Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Reflections on the Gifts of Love

Before this past weekend,  I would never have believed that a pair of funerals in a three-day span could be inspiring and beautiful.  Dark clothing, tears, sadness, mournful eulogies.... isn't that what we all think of when we hear the word "funeral"?  I had thought that burying a parent would be one of the hardest things to do in the world.  I never would have believed that burying two parents in one weekend could be so much the opposite.

Don't get me wrong.  There were tears and there was sadness.  But there was also something almost impossible to describe that was almost like a sense of renewal.   I was so incredibly moved when over 30 of my fellow singers appeared as if by magic in the choir loft of my church.  My fellow mourners and I were treated to the sounds of angels from above and their presence touched my heart in a way that  everyone should experience at least once in their lives.   I discovered that my best friend and my husband had craftily organized this behind my back, and I wonder if "gratitude" could possibly do justice to my feelings during and after that Mass.  I was so amused to hear my BFF and my hubby repeatedly referring to each other as "my Hero", and even now as I type this, I feel like the luckiest person in the world.

Two days later, I was the cantor at my father-in-law's funeral.  I had been practicing religiously for a week (which is about six days more than I usually practice in order to cantor at your basic weekend Mass).  My mother-in-law had been having a difficult time since returning to the area from Florida.  Likewise, my husband was also struggling, although he never showed it outwardly.  I  coddled my voice, drank tea (bleck!), and tried mightily to pamper my persnickety sinuses which occasionally sabotaged my vocal efforts.  My efforts were rewarded, thank you God, and I was so happy to provide some sort of solace to my family members in a way that perhaps nobody else could.  It's hard to explain how a vocal performance could be so difficult yet so easy at the same time.  How often does a vocalist know with total certainty that the sound he or she is making is ...... just perfect.

In the aftermath, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm and happiness.  This was so unexpected, and I just could not figure out why I felt this way after the funerals of two parents.  Finally last night, Bill said something to me that made it crystal clear.  He said "I have to apologize to you.  The music at my Dad's funeral was so much better than the music at your Mom's funeral."  Huh?  I thought that my ears were playing tricks on me, and I pretty much told him that he was delusional.  Nope.   He repeated himself again a couple of hours later.   Yes, indeed, in both of our minds, the music at our parent's funeral was absolutely perfect, not only because it was beautiful but because it represented our love for each other and the love of good friends.

I really am lucky.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Regrets and New Beginnings

On the eve of my Mom's funeral,  I am finding myself with a lot of time to think.  I'm not necessarily convinced that this is a good thing.   Mostly now I find myself thinking about Wednesday night.  After we met with Father Mike to finalize the funeral plans, I headed over to my brother's house.  We had my Mom's urn and and an electric engraving pen.   The plan was that each of us would engrave a message to Mom on the urn.

I was having trouble coming up with something to say.   What element of my relationship with my Mom was the most meaningful and enduring?  Then I remembered something that my very good friend had said to me, not too long ago.  So, I wrote this on the urn:   "Dear Mom,  Thank you for gifting me with your independent spirit.  Love, Tina."

Looking back over my life and my relationship with her,  I feel as though I was raised to be in the periphery of my family, and when I reached adulthood, it was very difficult for me to be honest with my mother about how I felt about that.  "I love you" were three words that were not easy for any of us to say over the years.  Looking back, we were busy raising our own families, but we always made time for Mom.   The question I have for myself now is  - is it enough to "make time" as though it were some terrible chore?  Shouldn't I have willingly wanted to spend time with her?  Was I an unappreciative, ungrateful child, or was I the product of my upbringing?  Am I the prototypical selfish American child?

During the last 10 years of her life, my mother lost all of her filters and it felt to me as though every critical thought that she had been harboring during my adult life came tumbling out of her mouth unchecked.   My weight, Mandy's weight, Bill's temper and his sloppy work habits, and increasingly, Dick and I spending way too much time on things and causes other than her.  My lack of domestic skills were one of her favorite targets.  If I am going to be totally honest, she was always outspoken, but  her final years were over the top, and it is extremely difficult to remember her being any other way.  I wonder now if that was unfair to her.    And the answer to that question is that I just don't know.  I have told my daughter repeatedly not to hesitate to tell me when I start sounding like my Mom.   The truth is that if I were to start acting like her, I would not blame my daughter for just "making time for me".

Dick's words on the urn?... "Thank you for the unconditional acceptance."   I had an idea of what their relationship had been like when my parents first married, but seeing and hearing these words felt like someone bludgeoned me with a club.  Sally echoed his sentiments (because she, too, received unconditional acceptance from my parents), but all I could do was sit there with my mouth open.  I wanted so badly to be able to echo his feelings, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it.  After an awkward silence, he said "of course, my circumstances were different than yours".  All I could say was that she had high standards and that I think I lived up to most of them.

The fact is that I did get my independent spirit from my Mom.  I didn't use it in the same way that she did - most of the time I completely stifled it - and that was probably at the root of her many disappointments with me.   By the time that I even knew that I had this spirit,  I think it was too late for us and our relationship.  The question becomes - where do I go from here?  What do I do with it now and for the rest of my life?  

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Meaning of Life and Death

Today I attended a memorial service at the DeGraff Skilled Nursing facility.  It is an annual service for families of residents who have passed away in the previous 12 months.  It was short, it was simple, but in many ways, it was profound.

There was a choir comprised of a little group of 8 residents of the facility.   They were fairly beaming as they sang, and their director informed us that they had been practicing since January.  There was something life-affirming about the music that they made,  something beautiful in the rudimentary sounds.

The pastor focused on Jesus's words "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."   His message was simply that we are the fruit of our deceased loved ones and that it is the natural process of life that we must eventually die and that our "fruit" will continue to flourish and grow - perhaps even more so - when we have passed on.

The service concluded with a release of balloons - a loved one released a balloon for each one of the deceased.  As I watched the baby blue (her favorite color) balloon rise to the clouds above, I could hear her voice in my ear, telling me that she was ok.  I think she would tell me honestly that she did want a few tears shed for her.  I think she would believe that she had earned at least a few.  Frank honesty was her trademark.  But then she would tell me that more than a few tears would just be a waste, and "isn't there something more useful I could be doing?"  

My mother wasted a lot of the final years of her life dwelling on dramas in our family that she had no control over.   I feel a certain amount of guilt in the realization that I was probably her main enabler, and once I realized this, it was pretty much too late to get her to focus on anything else, try as I did.  All I can do is to learn from this and realize that I have a lot of years ahead of me to spend without her, so it would be best if this fruit continues to grow and "ripen" - I would like to be the fruit that people buy at the roadside stands rather than the rejects that end up being fed to the farm animals - I know that my Mom was an animal lover, but there's a limit...  


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Blank Slate

This page sits before me.... white and blank.  I fully intended to write something profound, something deep and meaningful, but instead I sit here wondering.   Wondering.   Wondering.......

..... why I was unlucky enough to be born into a family that already had its quota of children, but lucky enough to have a brother who looked the other way when I snuck into his bedroom and listened to his Beatles and Herman's Hermits and Dave Clark Five albums.

.....why I was unlucky enough to have parents who were so absolutely the stereotypical definition of "white bread" who chose to raise me in a white-bread, Catholic, small-minded small town, yet I was lucky enough to discover my Dad's cassette tape of the soundtrack to the all black cast of Hello Dolly which I believe to this day to be the absolute best cast recording of that show....  and that somehow growing up in this environment had the opposite effect on me than what you might expect....  in that I will rarely meet someone for the first time and be able to guess that person's race or religion -nor will I have any desire to do so.  I was so underexposed that I was just blind to it all.....  I guess.

.....why I was unlucky enough to have parents who didn't give a rat's petuty where I went to college, as long as I went to college and learned something that I could use to earn a living and get out of the house, but I was lucky enough to go to NCCC where I met a girl who was a total nut job who years later introduced me to the man I married.

.....why I was unlucky enough to not pursue music in any way, shape or form in college or early in my adult life, but I was lucky enough to know my musical shortcomings and practice like hell to pass an audition for BCAS.  I am fairly certain that, given my genetic makeup, had I continued with clarinet and piano and voice at an early age, I would have become some musical savant and probably would have  been very full of myself and would have considered myself far too superior for the likes of a community chorus.

.....why I was unlucky enough to have parents who were more concerned with what I wore to grade school than they were with where I attended grade school - or junior high or high school.   The Tonawanda schools were hardly a challenge , and as a result, I never had the need to develop any sort of useful study skills.  Hmmm ...  now, I'm not sure what the corollary is to this one.  Ok....  I've got it!  I'm lucky that in my adult life, my lack of preparation and study skills forced me to get really good at pulling my ass out of the proverbial fire.  Oh, and not to mention, my solemn vow that my child would never be in an unchallenging academic environment.  Just ask her some time -  if or when the topic of "unlucky" should arise.

.....why I was unlucky enough to land back in Tonawanda to raise my own child, but I was lucky enough to have a mortgage payment that is the equivalent of the heating bill in some of the mansions in Williamsville or Clarence.

.....why I was unlucky enough to inherit my Dad's cholesterol and blood pressure problems, but lucky enough to inherit his sense of humor to see me through it all.

.....why I was unlucky enough to marry into a family of codependents, enablers, bi-polar personalities and alcoholics, but lucky enough to still be a member of that family today..... because I have learned over the years what to say to them and what not to say to them.  What they are capable of and what they are incapable of.   That they will curse each other over and over, but then they will circle the wagons like nothing you've ever seen if someone is perceived as having threatened one of them.  That they would rather self-destruct than confront.  I knew nothing of this type of family and I had to learn slowly and sometimes painfully over the course of many years.  I am lucky, because I can use what I have learned to offer help to others who also find themselves suddenly thrust into this unfamiliar territory.

One man's trash is another man's treasure.

What really is the definition of luck anyway?

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Reflection on Mother's Day

One year ago, we took my Mom to Mother's Day Brunch at the Holiday Inn on Grand Island.   Buffets were always an awkward affair because of her walker.   She had degenerated to the point where I thought we could just store the walker and bring her a plate of food.  After all, I was her daughter.  I knew what she liked to eat ......  right?  When she was told this, she became very angry and announced that she wasn't hungry.  I guess having her food brought to her was unacceptable, even as we thought we were doing her a favor.  But no ... if she couldn't walk around the very large room and see everything, she was not going to eat.  Period.  So, I dragged out the walker and off we went - Mom, walker and me following behind with her plate.  Her mood changed instantly.  In the last five years of her life, she was increasingly only happy if one of us was waiting on her hand and foot -and sometimes, even that didn't make her happy.  Never mind that I was spending my first Mother's day without my daughter.  My daughter .....  there could not be a bigger contrast in mother-daughter relationships that that of my Mom, me, and Amanda ....

As I prepare to celebrate my first Mother's Day without my Mom, I feel that sense of something missing.  Obviously she is missing, but it's more than that.  She loved to go out to eat in a really fine restaurant - something I clearly inherited from her - and she loved to be given flowers that she could plant -something that I clearly did not inherit from her.  We indulged her with both of these loves every year, and it just feels odd to be choosing not two mothers day cards and two plants for her and for my mother in law, but only one card and one plant.  It's just a strange, weird feeling.  I'm also wrestling with feelings of guilt.  Guilt, because of the sense of relief and freedom that has invaded me.

So many people are posting the sentimental poems on Facebook about their mothers in heaven.  I could rarely bring myself to buy her a rose-covered sentimental card each year and usually resorted to the witty, comical variety.   Because my Mom was not the rose-colored, sentimental type.  When I was a child, she fulfilled her duties as a parent because I'm sure she felt that she had no other choice.  But there was never the "I loves you's", never the mother-daughter talks and I don't remember feeling deprived as a child or as a teen.  It wasn't until I reached adulthood that I felt as though I was missing out on something.  I would imagine that I was and maybe still am a textbook case of the person who resorts to blaming parents and childhood for her woes of adulthood.  The facts as I see them are this:  I could never go to her for advice because I felt that she would find a way to interpret it all as a failure on my part.  It was all wrong in her eyes:  my weight, my clothes, my parenting style, Bill and his family.  She loved to constantly tell people that none of my Dad's children had inherited his musical talent (it was only a few years ago that she stopped doing this).    As she made her way through the final decade of her life, she expanded the circle of people she enjoyed critiquing even as her involvement in the world around her shrank proportionately.  

So why am I going on about this?  Probably to make myself feel better about the fact that I have very little desire to celebrate her tomorrow in any different way than I did when she was alive.  I would be in denial if I said that there wasn't the feeling of a hole.  She really did enjoy the day (and the flower and the restaurant).  I will choose to celebrate Mother's day as the mother of an amazing daughter and as the daughter-in-law of a woman who is hopefully embarking on a chapter in her life that will be light and free.    And I will celebrate all of the other amazing Mothers who are a part of my life.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Bittersweet Day

Today my chorus experienced what could arguably be the highlight of its history.  This was a concert that was more that the sum of its considerable parts.  Very popular medleys, choral excellent, solo performances to die for and a sold out theatre.  All of this was topped off by a very successful VIP reception and a celebratory post-concert party.

Why then, am I feeling like a giant piece of crap?

Just when I feel as though the self-centered, thoughtless bitch has vacated my body, she comes back in full force.  Having stated the considerable highlights of today, let us examine the low points:

 - the day started out by me finding out that my husband and mother in law attended an event in Alden where a special tribute ceremony was held for my father in law.  She thought I knew all of the facts.  I knew nothing except that he wasn't home when I got home and when he rolled in,  he told me in a vague and casual way where he had been.  I might have gone with them, might not have.  It would've been nice to have the choice.  But since I've been reminded occasionally that "it's not my family", I guess I should not have been surprised.

 - I arrived at the concert warm up site, and within 10 minutes, I was being ranted at by the ticket chair about some plan to resell tickets whose holders have not shown up.  Not anything close to being my responsibility.  I am always willing to be a shoulder to someone, but it is another thing entirely to be accusatory, as if I were plotting and planning against said person.

- concert goes swimmingly, as previously described.  However, after battling my way up to the Loge, my husband is nowhere to be found and none of the punch is mixed  -which, I thought he was going to do, as he did last year.  No answer to my text or voice mail, as I hurriedly try to get the stuff mixed as thirsty VIPs descend upon us.  He finally showed up 25 minutes later with a valid reason for his absence.  Fine, but once again, the art of communication has been apparently lost on us.

 - I arrive at the party and manage to procure drinks before I am set upon again by said ticket committee chair who threw a temper tantrum because "nobody saved chairs for them at their table and they have to sit all alone."  Here comes that bitchy witch rising up inside of me.  If I had a dollar for every time this has happened to me at past soirees, I'd be retired and sitting on a yacht.  The difference is that when it happens to me, I generally just sit down and suck it up.  In this case, bad behavior is rewarded and I (and others) are just left wondering what just happened.  They are all talking at me trying to make heads or tails of it. and I might add that I was also ranted at by the same person because there was no high chair or bumper seat waiting for them with a bow and ribbon on it as befits their status.  No thanks came my way - I might add - after I managed to commandeer a member of the staff to find a bumper seat.  All this as a strange woman taps me on the shoulder and asks me when the food is being served "because they've been here since 5:15 and they're starving."  Well, what chorus member sent this woman over to me?  Some idiot who can't read e-mails and absorb them enough to tell their guests that the party starts at 6:00 (not 5:15) and the food is to be served at 6:30.  Icing on the cake - a member who approached me to attempt to crash the party.

I needed to talk to someone about how I suddenly and most unexpectedly missed my Mom during this concert.  It took me by surprise and left me feeling confused.  But no such luck, and here I am blogging away desperately trying to regain my composure but all I can think is that I can't put a foot right.  I used to be self-centered and inconsiderate and all it got me was loneliness and self-hatred.   Others are rewarded for temper tantrums.   Maybe I am being punished because this witchy bitch is still lurking inside me and still comes out, sometimes at the most inopportune times.  Maybe I'm not really being punished at all but am just indulging myself in yet another pity party.

So, anyway, I beg the pardon of anyone who thinks that I should be joyful and ecstatic at the end of this day.   I guess the kinds of things that make me joyful and ecstatic are a bit more complicated than a sellout crowd and a fine performance.