Monday 2 January 2012

Rest in Peace Shirley

As December comes to an end and January begins I find myself bracing for the month ahead. It’s always a tough one. I take on the lion’s share of housekeeping duties, I plan to make my wife’s favorite meals and I do my best to let her have her space to grieve and to remember. I let her sink into sadness because I’ve learned that trying to cheer her up over the next few weeks won’t work and, more than that, it doesn’t validate her feelings.

As the Christmas excitement wanes, and one year turns into the next, my wife remembers her mother and braces herself for the anniversary of her death on January 14th. The days leading up to that date are filled with tears that flow at unexpected moments and patience that is fragile. Time passes by slowly and then the day comes and we acknowledge it. We remember that day as if it was yesterday: the early morning phone call (early morning phone calls can strike terror in your heart when someone you love is sick), the long drive down narrow, icy, winter roads to the hospital, the look of exhaustion and grief on her father’s face that can still break my heart at the memory of it five years later, the tears, the hugs, the friends who showed up exactly when they were needed.  And then we sigh with relief as the day comes to a close and we can stop dreading its arrival.

This year it will be five years since my mother-in-law lost a long and hard fought battle against lung cancer. Five years. It seems impossible. My memories of her seem so clear. Like she was just here a matter of months ago. That is because I knew we would lose her and I did my best to backup those memories in triplicate in the deeper parts of my heart.

January 2011 was particularly hard for my wife because we were celebrating the new life forming inside of me and celebration is hard when part of you is missing. The important moments in our life, like our wedding day, the day we found out we were pregnant, and the day I pushed our beautiful son into the world, are all marked with a bit of sadness that Shirley isn’t there to witness. Tracy feels it hard. And I can see it in her face and feel it in my heart.  I can tell you the exact moment that she thinks of her mom, the way her face contorts as she steadies her mouth to stop the tears from flowing. Time softens the shock of the grief but it does little to lessen it.

This January we have so much to be happy about, so much to be grateful for, and my wife will feel guilty at having that much joy.  But I think that this year, more than any of the years before, part of her will know that she IS here. I wrote recently about wanting my son to have faith in a higher a power.  A big part of that desire comes from watching my wife struggle with her beliefs. My wife is a skeptic at heart and a large part of her has believed that when her mom passed she simply ceased to be. And that is terrifying for her. But in the last year Shirley has been with us and even my hardened skeptic is starting to believe in her presence in our life.

It began just days after the pregnancy was confirmed. Not entirely recovered from our last positive test that ended in an early miscarriage, we were nervous. We weren’t people who prayed and it seemed selfish to pray at that moment. Like when your computer breaks and you feel like you can’t call your computer-genius friend because the last time you called him was the last time your computer broke. Asking God for help felt like that. But it seemed OK to ask Shirley for help. So we did. I put a ring she had owned on and kept it there for the whole first trimester. Tracy asked her mom to keep our little one safe and, always needing proof, asked for a sign that she could hear us. As the signs of another possible miscarriage started to show I felt the urge to cocoon inside. I wanted to rest and be still. But that isn't possible when you have work and other commitments to keep. And then one day I was leaving for work and took a bad fall down icy steps. I ended up flat on my back in bed for weeks and Tracy joked that Shirley had pushed me down the stairs to get me to rest. Her doubt was cracking but she needed more. 

Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. The pregnancy progressed and we managed to keep him growing. We had a few scares along the way but by the third trimester we were confident that our son would make it into our world. As my belly grew larger and larger it was soon time for our baby shower. We were very much looking forward to a day of celebration with the women in our lives. But the absence of one woman during this process was felt deeply. That morning we woke early to shower and prepare for the day. Tracy was emotionally fragile. That strange combination of gratitude, happiness, grief and disappointment was settling into her heart and showing on her face.

Before I tell you this next part there’s something you need to know about Shirley. She was funny and quirky. She could make anyone smile and laugh (even if it was at her own expense). She loved life. And she always signed her name with bubble letters and a smiley face. Always. Her husband even had a smiley face engraved on her tombstone. Which sounds a bit strange but if you knew Shirley you’d get it.

The morning of the baby shower we had some time to kill so we headed out to a few garage sales. You should also know that Shirley LOVED garage sales. We stopped dead in our tracks at the first one when we saw a table FULL (literally full, I wish I had taken a picture) of yellow happy face memorabilia. There were mugs, playing cards, salt and pepper shakers, plates, toys, t-shirts… well, you get the point. I watched as the tears welled up in my wife’s eyes and let a few slide down my own cheek too. Shirley was saying hello and letting her daughter know that she was with her on that day. We bought one of the mugs for fifty cents and moved on to the next garage sale. Always one to believe in coincidences first, my wife felt some comfort but wasn’t entirely convinced. But Shirley knows her daughter and she had a few tricks up her sleeve. We went to three more garage sales and at there was something with a happy face on it. She was leaving no room for doubt.

The garage sale mug next to a picture of a younger Shirley 

Since Mac’s birth the smiley faces have kept coming. When we returned home from the hospital there was a flower arrangement waiting on our table. The flowers were held in a smiley face mug and the card was signed from my parents and Shirley. My mom had an urge to buy us flowers even though she is usually one for more practical gifts. When she spotted the happy face arrangement in the store she understood why - Shirley wanted to acknowledge her grandson's arrival as well.

On the day that we brought all six of Mac’s grandparents together Shirley’s absence was felt again. And then after we left dinner we stopped by a friend’s fiftieth birthday party (practically in time to help them clean up). As we were taking down decorations her friend handed her one of the party balloons to take home. Of course, the balloon was a yellow smiley face. Hi Shirley! 

And finally,this Christmas, as I was looking in a holiday shop for a Baby’s First Christmas ornament I instead found this:

When Tracy opened it there were tears in her eyes. She knew her mom was there watching our son enjoy his first Christmas.  Without fail, on the days that we have really missed her, and on the days that we have felt the loss of her from our son’s life, she has let us know that she is never far. She screams it: I am here! I am here! I love you! And then this week I was at a friend's house, thinking about this blog post and wondering if I should even tell this story about the smiley faces, when I looked down to see a chewed up dog toy that I had probably seen a thousand times before. But I had never before noticed that on each end of the leather bone was a yellow smiley face. OK Shirley! I hear you! I’ll write about you!

So I think that in some ways this January will be easier. First, there is this miraculous addition to our lives:

But, I also think that my wife is ready to admit that although her mom is no longer with us she is absolutely with us. Mac may never get to meet his Nanny but he will know her. We will tell him about her silly antics, the way she danced in the kitchen, the way she loved her husband and her children, the support she gave his moms and how fiercely she loves him from Heaven. And if he ever doubts that love he will just need to look for the smiley faces that she is sure to leave in his path. 

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  1. Loved this beautiful tribute. Thank you for writing it.

  2. Today of all days I really needed to read that. As our EDD approaches at the end of Feb I know I'll still have to get through my grandmothers birthday at the beginning of the month. This year especially I am feeling the loss since she won't be here for our shower or the birth or really get to know this baby. Her whole life was devoted to family and it's a milestone I'm struggling with. Thanks for reminding me that there are others who are struggling with the loss of a loved one while watching their families grow.

  3. Thank-you very much Julie!

    Sodayah I am sorry to hear of your loss. It's strange how the happiest occasions can also become the saddest when someone you love is missing.

  4. I lost my dad to cancer three and a half years ago and, while I don't consider myself a traditionally spiritual person, I know he is here with me, too. I have given up being a cynic and even talk to him sometimes. I am so pleased that Shirley is making her presence known in your lives.

    I hope your wife is able to acknowledge the day with more love than loss. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. I am so sorry for your loss Kario. And thank-you - she is certainly trying to.

  5. That is a beautiful story! I believe that the people we have lost are still with us. My dad passed away 5 1/2 years ago. He was a smoker. Every once in awhile, I smell cigarette smoke in our home. Since neither my husband nor I smoke, I know that it must be my dad. My sister also has the same experience. I hope that your wife finds comforts in these signs on the anniversary date.

  6. Thank-you Mel S. I hope your signs give you comfort as well!

  7. Seriously bawling over here!

  8. What a beautiful and heartfelt tribute!

  9. Love you Kris! My sympathies to you and Tracy. Ox.

  10. I know the title should have tipped me off, plus the fact that you're such a good writer, but still mujer- a hanky alert next time ok??? Yes, loved ones are always around, it's us who don't see them unless we want to. BB2U


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