Dear Mom.

If I had known the last time I saw you was going to be the last time, I would have done everything differently. I would have hugged you tighter, skinny as you were, afraid as I was that I might break you. I would have told you that I loved you. I think I might have said it – I can’t remember – but the odds are that I didn’t, because we didn’t exchange those words easily or often in our family. I would have looked at you more carefully, taking in every detail, the same way – I can see only now, with hindsight – that you looked at me. Because you knew what I didn’t, that this would be the last time.

Today, May 25th, is your birthday. You would have been sixty-five. Your birthday was always my favorite day, more so than my own, which may sound like a lie or revisionist history, but I promise that it isn’t. Is there anything better than carefully selecting a gift that you know its recipient will love, and seeing the delight in their eyes when they open it? That was you, Mom. You loved everything I gave you, and making you happy was so easy that it felt like my super power.

The last time I called you on your birthday was five years ago. That’s when I knew that something was wrong. In truth, I had known for a while. But that phone call was the first time I can ever remember that you weren’t happy to hear from me. Normally, when you’d answer the phone, warmth would flood your voice. “Oh, hi, Sar,” you’d say, almost as though the phone call was a pleasant surprise. Not this time. Instead, your tone was angry, combative. “Mom?” I barked, startled. “What’s wrong with you?”

There’s no need to re-live what happened next, that horrible spiral. I’ve never felt so helpless, never felt so worthless, as I did when I couldn’t reach you, couldn’t save you. And just like that, you were gone.

My whole life, losing you was always my worst fear. And then, my worst fear came true. I lost you in the most wrenching, painful way I could imagine. For a while, I lost myself, too. And in order to find myself again, I walked through hell. I learned some important lessons. Lessons I didn’t want to learn, but lessons that I needed to learn. I wish that heartache wasn’t such an effective teacher, but I don’t know how else I could have discovered the depths of my heart and its capacity for love without having it so badly broken, or how much I truly loved to laugh without shedding so many tears.

And here’s something ironic: when I found myself anew, I found you, too. It was a you that I could only fully understand after you’d gone. A you that you couldn’t show me while you were here. A you that had once been so full of life and love and joy and then something went horribly wrong and it never got right again. A you that urged me not to follow in your footsteps, not to make the same mistakes you’d made. And I listened, Mom. I paid attention. I changed my life. And all the while, I kept wondering:

Can you see me?

 Do you know?

 Are you proud?

And now, as I continue to move forward in this life, my greatest fear is that I’ll forget you. I worry that the passage of time will erode my memories, and I’ll forget your voice, or your face, or how important you are to me. But then, out of nowhere, I’ll hear your laugh coming out of my mouth, or I’ll see you in the sculpt of my cheekbone or the arch of my brow or the shape of my eye. And then I’ll realize that I can’t possibly forget, because you are part of me, just like I am part of you.

We are alike, Mom, but we are so different, too. I’m not sure how you’d feel about the life I’m living now. I’m certainly braver than I was, certainly taking bigger risks than I used to when you were alive. And the truth is, I feel scared and alone a lot of the time. I wish that wasn’t so. I wish that I could ask you what I should do, or where I should turn. But then I remind myself that I know what’s right, that I have everything I need, and that my fear of regretting the risks I don’t take is far greater than my fear of failure or of making a mistake.

You gave me that. Or rather, losing you did. Your death gave me a sense of urgency that I didn’t have before I lost you. It gave me a heightened awareness of the danger of deferring my dreams. And it taught me how fleeting happiness is, and that when I have a shot at it, I should grab on to it with both hands and hold on for dear life.

That is something I am sure of: no matter what you might think of the life I’m living now, you would want me to be happy. You would want that above all else. And that is something –  I promise you, Mom –  that I am working toward every single day.

Can you see me?

 Do you know?

 Are you proud?

Happy Birthday, Mom.

Love,

Sarah

The Other Side.

“Have you ever had a reading before?”

“No.”

“Never before?”

“No.”

“That’s exciting.”

“Yeah.”

I try to keep my tone upbeat, but I can hear the nervous tension in my voice as I say those words out loud. Fleur must hear it too, because she offers me a warm, reassuring smile.

“It’s not scary,” she promises. “Let me tell you a little bit about how it works.”

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It’s Monday afternoon, and I’m seated across from her in a large, sun-filled living room. Even though the armchair she has offered me is plush and comfortable, I’m perched on its edge, the uncertainty about what’s to come rendering me unable to sit back or relax. Fleur is young (if I had to guess, I’d place her in her late twenties), and very pretty, with wide blue eyes and a delicate floral sundress to match. Her long twist of wavy golden brown hair is swept off her face and into a side ponytail. Her home is comfortable and decorated in minimalist California chic: no crystal ball, beaded curtains, or creepy talismans in sight. In other words, Fleur – and her home – are about as far away from the Hollywood stereotype of a psychic medium as you can get.

Yes, on the outside, everything looks pretty normal on this quiet Monday afternoon. What’s not normal is the reason I’ve come here: to make contact with the spirits of my dead relatives.

The day before my reading, butterflies swirling in my stomach, I texted a friend who’d seen Fleur a few months earlier. “Any advice?” I asked. What she proposed was simple, yet helpful: record the audio of the session on my iPhone so that I could refer to it later, come up with a list of questions that I wanted to ask, and – for me – the part that proved to be the most difficult: invite the people I wanted to see to show up.

It has been nearly four years since my mother’s death. My dad followed a few months after her, then my grandmother, and then, last fall, my grandfather. And in all that time – with rare, desperate exceptions – I have almost never tried to “talk” to them. I’m not entirely sure why, but I suppose it’s because doing so always made me feel awkward and silly. I never knew where to start, or what to say. But in truth, I think I have been holding back out of fear that it won’t work, that they’re not really out there, and that I’m just some foolish girl, sitting alone in a room, talking to myself.

Star Lantern

But the evening before my meeting with Fleur, I decided to try. I waited until it was very late at night, and then, extinguishing all the lights in my apartment, I switched on an ornate Indian lantern in the shape of a star, filling the space with a soft, turquoise glow. Using a wand of Nag Champa incense (my mom’s favorite), I lit a small, scented pillar candle, and, my eyes fixed on its persistent flame, I began to speak. At first, the words came slowly, haltingly. But as I sat in the kitchen, bathed in the lantern’s blue light, I suddenly remembered my parents’ house in Olympia at Christmastime, sitting in front of the tree with my mom, drinking wine in the dark and marveling at how twinkling lights and tinsel could make an ordinary evergreen seem like something made of magic. That feeling of calm and safety, of not needing to be anywhere else but right there, with her, was such a happy memory that I wondered how on earth I could have forgotten it. Tears formed in my eyes, emotion rose in my chest, and the words I hadn’t known how to say came tumbling out.

I don’t know where I stand on the idea of an “afterlife.” I don’t know what happens to people when they die. Fleur believes, as she told me before we began our reading, that the soul doesn’t depart when the physical body does, and that her job as a medium is to simply allow the spirits of those who have “crossed over” to “step forward and make a connection.”

Did that happen during our reading? I can’t say with absolute certainty. The skeptic in me will tell you that there’s plenty of personal information about me and my family readily available on the internet thanks to this blog, and that much of what Fleur conveyed to me during my time with her was rooted in common sense, the type of things that anyone who was grieving would want to hear. But the part of me that’s open to possibility and feels humbled by the mystery of all that we can’t explain can admit to you that there were details that came up during our session that arrested me. Private, painful details about my childhood and the months leading up to my mother’s death that I’ve never written down and that very few people – if any – know about. And I can also tell you that there were many, many moments during our fifty minute session that I sat watching Fleur, her closed eyelids fluttering as she described what she was feeling and seeing, that felt incredibly real to me. Moments like when she described my grandfather and the infectious sense of delight he brought to the world, causing us both to laugh out loud. “He’s really funny!” she beamed. “He is,” I agreed.

Mom and Grandpa

In the end, the thing that I had most been seeking from the session – a sense of peace and healing around my mother’s passing – was exactly what I received. As I sat in Fleur’s living room, she described a “feedback loop” of guilt and shame that I’d been stuck in, blaming myself for her death and reliving the events leading up to it over and over again in my mind, wondering what I could have done differently. “Your Mom wants you to stop doing that,” Fleur told me. “It is very important to her that you know that you could not have altered or changed what happened in any way. It was the path that she chose, and it’s not on you. You were the light of her life.”

When the session was over, not ready to go home and yet not ready to talk to anyone either, I drove to one of my favorite neighborhoods in L.A., Larchmont Village, and wandered the boulevard, losing myself among the hum of humanity in its sidewalk cafes and storefronts. Had my mother really communicated with Fleur, urging me to let my pain and regret go? And in the end, did it really matter? Whether Fleur could really speak with the dead or whether she was simply a kind, highly intuitive person who knew the words I most needed to hear, my heart told me what was true. In spite of her flaws and failings, my mother loved me more than anything and I know she wouldn’t want me to blame myself for her death. She’d want me to remember the parts of her that were about love, and let the rest go. She’d want me to allow myself to move on, and be happy.

It all sounds so simple as I type those words on the page: forgive myself and move on. I know the reality is much more difficult, much more complicated, just like my relationship with my mother was, just like love itself is. And yet – after Monday – I felt lighter somehow. The mere possibility that I might be able to let go of the weight I’ve been carrying these last few years filled me with a kind of hope I haven’t felt in a very long time. It’s the kind of hope that Dorothy must have felt when Glinda informed her, “You’ve always had the power my dear: you just had to learn it for yourself.” And armed with that hard-won knowledge, Dorothy bid farewell to the dear friends who had helped her on her dark and treacherous journey to the Emerald City, she tapped her ruby slippers together three times, and she went home.

Until next time, friends.

Me and Mom

P.S. * – If you’d like more information about Fleur, or are interested in booking a reading with her, visit: www.mediumfleur.com

I also recommend picking up Claire Bidwell Smith’s beautiful book After This, which contains a chapter about Fleur and is the reason that I discovered her.

*Please note: I received no monetary compensation for this post or for the information contained herein. I simply wanted to share my experience in case, like me, you are seeking peace and healing around the death of a loved one, and are open to exploring the mysteries of all the things we cannot know.

Gerry.

Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away

If you can use some exotic booze

There’s a bar in far Bombay

Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away

The tide is high on the morning of Halloween. So high, that the magic rock is hidden from view. “Where is it?” someone asks. “Underwater,” I say.

Grandma and Grandpa

As we reminisce about Grandpa’s daily swims in Case Inlet – the way he circled that tall, narrow, granite rock formation as though it were his prey, his snorkel mask strapped on, swim fins slicing through the water – I realize I don’t know the answer to the most basic of questions: “Why is the rock magic?”

No one seems to know. Finally, the only reply that makes sense: “Because Grandpa said it was.”

My grandfather, Gerald James Popelka (or “Gerry,” to those who knew him), lived a whole half century before I met him. There are so many things about his life that I don’t know, but what is clear to me as we gather on this Halloween morning, a group of twenty or so family and close friends, the hospice chaplain, and a Vietnam veteran who will honor Grandpa for his service as a Navy court reporter during World War II and the Korean War, is this: it was more than just a rock that he made magic, it was this whole place, this handful of acres tucked away on western Washington’s Case Inlet, a place that has been known to my family for the last five and a half decades simply as “the beach.”

The beach isn’t special simply because of its picturesque setting on a saltwater bay framed by tall banks of evergreen trees, Mt. Rainier towering above, keeping watch over us all. It’s special because over so many years, during all those summers spent boating and swimming, digging clams on the rocky beach, building great big bonfires, roasting S’mores and telling stories under the stars, this place has always been infused with the same spirit of delight with which my Grandfather undertook everything he did. As my Uncle Glenn said during closing remarks at Grandpa’s Navy blessing, looking around at the place, at all of us: “All of this is because of you, Dad.”

July 2005 Joyride

My Grandpa Gerry was a spirited Bohemian whose sense of humor and zest for life were utterly infectious. He was a lover of the lexicon, honing his skills by working daily crossword puzzles and ever ready to stump some poor unsuspecting victim with an impossible-to-figure-out vocabulary word. He was a practical joker, often following up a witty wisecrack with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. The bold striped t-shirts he favored matched his perfect shock of thick white hair and his larger than life personality.

Grandpa was tremendous fun to be around, but above all else, he was kind. To me, he was a bright light that illuminated the dark corners of an often sad and lonely childhood. He was the one person with whom I never fought, never exchanged a harsh word. In fact, I can’t remember him ever saying an unkind word about anyone.

On October 12th, I received word that Grandpa – at 89 years old – was terminally ill. After a recent series of what can only be described as traumatic experiences with death – my mother, my father, my grandmother – this sudden turn of events felt unnecessarily cruel. After so much loss, how could I possibly be expected to say goodbye to my beloved grandfather too? It wasn’t fair. I needed more time.

Hospice prepared us for the worst, telling us that given Grandpa’s failing liver, intense pain, nausea and heavy bleeding were all likely to happen “near the end.” As the social worker cautioned, “People hope their loved ones will pass away quietly in their sleep, but that rarely happens. Dying is usually quite an active process.”

Sarah Grandpa Black and White

I wasn’t ready, but I went to the beach anyway. For sixteen days, Grandpa and I sat together. We looked at old photos and reminisced. We shared secret jokes, poking fun at those who weren’t in on them. We counted the Canada geese that glided serenely across Case Inlet and congregated on a neighbor’s lawn.

But after sixteen days, without a dramatic change in Grandpa’s health, I headed back to Los Angeles with a plan to return in two weeks. It was only four days later that I got the call: Grandpa was weak, bedridden, and asking for me. Back to the beach I went.

I arrived on a Tuesday night. Friends and family were gathered in Grandpa’s room, and outside, the wind howled and rain poured. Grandpa drifted in and out of sleep, but he opened his eyes long enough to look at me and squeeze my hand. He tried to speak and couldn’t, but I told him that it was OK. I already knew.

I awoke the next morning, Veteran’s Day, to the sun streaming through my window, the clear blue skies and calm winds an unexpected gift after such a long and miserable night. Grandpa was sleeping peacefully, so I took a break to do some work. Around lunchtime, Glenn informed me he’d just gone to see Grandpa and told him that my mother was waiting for him to start cocktail hour. “Don’t be late,” he said.

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Now this next part will sound like I’ve made it up, because it’s the type of Hollywood ending a writer like me would invent, but I swear on everything that I am that it’s exactly what happened. I took my laptop to Grandpa’s room, and as my Aunt Sandy searched through his decades’ old collection of compact discs, I pulled up an iTunes playlist of standards. I tried a few oldies before I settled on a Sinatra classic. I sat next to his bed and turned up the volume:

Come fly with me, let’s float down to Peru

In llama land there’s a one-man band

And he’ll toot his flute for you

Come fly with me, let’s take off in the blue

Grandpa’s breathing slowed considerably and halted for several beats in between breaths. This was different, and we knew it. We called Glenn, who appeared in the doorway of Grandpa’s room somewhere around here:

Once I get you up there where the air is rarified

We’ll just glide, starry-eyed

Once I get you up there I’ll be holding you so near

You may hear angels cheer ’cause we’re together

Before Sinatra had finished singing, my grandfather quietly, gently, drew his last breath. As we hovered around his bed in a sort of reverent silence, waiting, knowing, yet not quite ready to speak the words out loud, I imagined Grandpa sitting with my Mom in the cozy living room of their old West Seattle house on Beach Drive, sipping martinis, enjoying the view of Puget Sound, Ol’ Blue Eyes softly crooning in the background.

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I inherited my love of language from my grandfather. And I believe that a wordsmith like him would understand better than most that there are times when words simply aren’t enough. After all, how could I possibly explain to you that after all of my fear surrounding what would happen when my grandfather died, that what actually did happen was so beautiful that it somehow made all the other deaths a little easier to bear? How could I express to you the depth of my gratitude for an exit so gentle that it helped restore my faith that sometimes, good things do happen to good people? And most importantly, how could I possibly capture in words the essence of a man who meant so much to so many, so that you could know him as I knew him, love him as I loved him?

I can’t. Words are not enough. I can only tell you that my grandfather, Gerald James Popelka, was the best man I ever knew.

And he made us all believe that a rock was magic, just by saying it was so.

Weather-wise it’s such a lovely day

You just say the words and we’ll beat the birds

Down to Acapulco Bay

It’s perfect for a flying honeymoon, they say

Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away

 Until next time, friends.

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Limbo.

Grandpa sits in his usual spot in the living room, staring out the picture window at the placid, silvery surface of Case Inlet, framed by evergreens that have turned an early November shade of amber. His yellow-tinged eyes reflect the vacant gaze of someone who’s looking but not seeing. “What are you thinking about?” I ask, patting him on the shoulder. I expect his typical response: “Nothing.” Instead, he intones softly, “I’m thinking about how quickly the time has gone.”

I’ve been at the beach for fifteen days, though of course, that’s not the measure of time that Grandpa is referring to. This evening, barring a catastrophe, I will leave, and board a plane headed back to Los Angeles. It is staggering to me that my time here has passed so swiftly, and yet, has contained so much within its rapidly elapsing days. I feel as though I’ve been moving in slow motion for weeks, traveling from joy to despair to fear in the space of a single hour, sometimes in a single minute. There is always another hospice appointment, another phone call, another email, another problem, another difficult conversation. And in between it all, I’ve been working, straddling two worlds – here and there – with the aid of an unreliable Wi-Fi connection.

I’ve never been very good at living in the moment, but these last couple weeks, the moment is all I’ve had. It’s no wonder my sense of time is so screwy, with Grandpa’s feeling borrowed and mine suspended. What a strange sort of limbo it is to sit with someone you love as they face the end of their life. The question that looms before us is when? It is the question he asks of everyone: his caregivers, the hospice nurses, the chaplain, the social worker, and of course, his family. It is the question that no one has the answer to, least of all me.

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I am prepared for what’s coming in a way that I wasn’t able to be with either of my parents, and for that I am grateful. I am grateful for all of the time I’ve been able to spend with him. But after fifteen days, there is little for me to do but wait.

Twenty-four-hour care is in place; contingency plans have been made. And the look Grandpa now sees reflected back in my eyes is one of someone who’s watching his every move, searching his face for signs of what’s to come. I can’t do this any longer. I can no longer sit around this rain-soaked place – beautiful as it is – waiting for my 89-year-old Grandfather to die.

I feel selfish for craving a way out, for craving warmth and palm trees and cheap, delicious Mexican food, and a hike in the hills and the sight of the Pacific and a desperately needed session with my therapist, but I do. I crave all of these things. I even crave the to-do list that awaits me upon my return, because it represents routine, and the opportunity to pretend, for a little while, that everything is normal.

So back I will go, for now. My return to the beach is already booked, but every ticket is refundable, every plan changeable. This type of freedom, it turns out, is expensive. But it’s the price you pay when you’re in limbo. When you’re left with nothing to do but wait.

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The God of Death.

“What do we say to the God of Death?”

“Not today.”

– Game of Thrones

Today, I think I will swim. I announce this to Grandpa first thing in the morning, and he looks at me as though I’ve lost my mind. “It’s too damn cold!” he sputters.

It is too damn cold. Especially without the aid of vodka to warm my blood, which, today, on my seventh day at the beach, I’ve decided to stop drinking.

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It’s sort of shocking that I would drink at all, really, given the fact that it’s what killed my mother, and given the fact that here I am again, confronted with another family member with another failing liver. This time, the organ occupies the body of my 89-year-old grandfather, Gerry. But drink I have, vodka tonics every night as soon as the clock strikes five, with Grandpa’s symptoms on full display before me like some sort of ghastly cautionary tale: jaundiced skin and eyes lit up like a neon school bus, distended belly covered in bumpy red scabs, swollen ankles, flaking, itching skin and eyes that burn and sting and scratch like sandpaper. The dark, blood-colored bruises that cover his bony arms are the things that scare me the most, for they foreshadow the potential horror a hospice nurse warned us about: the bleeding. The tremendous amount of bleeding that can occur “when the time comes.” I think I can handle just about anything but the bleeding. “If that happens,” the nurse tells me, “Call hospice immediately. You shouldn’t have to deal with that.”

There is comfort in hospice, in knowing that they exist. There is less comfort in the “comfort kit” they provide, equipped with drugs I hope we won’t have to use. One of Grandpa’s caregivers tells me she’s not comfortable administering morphine, because she doesn’t want to “do it wrong.” “I’m not trained for that,” she says. Right, like I am, I think, but instead, I just say, “Thank you for telling me.” And I mean it. The business of dying is full of surprises, so the fewer we can avoid up front the better, as far as I’m concerned.

It has been a busy day. There is an appointment with a social worker, then another with a nurse. I send emails back and forth with a chaplain who’s arranging a small ceremony at Grandpa’s home to honor his years of service in the Navy, during both the Korean War and World War II.

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Throughout all of this, Grandpa is tired and intermittently naps, but stays mostly upbeat. It is amazing to me how open he is, how willing he is to talk to the strangers entering his home, to do his best to answer their questions. He keeps asking how he can help them, which they find endlessly endearing. Though he’s confused and groggy, he seems aware that these people are trying to make him feel better. He even accepts a blessing from the chaplain, which shocks me as he hasn’t practiced his Catholic faith in decades. Maybe he’s starting to make peace with what’s coming. At least, I can hope.

Every morning that he wakes up – his razor sharp wit and perfect head of thick white hair still intact in spite of his failing body – feels like a miracle. And every evening that I go to bed, I pray that the next morning, he won’t wake up. It’s not that I don’t want him to live; in fact, quite the opposite. It’s just that I know this won’t get any better, and for every day that remains, the fear of decline into the horror that may come – the pain, the hallucinations, the blood – becomes more real.

So I pray. I haven’t prayed in years but it’s amazing how quickly you can pick it back up, if you’re desperate enough. I know the thing I’m praying for – the quick, easy death – is unlikely. All the nurses say so. But I pray for it anyway. I pray that this kind, gentle man who has been through so much in his 80th decade – a debilitating stroke, the deaths of his daughter, his son-in-law, and his wife of sixty years – will be allowed to slip quietly away, in his sleep.

I don’t know what is coming. And the not knowing is terrifying. But today, on my seventh day at the beach, I decide to face it without the aid of vodka tonics. After all, they’re not working anyway. They aren’t enough to numb this out, or to help me pretend, as some other members of my family would like to do, that this isn’t happening.

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So instead, I wait. I wait for high tide and a break in the rain and then, like the California girl I’ve almost become, I slip on a mismatched bikini top and bottom under my clothes. I find Grandpa, who is seated at his dining room table, looking out the picture window at Case Inlet, as he does during most of his waking hours. I give him a quick hug and then I tell him I’m going for a swim. He gives me a confused look and I’m not sure that he understands, given it’s close to his bedtime and the meds are kicking in. I go outside, strip down to my swimsuit, and grab the faded orange Sears brand flippers that I scribbled my name on years ago with a sharpie (as though anyone else would want them). Fins in hand, wrapped in a towel, I walk down to the water’s edge.

I know that – in late October – the steely grey salt water will be a shock. I also know that the only way to do this is to plunge in quickly, before I feel ready. I’m not ready, I think, just before I hurl my body into the sea. I hit the water with a scream as the icy cold sears through me. But it doesn’t matter because I’m in, dogpaddling through the sound. I only last a minute or two before the shivering overtakes me, but as I make my way toward shore, I see Grandpa, watching from his seat by the window, a grin spread across his face.

Maybe diving into the frigid waters of Case Inlet during this overcast, rainy fall day does make me a bit crazy.  But as I approach the beach cabin, dripping wet and trying not to shake, I see Grandpa flashing me a thumbs up sign through the window, just before his caregiver wheels him off to bed. Maybe I am crazy. But maybe I’m his kind of crazy. And maybe – in spite of what lies ahead – that’s why I’m here.

Until next time, friends.

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