Goodbye Dad

This week I said goodbye to my father. Too soon.

Diagnosed with ALS just 18 months ago, he lived the end of his life with amazing grace, but the last few months were truly terrible. As he lost his ability to move and ultimately to communicate, each goodbye grew more painful. The man I knew as my dad became lost. He wouldn’t – doesn’t—want me to wallow in sadness, and yet I need to honor that time in the journey.

I am, in fact, not sure of what I want to say, or how to say what I feel today, the day we laid him to rest. My thoughts are a jumble of euphemisms – he fought the good fight; he showed courage under fire; he was at peace; he’s in a better place.

As I’ve greeted friends, family and strangers offering condolences this week, I’ve nodded and agreed with heartfelt variations of all of the above. My dad touched so many lives in unique and meaningful ways. I love that people wanted to share their experiences with me. And I love that he was loved by so many people. I will always be grateful for the way that people gave a piece of my dad back to me through their stories, their prayers, their hugs, and just their presence in my life.

This entire experience, diagnosis through death, has left me amazed.

My dad amazed me. For all of his many amazing attributes, my father was never a patient man. But, as ALS stole the abilities to walk, to move, to eat and to drink, he remained calm, unhurried. He found a peace within himself that I had never witnessed. (He would doubtless tell me that it was the spirit of the Lord holding him still, holding him up.) He sincerely found each day a blessing.

His wife Jane amazes me. Married to my dad for 27 years, Jane has been the model of courage and conviction. She honored my father’s wishes to the very end, taking on the responsibility for his care so he could stay in his home. She opened her doors to friends and family at any hour and gave everything she had to make his world better. I’ve come to know her so much better through this experience and am so proud to have her as a stepmother and as my friend.

My brother amazes me. My “little” brother stood taller than his 6’2” in the face of ALS. He never turned his back, or shied away from any need my father had – physical, emotional or otherwise. My dad trusted him more than anyone other than Jane and he more than lived up to that trust. The way he stepped in, and stepped up, constantly inspired me. I’ve always seen the boy in my brother. I now recognize the man and I could not be more proud to call myself his sister.

My dad’s parish family amazes me. At St. Thomas of Villanova, my father found his passion. I told many people this week that he found more joy and fulfillment in his few years of volunteering there than he did in the 30 years of his “career.” His parish was a true gift in his final years, a period I will always think of as the happiest time in his life. They surrounded our family with love and prayer and faith. They took care of little details and kept us fed and transported people and pictures and flowers. They are the definition of community.  What would this have been had we not been carried along by Father Tom and Connie and Leo and all of the STV family?

We took this journey together and, although I come out on the other side saddened, my life will be better for the people I’ve come to know and for the true love I witnessed.

High school graduation

 

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Monday Quote: Resilience

The heart is a very, very resilient little muscle. It really is.”
Woody Allen, Hannah and Her Sisters

I’m a worrier. I’ve covered this ground on my blog before, but I’m specifically talking about the way I worry over my sons. I worry about their skin and bones. I worry about the way the “world” forces its way into their minds. But, mostly, I worry about their hearts. I want to prevent that little muscle from breaking more than anything.

When my boys were babies and toddlers, I was repeatedly advised to not worry so much.

“You’d be surprised at how babies bounce.” (Yes, someone said that to me.)

“They don’t break easily.”

“Little boys are tough.”

“He’ll get over it faster than you will.”

I heard all of this and more, but still, I worry about their precious little hearts. Last week I tried to prepare by 10 year-old’s psyche for the sure-to-be-disappointing baseball tournament – our first ever. I had been warned by other parents that our team couldn’t really compete with the other travel teams in the league. Our city had, in fact, lost by a score of 32-3 last year.

But how do you tell a little boy, chosen for this All Star team for the very first time that he wouldn’t emerge victorious? Wouldn’t it be worse to crush his hope than to deal with disappointment? Every night for three weeks, we dropped him off for two hours of practice in the hot sun. He never complained about the heat, or the commitment. He donned all the catching equipment every day and soaked up his coaches’ praise like a sponge. In fact, he blossomed.

We made the 45-minute trip to the tournament site with a supremely confident player. It only took a ½ inning for all that bravado to disintegrate, as his team struggled to keep up. Plays that had come easily during the regular season now appeared impossible. I watched with my heart in my throat as my sweet boy tried to keep tears at bay returning to his dugout. The strong hitting he had shown all summer evaporated in the face of new pitchers.

Although his team rallied in the second inning, they lost via the “mercy” rule, down by 10 runs in the fourth. (By the way – I’m not sure the word “mercy” is any less cruel than “slaughter rule” when it comes to 10 year-old boys.)

As I feared, he took responsibility for the loss upon his own slim shoulders, blaming himself for every missed out and missed swing. His coach called it…telling him that he had the biggest heart of any player. That big heart was broken and there was nothing I could do but reinforce his coach’s message that they win and lose as a team, always.

Night two was more of the same. I secretly hoped that his coach would pull him out and let someone else catch just to relieve that sense of responsibility. But, he played every inning, just as he had practiced. Less than 2 hours later, the umpire invoked the “mercy” rule. His team was finished. Double elimination. Double heartbreak.

Shoulders sagging, tears brimming, he made his way to the car. I tried to stay positive. My husband and I told him we were proud of his play, his attitude, his poise. He stared out the window for about the half the ride and then, visibly, shed his disappointment.

I saw his posture change, his face brighten. “Well, at least I don’t have to go to practice every night anymore. And I get to keep my jersey and my hat. Isn’t that cool Mom?”

Worry not, Mom. Resilience comes naturally to little hearts.

Monday Quote: Fatherhood

I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.”
Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

I have never read Umberto Eco, but I love the “scraps of wisdom” image.

My relationship with my father has not been easy. We wasted too many years trying to make the other fit into some idealized image we held of “father” and “daughter.” Since he wasn’t an everyday presence in my childhood, I didn’t know where to fit him in my life. It never occurred to me that he probably didn’t know the best way to fit in either. I believed he should just accept and adore me on my own terms, flaws and all; but I was completely unwilling to return that favor.

Only as an adult have I come to understand that parents don’t have all the answers. We make mistakes all the time and need our children’s forgiveness and compassion as often as we give it. So, my relationship with my dad still has complications, but we meet each other head on, on the terms we make up as we go, with acceptance and compassion for each other.

And I treasure the odd moments and scraps of wisdom.

I have always understood that you just have to get up and go to work every day. My dad worked for the phone company from the time he was young enough to climb poles and repair lines until well after I was married and he was managing & training large groups of employees. The business name changed from Illinois Bell to AT&T to Ameritech, but my father remained consistent. It’s a lesson I took to heart.

I will always know my dad’s pride in me, which is caught with two snapshots in my mind. The first when I was 10 or 11 years old, performing in my first lead role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. My dad had broken his finger playing softball, but at the end of the show as I looked out at the audience, he was the one person I saw, clapping ecstatically, finger splint and all. The second snapshot is from my wedding day. As I came out of my room ready for church, my dad dropped to his knees and began crying tears of joy. He held my face in his hands and told me I was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.

I have also had the great fortune to belong to a family with intense loyalty. There is nothing my dad wouldn’t do for his brothers and sisters. Our Murguia clan was geographically and emotionally close during my formative years, which gave me a very liberating sense of security. Knowing that someone has your back, always and no matter what, grants you the courage to take risks.

As the mother of sons I am grateful for the little bit I know about fishing. I can bait a hook, thread a bobber and get a fish of a line. Thanks Dad.

These days, my dad is teaching me a lot about grace and faith as he struggles with ALS. I wish that the circumstances could be otherwise, but I admire how has handled this journey from the moment of diagnosis through each step leading up to his decision to turn to hospice care. I know he and his wife have found courage in faith and trust in grace. Those are never easy lessons to learn, and certainly not ones you want to have to teach. But I am grateful all the same.

Happy Father’s Day Dad.

Monday Quote: Motherhood

“(24/7) once you sign on to be a mother, that’s the only shift they offer.”
Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper

I think of this work shift as I attempt to balance a professional life, marriage, friendships and, of course, reading & writing, into my world of motherhood. Yesterday was a lovely day as I felt very keenly the love of my mother, the love of my sons and ultimately the love of my wild, funny, terrific set of extended family and friends.

I am so blessed to be raising sons among people who truly value my role as mother. They love me, cherish me and lift me up on occasion. Even with all those gifts, motherhood is hard work. It never stops. I am “Mom” wherever I am. That title does not disappear when I am at work, out with friends or at book club. The responsibilities of motherhood do not disappear when we change location or have room service.

But when I start to feel overwhelmed by the “never-endingness” of this job I took almost 12 years ago, I remember also that their love is endless. I will forever be adored in a way that has no equal.

My sons may not behave perfectly, but they love me 24/7. That is payment beyond measure.

A Rescue at Sea

A life preserver, or toroidal throwable person...

A life preserver, or toroidal throwable personal flotation device. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week I had the pleasure of reconnecting with some very special people. When I got Suzanne’s e-mail suggesting that our old playgroup get together for lunch, it hit me. It’s been 10 years since this particular group of women rescued me from the choppy waters of baby life.

Don’t get me wrong — I was treading water fine. Two boys under 17 months. Working from home about 10 hours a week. Still tenuously connected to my theatre company. Plenty of support from my husband and our families. But I knew I was being pulled out to sea. I was losing hold on the life I thought I knew. Who was this new person? I couldn’t focus on anything but keeping these little boys alive and happy.

I faithfully attended Mommy & Me classes just like I had with my oldest son, but this time with a toddler in tow. It was all more complicated, harder. Those days, I felt like a piranha – the only woman I knew with kids so close together. People either assumed they were twins (proof that people see what they want to see) or stared at me, mouths agape, wondering why I would choose to have sons so close in age.

When the gorgeous and exotic Ana invited us all to her house for lunch after the last class, I was thrilled to be included. We laid our babies in a circle, ate lunch, took pictures, traded stories and asked questions. Most importantly, Suzanne gathered all our e-mails. It was the start of something very special.

Without any formal structure, we launched a playgroup. Suzanne merged the names and e-mails from the moms in a couple of her classes and once a week, we each took a turn hosting the gathering of moms and kids — different times, different places, different formats – but the same core group anchoring me.

Within that community, I knew I would find sympathy, advice, laughter and perspective.  Far from feeling awkward, my playgroup friends accepted my two kids without question. In fact, they boosted my confidence often as they turned to me as a mom who “had been through it once already.”

This is a sculpture in Rosses Point, County Sl...

This is a sculpture in Rosses Point, County Sligo Ireland, for people lost at sea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I still marvel at this group’s random beginning. We are all so different. We lived in four different towns. Some worked outside the home. Some were home for the first time. We are the parents of boys and girls. We live in houses large and small. Our children are biological and adopted, single and multiple. We are black, white, Hispanic and Asian, Christian and Jewish. We spoke to the kids in a variety of languages, accents and dialects.

Motherhood trumps all of these distinctions. Sleeplessness knows no ethnicity. Food allergies have no religion. And first steps are marvelous in any size house. Over time, the moms were the ones in a circle as our babies first crawled, and eventually ran, around us. But we still ate, took pictures, traded stories and asked questions. We buoyed each other in rough times. We celebrated each other’s triumphs and we marked milestones together.

And, inevitably, we drifted apart. Kids started preschool. We had more babies. Schedules no longer permitted us to gather during the day. Instead, we transitioned into a monthly “Moms Night Out” group, which was fun in a whole new way. But that too eventually melted away.

Only 7 of us were able to make the lunchtime reunion, at which we ate, traded stories and asked questions (no pictures though). Once again, our common bond overshadowed our many differences. Once again, we shared our triumphs and challenges. These same women threw me a life-preserver as I talked about my trepidation at the “next phase.”

I will carry all of these friends in my heart no matter if I see them weekly, monthly, or once every few years. I thank them for the many rescues. I treasure our shared journey.