I am a Death Doula and Grief Recovery Specialist. Which means I have been trained as specialist at how to recover from grief and deal with death. However, what happens when you have all these tools to deal with loss, but when you reach for them, you can't even find your toolbox? I have been looking for mine. My mother died 14 days ago.
The call from my father came just minutes before I walked my youngest daughter to school on her seventh birthday. We thought he was calling to wish our little one a happy birthday before she went to school. But after my husband answered the phone and I saw his grief stricken face, I knew. The Moment had come. It Was Here. I remember grabbing the phone from him and saying "Daddy?" I don't really recall anything until four hours later when I was on a plane to fly north to be with him, my brother and my mother's body. Days later my eleven-old daughter would recount to me that I took the handset and listened. And then I sank to the floor. I told my dad I would call him back in a few minutes. And then I told them that their Grandmere had died. My birthday girl asked "Why?" "Because her body stopped working." I answered. And then there was a flurry of slow motion.
I now barely recall my husband on the laptop booking a flight, our nanny arriving with open arms on her day off after my husband texted her, gathering my death doula kit so that I had the items I needed to wash an anoint my mother’s body, our nanny ready to walk my only-today-seven-year-old to school and me kneeling in front of my little one to tell her that I wouldn’t be at her birthday dinner that night because I was going to fly up to be with her Grandmere and Papa. And that we would probably need to post-pone her birthday party that Saturday because I didn’t know when I would be back. She asked what “postponed” meant. And then once she knew that it didn’t mean “cancelled,” she asked, “Can’t Daddy do it?” I asked, “Do you think Daddy can make jellyfish out of Japanese paper lanterns, ribbon and crepe paper?” She looked slyly at me and responded, “Prolly not.”
…ALL OF ALL OF IT… and then tonight.
My expectation of this experience was that it was totally okay that I was a “griever.” But also that “I totally had this,” because I knew what I was doing. I was trained. I was a professional. I also knew what I was not doing. What I was avoiding. During the planning of and the actual funeral for my mom I was: an event planner, a counselor, a professional, a rock. And manic, heartbroken, sad, strong, funny, a voice of reason. A daughter. A sister. A mother. A griever. And I had never done this before. I had never had my mom die before. I had never had my mom die when I was a mom. And I had to be okay that I didn’t know what I was doing, and to be gentle with myself.
My mother died on a Monday and was buried on that Friday. Pretty quickly for a Catholic. A really long time for a Jew, of which I had converted 17 years before. Today, on the drive home from her middle school, I checked in with my older daughter, what was the experience of Grandmere’s death and funeral like for her? She answered thoughtfully, that it was quick. And the Mass was confusing to her. And that was all she offered.
Fourteen nights later, when I was hysterical and hyperventilating in the downstairs bathroom, barely able to gasp out her name for help, after she brought me a lunch-sized paper bag to breathe into, and talked me down, “Mommy, you need to breathe slower. It’s going to be okay. Are you okay? Do you need me to call Daddy? Do you need me to call 911?” I told her how sad I was. How much I missed my mom. How I couldn’t believe that the world kept moving. How I didn’t feel I had had a minute or a moment to mourn my mom. That I had responsibilities – I was a wife and a mom. That I had clients to see and a house that needed to still run and I couldn’t Just Stop. She said that I needed time to sit shiva, and not have to do anything, like dinners or homework or dishes or anything, so I could be sad for the loss of my mom. That suggestion sounded like an oasis, like the escape I was craving and needing. But what happens when your parents are Roman Catholic and you are Jewish and you are a Grief Recovery Specialist, but you still can’t wrap your head or heart around how to grieve this loss and don’t feel that you have any right to ask for permission to have that time? That space? That suspension of time?
I am looking forward to beginning to embrace the process of my loss. Allow. Acknowledge. Accept.
It was just a little one. But it knocked me over all the same.
Growing up as a child in California, and both parents being native Californians, we spent a lot of time at the beach. Santa Cruz, Aptos, Half Moon Bay, San Francisco, Laguna, Huntington. My mother would always warn us about the sneaker waves, the little ones that would creep up and surprise you when your back was turned toward the ocean.
A sneaker wave knocked me over this morning when I was at my daughter’s school book fair. Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa, had a new cookbook out, and I thought, “Perfect! I’ll get that for Mom for Christmas to add to her collection!” As I reached for the book, my hand jerked back as the thought rushed forward, “But she doesn’t cook anymore. Because she can’t follow a recipe.”
My mother has dementia. We are calling it that now, instead of the name the Stanford neurologist gave it almost two years ago: Mild Cognitive Impairment, or MCI. It is beyond “mild” now. My parents live 400 miles north of where I live in Los Angeles, so I don’t get to see them as much as I would like, and my mom’s deterioration, especially when they made their most recent visit three weeks ago for my older daughter’s 11th birthday, came as a shock. She had lost a lot of weight. Her hair had thinned and was not colored the usual auburn. Those symptoms are a result of a blood disorder she has, but accentuated physically what is going on mentally with her. It is challenging for her to put together a sentence. She often leaves out the subject so it is difficult to know what she is talking about. She has forgotten how to apply make-up. She needs to be reminded to brush her teeth. She gets confused pouring a bowl of cereal. She is only 73.
My mom was a very talented and self-taught cook and baker. She made almost everything from scratch. She made dinner every night. Sometimes it was exotic (read: gross) things she or my dad liked - beef tongue, sweetbreads, curried shrimp. Most of the time it was what we loved – flank steak with baked potatoes, huge hamburgers with homemade potato chips, delicious pasta with sauce made from the tomatoes and herbs in our garden. And even when it was something she didn’t enjoy, like meatloaf, because she had it every Tuesday as a child, she would add her own touch. My mom’s meatloaf was covered with mashed potatoes that she piped on with a large star-shaped pastry tip and then she would pop the whole thing into the oven so the potatoes stars would become golden brown, a little crisp but still soft on the inside. Her meatloaf had mashed potato frosting!
And the desserts. Her desserts were amazing. When I was about five years old, I was having a tea party with my dolls on our front lawn on Valentine’s Day and my mother brought out a heart-shaped red velvet cake with a light pink frosting. All for me. I didn’t realize until I was much older when I would watch her make it how incredibly labor-intensive it is – sifting all of that powdered sugar (!), and what a labor of love it was for her to make it for me. To this day, I have never found a red velvet cake that has rivaled my mother’s. For every birthday and special life cycle event, we had beautifully decorated cakes. Her angel food cake with chocolate frosting was heaven. Her Mexican chocolate cake was famous. She made panorama sugar Easter egg boxes – those sugar shaped eggs with a hole in one end so you could peer inside to find a little scene of grass, flowers and a bunny – all made out of frosting, with beautiful frosting roses on top.
On our birthdays, we didn’t go out to a restaurant to celebrate. Even better, my brother and I got to choose what my mom made for us for dinner and dessert. My mom showed her love by cooking. Even having a friend over for a sleepover was something special – our friends got to choose ahead of their visit what they wanted for dinner and dessert. She taught me how to cook and how to bake. She was always my go-to person whenever I had a cooking question. When I moved into my first apartment after college, my mom gave me a beautiful oak recipe box with all of my favorite recipes written by her hand on the familiar yellow recipe cards. It is one my most prized possessions. That box contains my childhood. My mom could make everything. Now she can’t make anything.
Since the dementia has made its way into her life, she has had to give up her gourmet food line, Carol’s Culinary Creations, which she sold at seasonal boutiques for almost forty years. Friends and family loved getting her baskets filled with those items for Christmas – red and green jalapeno jelly, kumquat marmalade, olallieberry jam, scone mixes, dried soup mixes, herb-flavored olive oil, her 150+ proof apricot brandy and wonderful candies – chocolate covered peanut butter balls and chocolate covered brandied apricots. This is the first year she wasn’t able to make those items.
Last December, at the age of 46, I had to take over making the Christmas dinner because she was mixing up the recipe for her grandfather’s wild rice and the creamed spinach. I was happy to do it. And I was devastated that I had to do it. I am prepared to do it from now on.
So. What to do now with what I know?
I know I need to stay in the “work” of my own Grief Recovery. I have been avoiding it because I know it will be painful grieving my mother as I once knew her. I know I need to be able to meet her where she is now, not where I want her to be. I know that during this journey with her dementia we will experience a series of losses. I know that the hopes, dreams and expectations I had of what I thought my relationship was going to be like with my mom in my 40’s and beyond, is different. I know that she will won’t be able to teach my children to bake or cook. I know that all of this makes me sad. And I know that the amount of sadness I feel is because it is in direct proportion to the amount of love I have for her.
I know that to honor and celebrate her, I will be creating a cookbook of all of her recipes, with the stories and the memories that go with them, pouring as much love into it, as she did into preparing all nourishment she provided for us. So, keep an eye out for Carol’s Culinary Creations Cookbook, coming soon!
My grandparents’ house on Toto Loma Lane in Laguna Beach is the only place that has been constant in my 46 years. To know that soon it will no longer be our family home is utterly heartbreaking. They were married for 73 years when my Grandpa Charlie died last summer and had lived in the same house for 51 years when my Grammy Bird died this May. At first it was so strange to enter the house after Charlie died – to not have him there to greet you with a smile and a hug, to not be on the balcony waving goodbye as you tooted the horn on the way down to the street. Then after Bird died, it was such a foreign feeling to not have either of them there. But it still smelled like their house. All of their things – even their clothes – were still there, so it felt like they were still there. We had Charlie’s memorial service in February and then Bird’s just 3 months later in that house. Everything seemed like it was the same. And the wave receded.
But then, we prepared for the estate sale. The amount of things they accumulated between all of their world travels, Bird's ability to see beauty in the imperfect and Charlie's tinkering, was staggering. There were things found stored in the garage and under the house that my dad had never seen before. It was overwhelming to see all of their things laid out on tables with little price tags on them for sale. Even though initially my instinct was to take everything so I could hold onto them forever, I made a promise to myself that I would only take items that would be displayed and honored in my home. I realized, quite simply, we are not our things. There were so many objects that I had to pick up, thank for its service, and place them back only to trust that they would find a home where they would be used, appreciated and even loved. So I took the things I know I would use or display or were mementos for my two young daughters. I packed what I could into plastic bins and loaded them into my car. I took one last walk through the house saying goodbye to each room, inhaling deeply the scent in the office – the only room that still had that wonderful warm smell of my childhood. I took just one look back at the house as I drove away, knowing I most likely never see it again. I didn’t want to see it empty, ready to be sold. And the wave receded.
For just three days.
Then the movers brought the larger items that wouldn’t fit in my car. Some for me, some for my parents to retrieve later. The antique carousel horse with its dulled brass pole that was in their entry on which my girls played on every time they visited. The wood headboard from the guest room with beautiful oval beveled glass that was actually the front door of my great-grandmother’s house. The boxes and boxes of photo albums. Charlie’s beloved grandfather clock. The two antique safes. And the Hoosier cupboard that was the pantry in my great-grandmother’s house. It was this piece that I opened and buried my face and took the deepest breath I could. It was delicious! It was calming and familiar. It was the essence of their house. And I had it in my home!
And then ten days later, another wave crashed.
The realtor photos of Bird and Charlie’s house showed up in my inbox. The virtual tour of the empty house. The walls are empty, but have a frame of dust where every single thing that hung in its place. The original color of their carpet I remember of a child, revealed with the outline of the furniture that once rested there. The darker shade of wallpaper exposed behind the family photos, artwork, and the mementos from their world travels. It is so disorienting. The house seems to make no sense without their things in it.
And then, I am struck by the things that remain – the eyeglass lens lamp hanging in the dining room that my father made, the door knocker in the shape of a hand on the bathroom door, the light switch plate with the little frog on the corner, the plastic pages with shower songs that my grandpa used to sing so loudly in the shower – “Sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. Saint Peter don’t you call me, ‘cause I can’t go, I gave my soul to the company store.”
And then there are my favorite parts of the house. The bar we used not only for cocktails but to dye eggs every Easter, which turned into an alter after Charlie died and then again held the bottles wine we drank to toast each of them at their memorial services. The kitchen, with its yellow counters and crazy pullout-from-the-wall toaster, which after breakfast made their home smell like toasted English muffins. Where we cooked the moveable feasts we brought for Thanksgiving when Bird could no longer travel. The kitchen shelf that held the large yellow Tupperware canister of what seemed like an endless supply of homemade chocolate chip cookies. I can feel every drawer and cupboard pull in my hand still. In the backyard there was a wall covered in ceramic suns from all over the world which now only holds the outlines of the rays that once shone.
And all of the secrets of that house that no one will know. That the reason that the back of the front door has black semi-circle marks is from the hanging sleigh bells that swung with such beautiful music every time they welcomed people in their home - like little smiles made by the bells. That the reason the front door, back door, house numbers and doorbell are purple are because they were Bird’s favorite color. Where all of the good hiding places in the garden are for Easter eggs and hide & seek. That the cement pad in the backyard once had a tree planted there in which my grandpa built me a tree house. That it was in the Living Room that I sat vigil for seventy-two hours with my grandpa as he prepared to release his body. And after he did, I lovingly bathed and anointed his body. And then, ten months later, in the very same room, I did the same for Bird’s body in preparation for her last journey. That it was in the garden that I sang You Are Filled with the Light of a Thousand Angels as I followed their bodies as they were carried through it one last time.