That’s Not What Ships Are For

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While on our road trip with my cousin, Kate for the past two weeks, we had the time and opportunity to talk about many, many things, ranging from the silly to the profound.

Some of our conversations during those days on the road drifted away with the wind, while a few of them hit home with me and gave me cause to think seriously about some things in my life. One of these conversations centered around my feelings about my place in my family.

As the youngest of four children in our family, I felt like I was always being compared to my older siblings. They were smart, made good (and often, great) grades, and set their courses in life – and it seemed to me – with ease and little or no stumbling blocks. I had to study really hard to make good grades, and I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. Both of my brothers married their high school sweethearts, to whom they are still happily married after 60+ years. My sister married at the age of 25, and she and her husband will be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary this year. They are all comfortably retired and living in homes that have been paid for and enjoying enviable financial freedom. As the baby of the family, and from my perspective, the black sheep, I look up to them and wonder what happened to me?

I bucked the system, and broke my daddy’s main rule about getting married. He wanted all of his children to have a college education, and desired especially that his daughters would have a career before marriage “to fall back on” should it ever be needed. My sister got a degree in nursing, which made Daddy very happy, especially since my mother was an RN. I, on the other hand, walked down the aisle at age 19. I was a sophomore in college and had no clue as to what I wanted to major in. It seemed sensible to me to get married and worry about college later, but it took some convincing to get my father to bend his rule and give his younger daughter away to my young teacher husband.

To add insult to injury, I got divorced, not once, but twice. Thankfully, my parents only experienced my first marriage failure and understood, even though their hearts were broken. Both died before Husband #2 and I split up in a crash and burn scenario five years ago. It wasn’t pretty, and nothing that my older siblings could ever imagine would happen to me.During those dark days, I often felt like I was a failure as a daughter, as well as a mother to my two sons.

During my first marriage, I was able to get my bachelor’s degree, and then at the age of 45 my Master’s. But I hadn’t achieved the financial success and comfort that I wanted, and after my second marriage fiasco, I found myself homeless for a short period of time, until I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and started all over again.

This is what I was moaning and groaning about with Kate on our trip. I was feeling sorry for myself, that at the age of 69, I am still working even though I love my job. And while I have made giant strides in the financial aspect of my life, I feel that I do not have the reserves I will need as I head toward my retirement years. She gently reminded me that while things are tight for me right now, I have a great potential at my fingertips, unlike my brothers and my sister, whose lives are in the final stretch, and they no longer have goals to reach or accomplishments to pursue. In many ways, my life still stretches out in front of me, with many adventures yet to be had, paths to wander, interesting people to encounter, and stories to write.

With Kate’s wisdom soaking into my brain, I changed my perspective and as Jimmy Buffett sings, I made a change in latitude and in attitude. The world is my oyster, so to speak. I am not pinned down to any one geographical area, and I have a lot of living yet to do.

It was after this conversation that we stopped at a little gift shop in the Amish country of Pennsylvania. A small plaque caught my eye, and I bought it. It spoke to me as a reminder of who I am and what my life should be. I don’t need to compare myself to my brothers and sister. My ship is different from theirs.

My ship is still at sea, where it is supposed to be.

 

 

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When I Die…

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It has been a month since my son-in-law’s almost-ninety-year-old mother, Marta, died. Roy is grieving, and rightly so. He and his mom were very close, and he was the youngest of her five sons. Like me, he was the “baby” of the family. Marta was a lovely and spunky lady, full of vim and vigor, and overflowing with love for her family. Besides that, she was a great cook, and a very savvy EBay trader. She is missed by many, many people.

This brings me to a conversation I had with my son, Brian, last night on the phone. Roy is Brian’s partner, and they have been in a loving relationship for over 15 years. They are devoted to each other.

After Marta’s death, I wrote both of my sons a letter, detailing phone numbers of family and friends, bank account and insurance policy numbers, retirement savings information, location of my legal papers, passport, usernames and passwords, and such, and a brief statement of the kind of sending off I’d like to have when I die. I did this mainly because Marta’s death struck a chord within me that I am not invincible. I also have experienced the deaths of four very good friends in my age group since Christmas, friends who shouldn’t be old enough yet to die.

Brian asked me how long should he mourn for me when I die. Tough question!

My answer was not a simple or straightforward one. One week, two weeks, a month, a year? It all depends….

If I die a sudden or unexpected death at a young-ish age (I am now 68 years old, and still consider myself young in many respects), I would think that the mourning period might be extended longer than I would expect if I should die of natural causes or some old-age illness. From my experience, it takes longer to accept and recover from a loved one’s sudden death.

This was the case with my dad. He died at the age of 85 from a heart attack while sleeping. Very sudden. Not expected. He was a healthy and vigorous man in most respects. It took quite awhile for the fact that he was gone to sink in, and for the mourning to end. There were a lot of things left unsaid between me and my dad, and I never got the chance to say (or think) goodbye to him before he was gone.

Within a year of my dad’s death, my mother began having some minor health issues. She was mourning and missing my dad, and we thought this might be part of the healing process for her. It turned out that it wasn’t. Nine months after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she died peacefully in her sleep. My sister and I shared the responsibility of caring for her through surgery, chemotherapy, and hopefully, healing. By the time her chemo treatments had ended, we knew that her time was limited. She just wasn’t rebounding or getting well. We loved on her and cherished her the last few months of her life. We had the chance to prepare for her leaving us, and when it happened, we knew we had done the right things and had loved her through to the end. Perhaps we never verbally said goodbye to her, but in our hearts, we did, making her passing into eternity a little less traumatic for us.

This brings me back to my son’s question. In the document I prepared for him and his brother, I requested to be cremated when I die. I do not want a funeral service, but want my friends and family to get together and have a party celebrating my life, and theirs. There should be lots of wine and margaritas, plenty of unhealthy food to eat, great music, and good times. It would be nice if they would recall some funny stories about me to share and remember, bringing laughter and joy to the occasion. I then want my sons to spread my ashes in a place, or places, that is meaningful to them. It’s not important to me, but I want it to be special for them.

After all this is accomplished, I don’t want any more mourning. Remembering me is ok. Missing me is ok. Wishing I could be there to witness an accomplishment or special event in their lives, or to share a beautiful sunset, is ok. Wanting to talk to me about a problem is ok. Shedding a tear every now and then is ok. But please don’t wear the black cloak of mourning over me. That is not ok.

We also talked briefly about the possible future of nursing homes and hospice. We both agree that hospice is a very good thing, but have mixed feelings about nursing homes. Jokingly, we agreed that he can put a pillow over my head or take me out to the woods and shoot me if I should ever get to the point where I don’t know who I am and need full-time nursing care. I’m not quite ready to discuss this topic seriously with him, so it was better to keep it lighthearted last night. Which we did.

I think Brian feels better after our conversation. I know that I do. I raised my two boys to be wonderful, independent, smart, caring, and loving men. I think they will instinctively know what to do when the time comes to bid me farewell.

I plan to stick around for quite awhile yet. I have a lot more living, loving, and writing to do! But when I leave, please keep the mourning short and sweet!

I’ll be watching, you know!