise and work in the yard.  He liked to watch baseball and football on T.V. and still played softball occasionally.  He enjoyed hunting and fishing.  He loved the beach as much as I do and liked taking the boat out on the lake.  He enjoyed going out to eat, grilling at home, and spending time with family and friends. 

Knowing how much he had to live for, I just can't accept that he chose to give it all up.  And that's where my problem lies ... after two and a half years, I still haven't reached the "stage" of acceptance.  I know I need to accept what happened in order to completely heal, but I haven't been able to do that yet.  I know Eddie is gone.  I know he's not coming back.  But I haven't accepted the circumstances of his death, and I'm not sure that I ever will.  I read that while we may not understand the why of a loved one's death, it did not happen by chance - God knew it was going to happen because our days are determined even before we are born.  I have a hard time with that idea.  It may be true, but believing something and accepting it are two different things. 

Acceptance involves being able to say goodbye.  While Eddie's absence over the past two plus years has been painfully obvious to me, I haven't actually said a final goodbye to him.  Both my counselor and the pastor I was seeing suggested I write a letter to Eddie expressing my feelings - the hurt, anger, love, and questions - then read the letter to him as a way of saying goodbye.  I started a letter at the time, but I never finished it.  I wrote pages and pages, to the point that I was beginning to repeat myself, but I could never make myself bring the letter to a close.  I knew closing the letter would mean saying goodbye, and I haven't been ready for that yet.  I still have the letter in a drawer beside the bed.  I take it out now and then, reread it with the intention of finishing it, but always put it back without writing any more.  I know the word goodbye originally meant "God be with you" or "Go with God."  It was intended as an expression of love with the wish that God would be part of the journey.  While that is of course what I wish for Eddie, I haven't been able to bring myself to say the word.  Maybe one day I will.

"Acceptance is not a gut-wrenching attempt to look peaceful.  It is a calm assurance that the person we have lost will always be with us because of the contribution that person has made to our lives.  It is an acceptance of God's will for us even when His plan and ours don't match up.  It is a "Yes, Lord, and amen" even when we don't get our own way.  It is our final step toward healing."  Grieving the Loss of Someone You Love  by Raymond Mitsch & Lynn Brookside