Two Years

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In high school and college, I spent hours honing my ability to craft good introductions for my papers. I love finding the perfect first line for anything — essay, article, short story, blog post. However, I have found no good way to introduce the fact that Dad died two years ago today.

You try to convince yourself it’s just a day. Tell yourself it’s simply the combination of a day and a number in a month that happens every year. After all, people say that age is just a number. Weight is just a measurement of gravity. If we lived on the moon, our weight would be six times lighter. If we lived on Mars, a year would be almost twice as long. So then I wonder, Would that have given us more time with him?

Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.
— Leo Tolstoy

I never really blogged about how that first year went. I didn’t really blog about anything, actually, for over a year. All those firsts came around: first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, a family funeral, first birthdays, first Father’s Day, a family wedding. To believe he’s  watching over us is comforting, but his absence at special occasions still leaves a gaping hole.

I’m not really sure there’s any trick to coping other than the clichés of getting out of bed every morning, putting one foot in front of the other, and taking it day by day. Not long after Dad died, I sat in my Nurse Practitioner’s office for a regular weight-monitoring visit (that’s really more irregular) and relaying to her what had happened over the past few months. When I was done, she asked, “And how are you?”

“Oh, I’m fine,” I said.

“Really? You lost your dog, then your dad, then started a new job in the span of three months. Those are some major transitions and stresses.”

I had not stopped to think of it that way. Perhaps I wouldn’t let myself do that in order to keep myself from buckling under the pressure? Usually, anxiety doesn’t affect me until AFTER the stressful event is over. In this case, it came almost a year later.

Starting last July, I found myself overemotional, hypersensitive, panicky, irritable, moody… you name it. For weeks I couldn’t figure out why. It wasn’t until after that first anniversary, during a journaling session, that the thought rolled out of my head, through the pen, onto the paper. As of 24th, I was more than a year removed from his presence. I could no longer say, “At this time last year, Dad was still here.”

Grief is not a disorder, a disease, or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical, and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.
— Earl Grollman

In January I felt ready to get out of the funk, to do something that made me feel as if I were actually living, not just existing. The process has gone more slowly than I wanted and left me beyond frustrated — proof that I am my father’s daughter. I had to take time off from the gym because of a knee problem, which then kept me from doing some physical challenges I wanted to do. That’s better now, so I’m trying again to get back in the groove. And I’m writing more as well.

I heard this song a week or so ago that summed it all up what I was trying to do. My favorite thing about music is how it can express so much of our own feelings in just a few notes and words. May it inspire you to get out of whatever funk you might be experiencing as well.

Unprepared

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IMG_1264Before walking became a “cool” exercise, my parents were all about going walking. I remember summer evenings marching around our huge back yard with Mom, Dad, and my brother for several laps multiple days every week. One evening my brother wanted to race from the very back of the yard to the back of the house. The four of us started to run, but Mom and I almost immediately fell behind. My chubby self has never been a runner, and Mom will quickly tell you that birthing two children dashed any hope of being able to run without piddling on herself.

My brother had a comfortable second place spot, but Dad totally schooled him on how far he had to go to catch up to his speed. His arms and legs blurred together as they dashed through the muggy summer air. The Six Million Dollar Man had nothing on him; the only thing missing was the bionic sound effect.

The memory played through my head as I sat by his bed in CCU and held his hand last Saturday night into Sunday morning, after the nurses told us he probably wouldn’t make it through the night. A breathing machine pumped oxygen into his lungs and multiple IV bags fed him a concoction of three antibiotics, fluids, sugar water and blood pressure medicine. What had started as a urinary tract infection Monday led to pneumonia by the end of the week, and his body, run down by months of chemo treatments and ten days of radiation for lymphoma, could no longer fight off what was going on. 

The running joke in the family. Dad could drift off to sleep just about anywhere.

The running joke in the family. Dad could drift off to sleep just about anywhere.

We were all struck dumb. How could he have gone from sitting up in a chair three days before to not being able to make it through the night? This man mowed an acre-and-a-half lawn a couple of days after his first chemo treatment. This man once rebuilt a VW bug engine and almost single-handedly lowered it back into the vehicle. This man once beat all the bigger high school football players with the most pull-ups.

All the tests had showed that the cancer was not making major advances in his body. How could he suddenly be not strong enough to fight? Why was his body giving up now? There was supposed to be more time. The treatments were maintaining the cancer. We knew a day would come when they would not be effective, and then we would talk about Hospice and pain management and DNRs and living wills.

We were unprepared for this.

We had to make the decision to disconnect the breathing machine and IVs. Once the tubes were removed, he was physically gone in a couple of minutes. I continued to sit and hold his hand while other family members came in to say good-bye. Part of me wanted to run — out of the CCU, out of the hospital, across the streets of downtown Greenville. I wanted to run and scream  and cry in anger, in confusion, in shock, but I stayed because running away meant letting go of his hand. The hands that repaired hundreds of printing presses and copiers over a 40-year career, fixed at least a couple dozen cars on weekends, put together a short-wave radio for my seventh-grade science project, built a two-car garage and a back porch sunroom, carried the heavy stuff into my dorm room in Columbia during the miserable days of August. He was a man who worked with his hands and was more interested in action than words.

IMG_0923When I came home from college on weekends, I liked to rent movies to watch on Friday night, and being the English major, I often picked the introspective ones. I remember him getting up from the den one night during a movie (don’t remember which one) and saying, “They talk too much in this movie, Carla.”

In his CCU room, discussions took place about how the mortuary would arrive in a half-hour to take him. Mom eventually asked if I was ready to go, but I shook my head. “I don’t want to leave him,” I said, and then I broke down, repeating the same sentence over and over.

Other family members left, but I was unaware of their absence. Four of us were left there with Dad — Mom, my brother, The Husband, and me. Somehow I found the will to stand and, after a few more minutes, let go of his hand. When I did, I knew I had to walk out of the room and not look back. Exiting the hospital and riding home still feels like a blur — perhaps from shock and perhaps also from fatigue since it was after 2 a.m. on Sunday morning.

We got home around 3 a.m., and because I knew some friends on Facebook would ask, I typed the only words I could manage at that moment: “Dad’s gone.”

I’ve always heard the statement: “We pay our respects for those who are left behind.” I’ve probably said the same thing myself a few times, but I never really comprehended the importance until this past week. From my aunt, uncle, and cousins who came to the hospital Saturday night and stayed until after the unthinkable happened to all the family and friends who came to my parents’ house in the days that followed.

I remain blown away by the thoughtfulness and support. My mom’s office shut down Tuesday afternoon and every one of her coworkers came to the funeral. My college roommate drove two hours from Camden. Another former coworker and close friend drove down from Charlotte. One of my brother’s best friends drove up from Charleston, twice — for the weekend where Dad took his downward spiral and then the funeral. The Husband’s boss and two other coworkers came. I simply can’t express my appreciation enough for all who have done so much to bring us comfort. My gratefulness knows no bounds.

IMG_2690This next stage of our lives is one huge question mark. It is still unfathomable to think that when I come up my parents’ driveway, Dad won’t be stepping out of the garage, sitting on the porch, or rocking in his glider in the den when I open the door. He will not be there at Christmas to say his line: “Before we know it, it’ll be the Fourth on July.” And on the Fourth of July, he won’t be there to say, “Before we know it, it’ll be Christmas.”

However, I do know that we are a close family and a strong family. We have amazing friends and loved ones, and no matter what the next days, weeks, months, and years bring, we will get through with their help and with God’s grace.

A Farewell to the First-Born Fur Baby

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So I got up here. Now how do I get down?

So I got up here. Now how do I get down?

She was born on Christmas Day 2000, one of six puppies from Momma Dog’s second litter. When the first litter was born six months earlier, The Husband and I lived in an apartment that didn’t allow pets, so we told his youngest brother (main caretaker of the dogs) that if she had another litter and we were somewhere where we could have a dog, we would take one. By that Christmas, we were renting a house from a friend who let us have pets, so we had to live up to our agreement.

Five weeks after she gave birth to the puppies, Momma Dog (a collie mix) had had enough of nursing. Appalling behavior for humans, but perfectly acceptable for dogs — go figure. It was time for me and The Husband to go pick out our puppy. We drove over on a Saturday afternoon and walked up to the outdoor pen where The Husband’s grandfather, Papa, had built for the pups. I knelt down in front of the little bundles of fur that clamored for my attention, but before I could get to any of them, a fawn-colored bounded over all of them and started licking my hand. Later I would learn that I had picked the alpha female.

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Photo Prompt: Fireworks (Mainstream Fiction)

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file000642086474Nana described first seeing Papa at the town’s Independence Day celebration as he held a lit Roman candle shooting bursts of color into the night sky.

“He had these dark curls that just shined every time something was set off,” she used to say, “and every different color that went up in the air lit up a different color in those hazel eyes.”

Seventy-two years to the day of that first meeting, we huddled around Nana’s ICU bed with the TV on the Capitol’s Fourth of July celebration. Beeping machines struggled to keep up with the thundering percussion and booming fireworks, but Nana’s eyes glistened with reflections of red, white, and blue. I knew she saw him — standing in the middle of the road, Roman candle in hand, mischievous grin on his face.

When the TV spectacle finished, she closed her eyes and went to meet him once more.


Editing a flash fiction piece to 100 words is hard. I started out with about 230 and cut it down to about 150. Perhaps as more time passes I can do more with it.

Luckily, Friday Fictioneers doesn’t find fault with entries that are shorter or longer than 100 words. 🙂

To My Fifteen-Year-Old Self

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Me at fifteen at a friend’s house

In honor of International Day of the Girl, CNN asked a dozen or so powerful, popular, impressive women what advice they would give their fifteen-year-old selves. Since a quarter of a century has passed since I turned fifteen (moment of silence to let me regain my composure on that one — scratch that; I’ll be back in an hour), I thought I’d take a turn and write something to myself at that age.

Dear fifteen-year-old Carla,

I’m forty-year-old Carla. I know! I surprised a few people when I told them I was turning forty. They thought I was in my early thirties — even late twenties. I attribute it to giving up on getting a tan, which you haven’t done yet.

Congrats on surviving your first two years as a teenager and your first year of high school! That Civics class was a bitch, huh? And so was the chick who “borrowed” your textbook and never gave it back. You’re about to spend your last summer freeloading off Mom and Dad; next summer, Mom is gonna drive you up to Eckerd and parade you in front of the manager, and you will enter the wonderful world of retail. Sorry about that.

Nothing I say in this letter will alter your future, and that fact is unfortunate — because you’re also going to experiment with lightening your hair this summer. This experimentation will lead you to use Sun-In, and you’ll start off with a sun-kissed look to your locks only to watch that color turn into an orange-y mess. To make matters worse, that stuff will take. For. Freakin’. Ever. to grow out. I’m not kidding; that atrocious color will still be hanging on the ends of your hair in your JUNIOR YEAR photo.

Luckily, you will learn your lesson and decide to keep your hair dark. Then it’s going to start turning gray in about ten years, and at 40, you’ll color it every five weeks to avoid people seeing that you’ve got more gray than Mom does. You see all the gray MaMa Grant and Nanny have now? Yeah, we were doomed from the start.

I’ll come right out and say that August 1987 will not be easy for you. Papa will pass away on a Sunday afternoon just hours after he and Nanny are at the house for lunch — massive heart attack. You’re going to be devastated at the death of your first close relative; there’s no getting around it. You’re going to cry and be bitter and take that sadness out on some people, but it’s just your way of handling that particular death. You’re fifteen, and it’s going to take you a while to master dealing with and expressing  your emotions.

Something will come out of this loss, though. Someone will discover a poem in Papa’s Bible — surprising the whole family because we never knew him to write — and then you’ll find another in one of his Bibles that Mom has. Everything will click: You’ll realize that the ability to compose all these poems you’ve been writing —which, I’m sorry honey, are super cheesy right now but you will get better — was passed down to you. You’ll feel connected to him in a way you probably would have never realized.

Papa won’t be the only loved one you’ll lose in the next 25 years, but I’m not naming any more names — just gonna say that a couple of them will come out of left field and knock the breath out of you.

But you’ll make your way through — through a lot of things, actually. You’ll be the only person from your graduating class to go to Columbia College, knowing only one soul on that entire campus. Despite two bad experiences with roommates, you’ll end up with someone who will make your bed for you while you break down on the phone with Mom explaining how you had to move all your stuff in your new dorm room by yourself. Just stay strong; you’re gonna love it.

In ten years, you’ll find your soulmate. Yes, ten years. You’ve got a while to pine over that boy you’ve been crushing on for the past two years, and you’ll meet other guys that you hope are The One — but they’re not. You’re gonna live that cliché saying that when you least expect it, you’ll turn around and realize it’s the guy in the group of friends you’ve been hanging out with for two years. He’s a comic geek, but he’ll make you laugh all the time, and get this — he does dishes.

Some other things down the road: Mom and Dad ditch the well water and hook up to the city water system next summer, but they still don’t get cable until you’re in college. The Mauldin High football team finally makes the playoffs the year after you graduate (figures, doesn’t it?). Hope you like Dad’s Chevy Citation, because you’re gonna be driving it for five years. MTV quits playing videos but doesn’t change its name. George Michael comes out of the closet (no surprise there, I’m sure), but Michael Jackson gets married… then divorces… then has kids… then dies in an Elvis-like OD.

For you, overall, you’re gonna be okay — even when what you’re going through seems like the end of the world. When you look at the big picture — especially compared to what other girls your age are up against in other countries, even in my time — you are extremely lucky. You’ll have a roof over your head, a family that loves you, a good education, and so much more. Some girls all over the world have no idea what that’s like. They’re sold to a husband as a teenager, or they’re considered second-rate citizens who don’t deserve an education, or they experience so many other horrible fates than the broken hearts and limbs (enjoy that left ankle while it’s still perfect) you’ll experience.

You are growing up to be a smart, caring, funny, talented, and blessed woman. Never forget that.

Happy International Day of the Girl,

Forty-Year-Old Carla

For Carmen

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I have a list of topics that I’ve meant to write about since last year. Every once in a while I hear them call out to me in my mother’s voice, “Have you done this yet?” And I have to sigh, roll my eyes, and say, “No.”

It’s not that the topics or the writing is a chore. I have this perfectionist mentality that the just-right moment has to arrive when I can sit down and compose from start to finish — because I know if I get started I won’t want to stop. I have the same relationship with popcorn (homemade, not the microwave crap).

Last December, my friend Carmen passed away. I had known her since second grade, maybe even first. She was one of the first friends I made after my family switched churches, but we didn’t go to the same school until high school.

I don’t remember many Sundays from our elementary school years. I suppose middle school was when we became friends — brought together through GA camps, youth group beach trips, and notes passed back and forth on church bulletins or offering envelopes.

She had brown hair and brown eyes, long elegant limbs, and one of those laughs that made you smile just to hear it. She never pretended to be anyone else just to fit in with the popular crowd, and when she became your friend, she would never leave you outside of her circle — something so hard to find in the fickle friendships of adolescence.

There were four of us who grouped together at church — sometimes five if M. showed up. We got matching T-shirts on a church youth group beach trip to Garden City — pastel teal green with a “Hunk Watchers” decal on the back. She had a knack for meeting new guys on any trip we took. While I always stood in the background, terrified and paralyzed to speak to boys I didn’t know, she navigated the waters of flirting like an expert. It didn’t necessarily translate into relationship bliss as an adult. By the end of her twenties, she had had two kids and two divorces, but she still believed in love.

We had fallen out of touch after I graduated from college; she started going to a different church and then moved to a neighboring county while my church attendance slowed to a stop. Then we saw each other at the mall about ten years ago, and while so many things had happened to us in our time apart, getting back in touch never really felt like catching up; it felt like we were back at school after a long weekend.

She told me during that time that she was done with marriage, and one night she admitted that she felt like she had failed to create the best environment for her family.

“You can’t compare yourself like that,” I said. “Look at what you’ve done so far. You’ve got two great kids as a single parent. That’s not easy to do.”

She paused for a split second before saying, “Thanks, Carla,” with a little surprise — as if she didn’t believe anyone thought that of her.

She had started dating an old boyfriend from high school, Steve, and they were together for the next ten years. She and I had not maintained the regular phone calls and visits, but we commented on each other’s Facebook photos and statuses.

Then she had an outpatient procedure done on the day before Thanksgiving last year. She took some medicine before going to bed that night and slipped into a coma before lunch on Thanksgiving. She never woke up.

After a week of refusing to leave her side, Steve conceded to go home and get some rest. He never made it home; he collapsed outside of the hospital from a heart attack and died that night. A week later, Carmen officially passed away.

Her death was surreal — one of those situations that just wasn’t supposed to happen, not after years of passing notes, secrets confided,  giggling in church about boys (and getting in trouble for it), slumber parties, late night car rides on the other side of town.

When my mom first told me that she was in a coma and not likely to wake up, my first thought was a memory from being at her house when we were in eighth, maybe ninth grade. We were sitting in a car parked in the driveway at her house — the car that would be hers when she got her driving permit. The car’s stereo included a cassette player, and she popped in a single of “Let the Music Play” by Shannon. We sat there in this parked car making plans about what we would do when we had the freedom to drive.

We lose touch with our friends and then think posting a comment on Facebook is a sufficient substitute, but it isn’t. When you’re sitting in a church sanctuary watching your friend’s short life pass in front of you on a PowerPoint presentation, you realize you have missed stuff. It’s a hard lesson to learn. I pray you don’t have to learn it the way I did.