Late to the Party

I am a librarian. I’ve been a librarian for nearly 23 years, with over 14 of those years at the Pittsfield Public Library. This library was one of the libraries I used as a kid (although I didn’t like it then). It’s close to where I grew up and it’s my second home–as it is to many people in the community. I used to be the Circulation Librarian, until a year ago when I was hired to become the director. It wasn’t a job I always wanted, but it’s a job I have become to love more than I thought possible.

On March 16th we had to close our doors to the public due to the health and safety concerns of COVID-19. Some of my staff and I cried that day because it was surreal and sad and our patrons are the lifeblood of the library. It’s not the building nor the books or films or programs. It’s the people. For a while we were still able to leave books for people in a secure location where we never saw each other (except by camera), then we did that by appointment only, and then we stopped it completely. Now tomorrow, April Fools’ Day no less, will be the last day the staff and I can go into the building. We will still be answering emails and conducting online programming and we’ll still be able to “see” and assist some of our patrons. But not all of them. So many of these folks we won’t be able to help again until we can re-open.

I’ve read a lot about grief over the past 3 years, and even in the past 2 weeks the articles about grieving what our normal once was. But I didn’t grieve quite as much because I was still going to the building where I worked. I couldn’t help as many people, but there was still a smidge of normalcy there. But tonight? Tonight I feel like I felt the evening before I went to say goodbye to my brother. Or that morning at 2am when I called my sister to tell her to come to the hospital because our father was dying. Or the morning when I was at work and the nurse called to say Mom was actively dying. Strangely enough, this really does feel like all of those awful moments. Those moments when you know your life is forever changed.

I know we’ll come out the other side. I am confident of that. What I don’t know is who will be there with us. Or who will be there with you.

But we’re here now, right? Let’s try to keep moving forward together. Reach out to those you think about, even if they just cross your mind. Those little moments of acknowledgement matter.

You matter.

So let’s be alone together. Just know that when this is over, I may be hugging you a whole heck of a lot.

This Sucks

For just a moment, I want to take a break from COVID-19 and tell you what my life has been like since my last blog post. If we’re friends on Facebook, more than likely you know much of this story.

On Groundhog Day, I took my husband to the ER where he was diagnosed with pneumonia and Influenza A. By the next night, Monday night, he could no longer breathe on his own. He didn’t want to have a breathing tube put in and put on a ventilator (he’s severely claustrophobic) but his only other choice was to die. I sat with him, holding his hand, and he said to me, “It’s so hard to breathe. I can’t do this much longer.” As scared as he was, I was afraid he would choose to die. But at only 52, and having me and our 12-year-old boy, there was too much life to live still. So he chose to live.

The next 2 weeks were hell. Once they intubated my husband, they nearly lost him several times that night. As the doctor said, “We gave him all our ‘Hail Marys’ at the beginning.” That was the only way to keep him alive. I spent much of that Wednesday in the hospital, holding his hand and crying. He was in a medically induced coma at this time. My son and I went to get tested that day and surprise! I had the flu, too. (My son got it the next week.) I was no longer allowed to visit my husband in the ICU until the following Tuesday. I was so angry at the universe and I sobbed and I just couldn’t believe all of this was happening.

Then each day his numbers got a little better. By that Saturday, they thought they might be able to take the tubes out and get him breathing on his own. But they couldn’t wake him up. They ended up doing a cat scan of his brain because he was just flailing and eyes rolling and he couldn’t respond in any way at all. Fortunately his brain was fine, he just couldn’t wake up.

The first day I was allowed to visit him, I stayed the entire day and played music to him and read and talked with him, held his hand, massaged his legs. I kissed him and got mad at him and loved him. It was a really long day. The next morning our son woke up crying. He just wanted to sleep and not go to school and not deal with this fucking nightmare anymore. And I completely understood, but explained we both had a job to do that day. He go to school, I go to work, Papa gets better. And you know what? That day my husband did wake up. Only for a moment, but enough to answer the nurse’s questions. (I called my boy’s school and the principal told him in person that his father had finally woken up. I truly love his school.)

Friday, Valentine’s Day, my husband’s breathing tube was removed and he was able to speak for the first time in 11 days. We had never gone more than two days without speaking to each other in nearly 25 years, so this was a pretty special day.

The next week and a half in the hospital was tough–he was really loopy for a few days and didn’t make much sense. But as he slowly started to get better, it was just difficult to see him so fragile and weak. He lost 40 pounds in four weeks, so his body was just ravaged. But then on February 24th, he finally came home. Those first 2 weeks home were a bit rough, too. He needed more help getting around than I realized and seeing my husband use a walker was really hard for all of us to see.

But now, three weeks later, he can walk for at least 3 minutes at a time with no assistance, can walk a flight of stairs, showers and dresses by himself–these are all huge accomplishments compared to last month. So he’s finally coming back to us.

And then COVID-19 happened. I know we’re all dealing with it–people are sick or dying, schools closed, some folks working from home, our area still in flux. My library is still open but that could change this week. My husband had planned to go to the store this week with our brother-in-law but I have told him he will no longer be allowed out except to the doctor’s office. He laughed out loud but then looked at my face. “Ok. I get it.” His immune system has been compromised and after the nightmare we just went through, I’m not losing the big lug now.

Oh, and did I tell you I have pancreatitis? I’m on Day 9 with no real food–water, jello, chicken broth and bullion and the occasional sip of Gatorade. I just need to keep out of the hospital because my husband still can’t drive and I need to be here. But my numbers are slowly getting better (my doctor is aware and I’m having blood drawn every few days to track this). The pound a day weight loss is nice but I am really freakin’ hungry. But if I can’t yet eat by Friday, the 2-week mark, then I may just have to go to the hospital. Here’s hoping I can beat this on my own!

So now for just a minute, I want to talk about COVID-19 and the effect it’s having on myself and my family. Besides being scared and desperately wanting to escape this dystopian novel, are you angry? I have been so, so angry at the whole situation. Not any person in particular–yes there were plenty of fuck-ups along the way but I’m not mad at a person. I am just feeling so battered and bruised and oh jesus what will happen next?!? We already cancelled our cruise with the help of doctor’s notes and a load of paperwork (I am so thankful for travel insurance and will never go without it again) and who the heck knows about our trip to Florida in April–yet I’m ok with that. If we can’t go, we’ll try again later.

I just want there to be a later. Right?

My family out to see Jim Gaffigan a few years ago.

That picture? That event? To be able to go to a large stadium or arena and listen to music or a comedian or see a play—that is what I want again. I am sure that someday we’ll be there, but I’m also sure our lives have changed forever. I know that after my husband’s hospitalization, my family’s life has changed forever. We have really enjoyed our time together since hubby has been home. He can still drive me crazy, but we no longer take each other for granted. And maybe this virus will do something similar. Maybe we’ll appreciate what we have a little bit more.

Or maybe we’ll go back to our old ways and be jerks to each other.

But I hope not. I hope we can get through this together–but 6 feet apart.

Stay healthy, y’all.

And then….

It’s 2020. The roaring twenties? A new year, a new decade, maybe even a new you? I used to love the beginning of the new year–a fresh start, a clean slate. Time to start eating better, exercising more, doing new things, achieving those goals I couldn’t get to last year, and becoming a new person.

Starting over used to really appeal to me. I used to love the thought that I could become a new person, someone I would like more and others would like me more, too. I really thought that losing weight would do that for me. So I did it. I lost over 85 pounds and kept it off for nearly a decade. As a matter of fact, 10 years ago yesterday I began running. I had already lost the weight I had intended, but now I wanted to challenge myself. And so I did. I became a runner. I became that crazy lady you saw at 5:30 on a winter morning with the head lamp running in the dark. I ran some road races but really just ran for me. Did I like this new person I had become? Sometimes. But not completely like I thought I would.

And then 2017 came along. I started to struggle with running because of injuries and motivation. And then my brother died and I didn’t want to live anymore. I didn’t know how to and I honestly didn’t really care to. But I did. I even tried to run some but often I’d start to sob in the middle of the runs or stop a half mile before home and drop to my knees because the darkness just overcame me and I couldn’t put one step in front of the other.

So I stopped. I started to care for both of my parents off and on and tried to parent my son the best I could and still be a wife that was semi-present at least and still work 40 hours a week. I stopped caring for myself or about myself. I was no longer moving forward but backward and if I was lucky, sideways.

Then my husband was laid off. Backwards I went. Then I got a new job directing the library I had loved for over 13 years. A few steps sideways and one forward.

Then my beautiful, hilarious, sweet dad died. Back and back and back…

Then my husband got a new job. A hop forward. Then I broke my arm so badly I needed a metal plate and 9 screws and 6 months later I still can’t completely move it. A step to the back.

And then my mom died. My loving, badass mom. Backwards I fell. Literally. (I passed out the evening of my mother’s service.)

And now we’re here. January 1st, 2020. Am I a new person? Well…yes. I’ve become a new person over and over and over in the past two and half years. Every time an “and then” occurred, I became a new person. Every one of these life-altering events made me into a new person. A different person. I don’t always like the new person I’ve become or am becoming, but that’s something I have to figure out. I don’t even know who I am most of the time, but that’s something else for me to discover and manage.

I do know that losing the 20 pounds I gained these past 2 1/2 years will not make me a new person or happier. Will I try and lose it? Of course! I need to be a healthy me and I need to fit in my clothes better because restrictive clothing makes me a very grumpy Holly and no one needs that. But will I try and lose it by going on a diet? No. I can’t be that person anymore. I’ll eat as best I can, but I’m hoping that running will help me lose some of it.

I hope I do not become that person I used to be that constantly posted my stats or photos of running because honestly? I hated those assholes for the past 2 1/2 years when I didn’t have it in me to run. Look, I know we all need to do it sometimes. We need that encouragement or pat on the back. I get it, I do! I’ve done it many times, too! But I’ve also been on the other side where I couldn’t run due to injury or grief and I felt like my friends were rubbing my nose in it. “Look what I can do and you can’t or won’t, you lazy bitch!” (Hey, I know you didn’t say it and probably didn’t even think it, but my mind just went there.)

So let’s make a deal. I’ll post this photo of the end of my run on Christmas Day.

Me in my dooryard at the end of my first 5K run in eons. This was a happy moment. Just before this run, I had been sitting in my living room sobbing and rocking myself while I thought about my family. There is so much photos don’t say.

This will be it for at least a week. Of course, I’ll probably be on the treadmill or in front of my tv for the next 2 months due to Maine weather, but whatever. Feel free to keep doing whatever you’re doing and posting what you’re posting. If I start being annoying with running posts, tell me to pipe down and give it a rest. I will probably oblige because I’ve been there.

Or I’ll tell you to fuck off because my pants are still too tight and I’m cranky. But I’ll still love you. That much I can promise.

Hail and Farewell

Today on CBS Sunday Morning, there was a long segment entitled “Hail and Farewell” featuring many famous people that died this past year. My husband and I watched in awe and sadness as many performers we knew as kids and teens were gone–the voice of Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird, Caroll Spinney; the voice of Minnie Mouse, Russi Taylor; musicians Eddie Money and Ric Ocasek (of The Cars); actors Peter Fonda and Diahann Carroll and for us, the absolutely incredible and lovable Peter Mayhew who played Chewbacca in the Star Wars films.

But as the photos passed by on the screen and the narrator talked about these people and their amazing accomplishments, I could only think of the two people that passed away this year that had the most influence on my life.

A rare photo of my parents together and smiling.

My parents may have not influenced a world with their charm or musical ability, but they influenced a generation–their children. My father’s sense of humor and ability to laugh at nearly everything (“You can either laugh or cry, but laughing feels better”) was passed down to the three of us kids, but with my brother embracing that philosophy more than my sister and I. My mother’s work ethic was drilled into each of us, although her obsession with a clean and/or picked up house was certainly a trait I inherited (but I’m not nearly as good at it as she was).

My parents also passed down their love of Christmas and family. Christmas was an event in our home growing up. We were not church going folk and the three of us kids actually became giant skeptics, yet Christmas was “celebrated” by being together. It was our time to be a family and exchange gifts and eat good food and enjoy each other. Truly. Even after my parents were divorced and my stepfather moved in, we all still had Christmas together. It was so strange to other people, but not to us. It was our normal. And I’m absolutely grateful my parents were able to set some issues aside and be together at least once a year.

The tradition continued as we children grew up and found partners and had children. We still all met sometime during the Christmas season to be together. When we had our family Christmas a few weeks ago, my sister and I tried to make our parents proud and have a big extravaganza for our family. We did the usual exchange of gifts and ate great food but we added some games to the mix and made it a little more fun and loud. It was good. But we also felt a great absence. I felt uneasy at times, knowing that something….or someone was missing. At the end of the day, my sister, my husband, my brother-in-law and I all toasted our family–Phil, Dad & Mom–they were sorely missed and will never be forgotten.

And now a new year is about to begin. A new decade without 3/4 of my family. A new year of my son growing to be a little giant and acting and looking so much like my brother. The beginning of my life as an orphan, without the two people I turned to for advice and comfort and love. Another year of living with grief and learning how to keep taking those steps forward without turning to alcohol or food or complete inertia.

I’m beginning 2020 with trying to run again. I’m slow and it’s difficult but I don’t push myself too hard yet. I just move and see what happens. I’ve started taking an antidepressant, hoping that will help move me along, too. I’ve also booked a vacation for my family and I in April so we have something to look forward to.

I need this coming year to be different. I know I can’t have my family back, but I can write about them and you can read about them and their lives will live on in a way. It’s not exactly the way I want it, but I have no choice in the matter. I know I still have guilt and anger and frustration that’s mixed in with my grief that I must deal with, but that is for another day and probably another year.

I don’t know if I’ll make any resolutions for 2020. A friend recently asked people to post on FB what they were most proud of accomplishing this past year, and one of our good friends said, “Surviving.” Maybe that should have been mine, too. I do hope I accomplish a little more than that next year, but it’s always good to have low expectations, right? Maybe instead of surviving, I can make a resolution to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to keep moving forward.

Friends, I wish you all a safe new year and may you be as happy as you can possibly be.

Trying to Care

Since just before Thanksgiving Day, I have walked a mile a day. It’s not a lot, but when my friend and colleague, Sonya, put the challenge out to a private Facebook group, I decided that if I didn’t have it in me to run, that I could at least walk. Some days it’s just marching for 20 minutes in front of my tv, and other days it’s on the treadmill watching Netflix. As long as my mind is occupied and not in tune to what my body is trying to do, then I’m ok.

Today, though, it was 50 degrees at 7:30 in the morning…in Maine…in December. It wasn’t raining, just gloomy. I even had extra time before work. So I had absolutely no excuse to at least walk outside. So I plugged in my headphones and listened to an audiobook for a bit while I trudged a half mile. At that point I thought I could jog past a few telephone poles. I did but tuned into the radio then to give me a little pep. I did this for 2 1/2 miles and thought, “Ok. This is why I used to run. This feeling that I can accomplish something and that I’ll be alright. Now maybe I don’t have to go on antidepressants.” This little jog/walk left me feeling more positive then I’ve felt for a very, very long time.

I got back home, stretched, cleaned up and went to work. Yet minutes after I got to work, I could feel myself deflating. Not just energy-wise but attitude, too. I was starting to feel overwhelmingly sad and emotional and honestly?

I just wanted my Mom.

And my dad.

And my brother.

I can’t always separate my longing for one member of my family. Sometimes I desperately miss one person, but other times I just miss everyone and want to see each of them and talk with them. And not just one more time. Fuck that.

I want many more times.

But I don’t get that right? Right. So…what now?

Thankfully, I got busy at work and then received a really nice email from a friend that was sent just to make me feel good. The combination of the two brought me out of my darkness enough to get me through the day. Once I had a cappuccino in the late afternoon, I felt mostly ok again. I could more than function and went on with my day.

I’m guessing that’s how much of my life will be now. My stepmom told me this week that we have to keep going. We have to keep living somehow and some days will be easier than others. And although I know all of this, I also know I might need some help. I’ve had a bottle of antidepressants in my cupboard for several weeks, but I’m holding off taking them for now. I no longer feel “bad” if I have to take them. I know it’s ok for anyone to ask for help, although I never thought it was ok for me. But after the past two years? If I didn’t ask for help then I’d be even more lost than I feel right now. And that scares me.

For now my helper will sit in my cupboard. I’m done with turning to food or wine for help. The food (and pounds) have just made me feel worse, although sometimes it was exactly what I needed at that moment. I needed some kind of comfort and that quick little hight of “happiness” was what got me through these many months. But now if a walk or run doesn’t help me or if writing this blog doesn’t bring me some sense of comfort or control, then I’ll give the pills a shot.

And if I can find a counselor that I like, then I might give that a try, too. But since I’m a little gun-shy after the last one, I’ll wait. Let’s attempt just one thing at a time.

Reflecting

I wear my heart on my sleeve. If you and I are in a room and you’re crying, you will not cry alone. I am a very emotional person. Always have been and probably always will be. A few months after my brother died, I didn’t think I would ever be that emotional again. I was numb, kind of cold. Not much could penetrate the shield I created. But with the deaths of my parents this year, I have returned to that weeping mess I’ve always been.

So yesterday, when I was on my way to attend a high school classmate’s funeral, I knew it would not be a good day. When I saw the large church and the people already filing in 40 minutes before the service, I could feel myself start to panic. But I kept my shit together and walked in with a few old friends.

While looking at the photos of Vicki at the back of the church, my stomach started to lurch. I just wanted to stand there for a few minutes, catch my breath and look at all the pictures, many of our friend as an adult with her children, but we were herded into our seats. I was mildly irritated but I understood. There were going to be a lot of people there and they needed to seat people right away. But I also didn’t want to cry uncontrollably before the service even started.

As we sat down, we watched a slideshow of other photos on the wall of the church with this sad, sad melody playing in the background. That damn music. I can barely stand to listen to any music these days unless it’s angry. Although I often cry after listening to that, too. So we watched the show and saw images of Vicki with her husband and children, some with her colleagues, her siblings, her friends, and other photos as a child and teenager. While the slideshow played, we could see her family at the front of the church, greeting folks and waiting for it all to begin.

When the pastor started the service, he made me angry from the beginning. “Vicki’s work on Earth was complete,” he said. Complete? Finished? At 46? Screw you, man.

But then her adult daughter spoke. She was funny and sweet and told great stories. One of Vicki’s colleagues quoted a variety of children from the school where Vicki taught. These were little ones, elementary school, and some quotes were sweet and others were exactly what we were thinking. “I just don’t understand. Why?” Listening to the thoughts of children losing their beloved teacher, this woman whom I knew years ago but apparently remained the incredibly kind and gentle person she had always been, this started to break me. Why indeed.

Two of Vicki’s nieces read a “Pete the Cat” book aloud. Vicki taught Pre-K so Pete the Cat was a great character to pass wisdom on to kiddos. A parent whose children were taught by Vicki spoke and told a wonderfully funny story about Vicki’s thoughtfulness and kindness. Then Vicki’s husband got up to speak. I sat up straighter in order to brace myself. This man was devastated and sobbed on and off throughout his speech. The love he has for her poured from him as he spoke and cried. To witness this act of love and loss was a privilege. A gift. This high school classmate of mine was loved so much and it seemed she became who she wanted to be and lived the life she wanted and loved. I won’t call her lucky, because to die at 46 is not lucky. It sucks. But to live a life that you chose, surrounded by people that you loved and loved you, that part was lucky.

Vicki’s adult son was the last to speak. He was just as eloquent as his sister, told some funny stories and gave us insight on the mom that she was. She loved her children fiercely and went to every single sporting event or activity that they were in. She did everything she could to be there for them.

It was odd for me to go to this funeral. The last three funerals or life celebrations I’ve attended, I helped plan. They were the core of my family. My grief lives on, long after any church service or get together. Yet after Vicki’s service, it became a time for my friends and I to reflect a bit on our own lives. What would our children or spouse or friends or family say about us? Would they say we were kind, a great parent, a good friend? Maybe. Would there be standing room only in a huge church? Maybe not.

Once I got home, I could only think of Vicki’s family, and what they were doing right then. Did her siblings cry themselves to sleep that night or drink until they were numb? I’ve been that sister and I did those things. Did her mother just want to follow her child in death? My father did. Did her children try to stick close to their father, worrying about him and wanting to care for him? I was that child and I worried, too. Did her husband even sleep that night, or does he just want to sleep all the time?

I don’t know Vicki’s family but I just wanted to hug all of them and tell them this sucks so much and you can call me whenever you want and I’ll listen until my ear falls off. But since I don’t know them, that probably would have been weird. And they don’t need this tall crazy woman hugging them and crying on them. They have enough to deal with.

This holiday season, don’t forget about those that have lost someone. This can be such a difficult time to try and celebrate with and for those around us and pretend to enjoy ourselves when we just want the day to be over with or to just be alone with our thoughts and memories and possibly a glass of wine. Try and understand if that friend doesn’t want to go shopping or she has to turn the radio off because Christmas music bothers her or he wants to skip the holiday office party this year. They may be able to do those things with you next year, or they might not. Just tell them you’re there for them and will listen if they need to talk.

And if they need someone to cry with, I’m always available.

Wrecked

Today, on this grey and chilly fall day, my sister and I buried our mother.

As we stood around the small hole where Mom’s urn would be buried, we stood with our husbands, our children and our brother-in-law. We told a few stories about Mom and my husband read a poem out loud because I wasn’t able to. (“If I Should Go” by Joyce Grenfel)

I looked over at my big sister and she, like me, was a wreck. She said, “Remember when Grammie died?” My first memory was what my niece recalled, how my mother shook her head as we stood by her mother’s grave and kept saying “I can’t do this.” But what my sister reminded me was of Mom’s comparison to losing a partner to losing a mother. Just the year before Grammie died, our stepdad died suddenly of heart attack at 58. It was devastating. But the day of my grandmother’s funeral, Mom said that when your partner dies, yes it’s awful and horrific. But when your mother dies? You just want to follow her.

What you see here is me leaning against my sister. I was sobbing at this point, not wanting to put our mother into the ground. It may have only been her ashes at that point, but I could still touch the box she was in. It sometimes gave me a weird comfort. But our mother’s wishes were to be buried beside our stepdad.

So that is what we did.

Before we left the cemetery, once again my sister says between sniffles, “Well, no more of this. Let’s not do this again!” I shake my head and this time whisper, “There’s no one left.”