Category Archives: Grief

Battles of Courage and Love: Cindy’s Journey 

She skated into town in 10th grade. I always worried about the new kids. I had a lot of experience being the new kid.  I knew that it was infinitely harder when you landed in a small town where lifelong friendships were forged in bassinettes.  She didn’t strike me as a country girl either. She held herself with the grace of a ballerina- head perched delicately on her swan-like neck, gliding through the halls.  When she smiled, it bloomed from her heart.  We were her 11th school, but you wouldn’t know it. She didn’t have that tentative attitude of someone who guards their heart knowing they could be leaving soon.  She was all in. By the luck of the draw, she came in a year that brought several new faces.  She could have clung to the safety of shared experience but she didn’t limit her circle of friends.  I had her in Leadership class where she shared her gift for bringing people together and mobilizing them.

It would be 20 years before I saw her again. A couple of months ago, I ran into her at a reunion.  I was struck by how little had changed. She is still that inside-and-out beautiful person she always was. Her laugh still fills the room and lifts your heart.  That light still shines in her eyes.  All that would have been extraordinary on its own, as I think we all dull a bit as life experiences tamp down that idealistic energy of our teen years.  With Cindy, it was remarkable.  Not long ago, while trying to clear an error from the ultrasound machine she was using, she ran the probe across her side and discovered a tumor later determined to be a rare form of cancer called Epithelioid Hemangioendothelioma (EHE).  You wouldn’t know this insidious disease was ravaging her interior from her attitude.  When she asked if she could tell me her bucket list, my heart clenched at the thought of this thirty-something spitfire making a list of things she wants to do before the end. As she said though, when cancer happens, things get real.  I was prepared for a list of earthly luxuries. Who would blame her if she wanted to bask in the sun of a Mediterranean beach or sail over a mountain in a parachute?  Who would deny her petting a giraffe on the plains of Africa or driving a race car on an Indy track?  But she did not want any of that. And yet, her eyes lit up as if she was fantasizing about the most decadent of adventures. When she leaned in and she told me her dream, I was mesmerized.

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As we all do, she had the idea for a long time and thought that she had even longer to realize it.  Perhaps she would do it when she retired someday.  Now that the somedays are numbered, she cannot afford to wait.  With the uncertainty of her future now, she is driven to honor the memory of her grandfather, Weldon Thomas, by telling his story.  I could see what a tremendous influence he must have had on her life.  Weldon’s granddaughter was the second-born of a modest family of five who wanted to be a skater so badly that she went out at 14 and got her own sponsors to pay the exorbitant coaching and competition fees.  Weldon’s granddaughter is the girl who never lost touch of joy and love despite adversity. She is the product of a man who lived rejoicing in the positive, never letting the negatives jade him – and Weldon Thomas had every reason to become jaded. Master Sargeant Weldon Thomas, 11th Armored Division, 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion, Headquarters Company, Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon, was among the young men who saw the worst of the atrocities men are capable of.  The horrors of war and concentration camps did not extinguish the light of courage and love that he had. He passed that light on to his granddaughter. He passed on a sense of justice and human kindness. He passed on the will to fight for what is right and good in the world. He passed on his indominable spirit and fearlessness to live every day as the gift that it is.

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Cindy never got to item two on her bucket list when she was talking to me.  As she flipped through the first of three 4-inch binders filled with the research she has already collected, it is clear basking in the sun will have to wait until she tells the story of her grandfather and his compatriots’ march across Europe to liberate Mauthausen Concentration Camp. It will have to wait until she tells the story of his courage in spiriting photographs of war criminals out of Germany. It will have to wait until she tells the story of his selfless commitment to helping his mother raise his siblings when his father was mercilessly killed. It will have to wait until she tells the story of how none of that extinguished the light of courage and love in Weldon Thomas. Cindy Thomas Obregon is living proof of that.

 

Cindy Thomas Obregon is working on a documentary about her grandfather and his battalion in World War II. You can follow Cindy’s Journey at cindysstory.home.blog  .

If you would like to support Cindy, she is raising money for this effort and to help with her medical costs:

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

The Busyness of Avoiding

My father tore the carpet out of our house a few weeks before my sister’s wedding.  The carpet started out the color of sand on a southern beach.  After years of being trampled on by firewood toting teenagers, it had grown dingy and rough.  Once he got a thought in his head, it was like a worm boring in deep and taking up residence. He bought planks of tongue and groove hardwood and piled them high in the living room.  He was invisible save for the tapping of his rubber mallet against the slats.  He moved with the deliberation of a military exercise from the dining room to the living room.  With a hand-held electric sander, he methodically planed each surface on his knees.  In paint-splattered Levi’s, which he was perpetually pulling up, he knelt on the floor and brushed each piece with a thick coat of varnish. It was exasperating to watch. With each painstaking stroke, he seemed more and more oblivious to the tornado of wedding preparations going on around him. He was blind and deaf to the herd of women stomping their feet and tapping their watches.  This was not the first time he engaged in a Herculean task as the timer counted down to a graduation or wedding.  I didn’t understand him at the time. I thought him inconsiderate at best, selfish at worst. But I was wrong, so wrong.

For the last year, I have been planning a party that I have known, for 19 years, was going to happen in the second week of June. I thought I had learned a lesson from my father:  Don’t drive your family insane by doing an enormous job right before a big event. I planned ahead.  A year ago, we tore out our rustic Ode-to-Alaska firepit, and built a circular patio large enough for a crowd and safe enough for old ankles.  We built a 110-foot raised garden to fill with lovely flowers.  We replaced the lawns, which our energetic boxers had decimated, and built a dog run to contain their enthusiasm.  We weeded, planted, and barked.  It is beautiful, exactly as I imagined it would be.

I was wrong, though. I did not learn that lesson from my dad.  The truth is that I dragged my heels on the smaller details. Now that we are a few short weeks away, I am in a flurry, ordering photographs, creating announcements, planning a menu, and locating plates, napkins and decorations in green and black.  I have a long list of things to do and an even longer list of things to worry about. Generally, I am driving everyone around me insane.

I think I have procrastinated, something I am loathed to do, because having a million things to do leaves no time to think about what is really happening.  Our only child is graduating from high school. The glassware in the hutch needs to be washed.  She will be going off to college soon. I must dust the slats of the blinds. When I slow down for even a moment, my chest is heavy and my breath catches in my throat. The entryway has spiderwebs. Even though this is the right thing and she is ready, I am grieving the loss. Did we pressure wash the patio? Soon I will not see her every day. I will not have those right-before-bedtime mother-daughter talks about the little and the big things in life. I need to borrow a cooler for the pop.  I won’t chuckle at her admonishment of my loud music and excessive Tweeting.  We will need lots of ice.  She won’t be exploding through the door ready to tell us the amazing thing she did that day.  The windows need washing.  We won’t hear about the drama of everyday life. I need to order the food soon. I won’t be close enough to hug her when she needs comfort – or when I do.  I need to move tables out for the food.  Mother – daughter dinner dates will be bi-annual events.  The flowerpots in the front need planting.  Adventure Days will be rare. I need to get a journal so guests can write their advice to her. I will miss her laughter and tears. Should I have bought more decorations? I will miss her wicked wit. I will miss her soft heart and hard head. I need to order more pictures. And so, I make lists. Before I cross that last item off, I add one to the bottom. I should refinish the hardwood floors.

I am my father’s daughter. But I am also my daughter’s mother, and, though I may not have learned the lesson from him, I have learned this lesson from her. I must not fill every second with the busyness of avoiding feeling these feelings. More importantly, I must not fill up every second with busyness and miss out on spending time with her.

 

I took this picture on the highway near Verlot.  It was such a beautiful day and we were shooting her senior pictures. I snapped it as she was walking down the road.  It seemed fitting for this post.

Walking Away

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

A Girl’s Best Friend

I remember when we picked him up. After months of looking, we found him at a breeder in Omak.  My husband has a knack for tracking down the best pups.  Dog-less for a year or more, we finally decided it was time for our daughter to have her own dog.  After much negotiations on breed, color and sex, we settled on a brindle Boxer of either gender. We weren’t planning to breed so it was a moot point anyway, although personally I leaned toward female dogs as I found them much more protective and loyal than males.  As the days slowly passed, I started to think that this new puppy was going to be very lonely. I mean there he would be, all day in his kennel, no one to play with.  If he was cold or scared, he would be alone.  One dog? Two dogs? How much work was it really?  Besides, they would play with each other.  If they were playing with each other, they wouldn’t be bored and eat things.  So really, two dogs are less work, if you think about it.  I can make a compelling argument for just about anything.  So, I made one -or three. I can’t remember. Fortunately, there was one pup left in the litter.  So, I was getting a puppy for her birthday too, which was totally fair after 19 hours of labor.

I am not sure how we hid this secret from our daughter, but we did. We wanted it to be a surprise and, until we had a healthy dog in hand, we did not want to get her hopes up.  On Friday, we dropped her off to spend the night with her godfather and his family.  I felt so mischievous keeping this secret that I just wanted to blurt out.  But I held it in. After all, I’m the mama and a grown woman…on the outside.  On the inside, I was a little girl, hiding at the top of the stairs waiting for Santa, holding in my giggles with both hands.

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After procuring the basic puppy necessities (and several that were definitely not), we headed east of the mountains.  We fell in love the minute we saw their googly eyes and fat bellies.  One brindle for our daughter and one fawn for me.  I had named the fawn Sir Finnegan McMuggles, but we called him Finn.  On the long ride home, the brothers (who we affectionately referred to later as the Bruise Brothers) snuggled in the back, alternately lying on top of each other. They were still asleep when we led our daughter to the truck and told her that her birthday present was on the back seat.  Of course, that didn’t last because no one can sleep through the gleeful shrieks of a little girl discovering a puppy.

“Are they mine?!” she asked.

“The brindle one is your’s. Finn is your mom’s,” my husband replied.

“Does he have a name?” she asked earnestly.

“No,” I said, “You get to name it.”

“I will have to think about that, “she said. “I will just call him Buddy for now.”

My husband and I looked at each other and said, at the exact same time, “The dog’s name is Buddy.”

And it was. And he was.  He was her Buddy every day.

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The Bruise Brothers were playful and loving.  I found them often sleeping on her. Later, she would sleep on them.  I was right that they would keep each other company. I was wrong that they would be less destructive together.  They were about three months old when they ate my kitchen one day. I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic way or a metaphoric way. I mean that literally. They ate my kitchen.  We had to remodel it.  We built them a kennel in the garage.  Boxers can jump five feet in the air easily.  Though we built the walls high, they were hard to contain.  One day, they managed to pull a Skill Saw off of a high shelf. To this day I do not know how they did it but one standing on the other’s shoulder is not beyond the realm of possibility.  By the time we got home, the only thing left was a cord, a couple bolts and the blade.  It was hard to be mad at them though. They would look at you like they knew they did something wrong, and they were really (really, really) sorry but couldn’t make any promises about better behavior in the future.  They were soft and sweet.  We always forgave them.   They always forgave us.

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Being litter mates, they were inseparable.  We kenneled them once apart and they nearly broke the wall down trying to get back together.  I made sure to tell the kennel they had to sleep together after that. Boxers have the unusual habit of sitting on each other.  These two were no exception.  At first, I could not figure out what was going on. Buddy would be laying there, and Finn would walk backward until his was on top of Buddy. Then he would just plop right down.   They both had this expression on their jowly mugs like “What? There’s nothing weird going on here.”  It was both bizarre and endearing.

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Finn passed away suddenly after having a seizure while on a walk with my husband and me.  It was such a jarring tragedy for all of us, but none more so than Buddy and our daughter. They spent days snuggled together. As she cried, Buddy burrowed in and loved her the only way he knew how- with all his heart. And he had a very big heart.  They were inseparable.  At night, I could hear her talking to him as they fell asleep.  It reminded me of all the pups I had as a kid. I was so grateful she had this loving animal to keep all her secrets.  I always knew when she had a bad day because she would lie down with him on his bed in the living room and pet his ears.  He would put his big jowly head on her belly like he was anchoring her to the earth.  He would rush to the door when her heard her car pull in and greet her with such joy.

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Two years ago, we decided he needed a friend.  It was a tough decision as he was already an older dog and we didn’t know if he would accept a puppy.  Again, my husband went on the hunt and found a breeder in Yakima.  We picked a fawn female.  Our daughter was older and much harder to hide a secret from, but we pulled it off. We needed a night without her to make sure that Buddy was fine with this new addition.  I remember I was sitting on the floor of the kitchen with her when my husband let Buddy in.  Buddy rushed to us and I was momentarily afraid that I might have misjudged the situation.  As soon as Buddy saw little Buttercup, he stopped in his tracks.  He leaned down and gave her a sniff.  He looked up to my husband.   He looked down to me. And then he started bouncing on his front paws – a sure sign of joy in a Boxer. He loved that little girl and she gave him a whole new lease on life.  He had been slowing down.  As soon as she came into our lives, he started acting like a young pup himself.  Oh sure, he schooled her more than once when she got out of hand.  Mostly though, he let her goad him into playing with him. They were inseparable. (You can follow Buttercup’s antics on Instagram: @buttercupboxerpup .)

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Last week, we said goodbye to Buddy.  We are all mourning his loss deeply.    It is worse, I think, because it is so painful to watch your child grieve the loss of her best friend.  Buddy had an accident and broke his leg. He couldn’t recover from it. We had time together to care for him. We had time to talk as a family.  Still the pain of loss is sharp.  It seems this year, we have experienced a lot of loss- too much really.  We have to remember that this is the price of big love from a big heart. What is the alternative?  To insulate yourself form the pain of loss by refusing to give or accept love.  For me, I would cry a thousand tears now than to have missed even one minute of knowing true love.  Knowing the love of a big-hearted dog – true, unconditional, freely-given, forgiving, endless, unselfish, loyal, trusting – I would not trade one tear.

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Buddy and His Girl

 

 

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Buddy in His Prime

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Nothing Left Unsaid

I thought this post would be easier to write.  I realize that no matter how carefully chosen, my words will likely be inadequate. It is ironic since I have entitled this “Nothing Left Unsaid”, and yet, surely, there will be something left unsaid. I went to a celebration of life this week for a truly wonderful woman.  Those closest to her, her family and friends, spoke about what a joyful, giving, compassionate person she was.  It was an outpouring of love that mirrored the love she showed for others.  If light could take a corporeal form, it would be her.  She lived her convictions undeterred by what was trendy. She wasn’t distracted by the shiny objects which hide the much-prized of little worth.  It was obvious in the words of her family and closest friends that she knew what was important- them. It was also obvious that this was no secret between them.  Though I can’t be sure, I think very little was left unsaid. Love expressed and shared.  Faith embraced and lived.  Comfort given and accepted.  Forgiveness and thanks shared in equal measure.  All the little things in life that, in the end, are the biggest things – shared.

At times like this, I find myself taking inventory.  Not comparing one life to another, but really asking myself what I could learn from this moment and what I have learned from this person. In this instance as I thought about my own life, though I have said so very many words, I know I have left much unsaid. There have been gifts which may have been small to the giver but were enormous to me. Yet I know my thanks was a lamb when it should have been a lion.  I am sure I assumed, on more than one occasion, people knew how I felt. In my youth, I was too proud or afraid of appearing weak to show the true depths of my appreciation.  Sometimes I just waited too long and the time or the person passed.  I don’t think I ever came right out and told my father-in-law how much I loved that he let my daughter lead him around by the hand where ever she wanted to go, or how he would get on the floor and play with her until his laughter turned to tears. I hope my grandpa knew he was my hero, but I wish I would have said it loud and often.   I know I didn’t tell my sister (until today) how full my heart was to know that she stayed up all night in the waiting room on the night of my daughter’s birth.  I need to thank the superintendent who let me golf with the guys, despite my hopeless game, because he didn’t want me left out of the conversations.  I wish I had told my college professor that he changed the course of my life by giving me the chance to teach a chemistry lab.  I wish I had told the nun who hugged me every morning in second grade that I loved coming to school because of her. I wished I had thanked the APs who were looking out for me when I was looking out for everyone else.  I wish I had told my principal that I was a better teacher and a better person for having known him.

I am better at this now. Better.  I think my girls know I love them and I am grateful for the community we have built together.  I know I don’t hold anything back at home. I am intentional about gratitude. I try to remember how important it is to acknowledge hard work, talent and teamwork.  Perhaps it is age. Perhaps it is experiencing all of life’s big moments- good and bad.  I know I can do better though.  Here is the thing:  we do not know the number of our days.  The things that matter are not things at all.  In the words of Ram Dass, “We are all just walking each other home.”  What matters is what happens between us.  It’s time to say the things that have been left unsaid.

This is a picture of my husband and daughter sharing a moment on the beach at Kalaloch. I was trailing behind them, mesmerized as they explored the tide pools and talked.  We were heading back in. He threw her up over his shoulders and she clung to his head.  They know this is my favorite picture of them. They also know how much I love them because I never let that go unsaid.

Father and daughter on the beach

The Best Seat in the House
(1/640 sec., f/5.6, 9.2mm, 100 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Do It For A Friend

As I was driving home from work tonight, Corey Hart’s Never Surrender came on. You probably will only know this song if you were embroiled in teenage angst or young adult drama in the mid-1980s. It was the theme song for that.   I remember it because I recorded it on cassette tape and sent it to my best friend, naively hoping it might help to wake her up.  In the fall of 1984, I was sitting in a small lecture hall at the University of Alaska Fairbanks furiously scribbling every word Dr. Lokken uttered in CHEM101. He was brilliant, in my opinion, and never looked at a single one of his notes (if he even had any) as he lectured his way through the periodic table.  The first day of class, I was sitting in the front row with my brand new spiral binder eclipsing the tiny fold out desk.  I had the 20 lb Introduction to Chemistry book in my lap.  It was either over-confidence or complete ignorance that led me to think I could listen, take notes, and look something up in that book all at the same time.  But there I was, blue ballpoint in hand, writing at warp speed.  What can I say? It’s how I learn. I have to write it or draw it for it to sink in – whatever it is.  To this day, I do this- scribbling charts and diagrams, sketching arrows showing relationships, capturing important words or phrases, using shorthand to remind me of key ideas.  In the end, it is truly a mess.  There is blue ink everywhere. Circles and boxes and symbols fill the page and I choose to think of that as evidence of brilliant ideas instead of the more likely disordered mind.  Only I can fathom what I mean when I am scribbling my notes. On this particular day, my flamboyant style of note taking caught the eye of the woman sitting next to me. She was a curly-haired, doe-eyed freshman who I noticed, when Dr. Lokken finally took a breath, was staring at my notes mouth agape.  When my eyes hit hers, she uttered, “Wow, how do you even read that?” I was stunned, as you can well imagine, not that she would think it was indecipherable, but that she would have the audacity to say it to my face.  Fortunately, I was saved from having to respond when Dr. Lokken, lungs refilled, resumed his lecture.  As soon as class was over, I scooped everything up, shoved it quickly in my back pack and scurried out the door- mortified.  I mentally memorized her face and vowed to sit in the back during the next class.

Day two of CHEM101 came quickly and I had nearly forgotten about the incident.  I was also powerless to sit in the back row. I couldn’t do it. I love school. I am compelled to sit in the front, rapt in learning. Sadly, there was a seat open next to me when, of course, she walked in. She walked right up to me. Honestly, I was shocked. She was just a little thing. Clearly not tough at all. I pictured her in high school maybe on the dance team or key club helping people and generally spreading joy. I just did not know why she was being so confrontational.  Clearly, I misread her joyful aura because there she stood digging in her backpack from which she pulled out a bag with a UAF Nanook emblazoned on the side. She handed me the bag. I instantly felt really bad. I had definitely misjudged her and here she was making a peace offering.  And then I opened the bag. My jaw dropped.  Inside the bag was a mechanical pencil, extra lead and an oversized eraser.  I could not believe it. I was speechless. I just stared at her. I mean really, who does that?! Who criticizes a complete stranger and then twists the knife by purchasing the solution to the problem they painfully exposed?  In that space, while I was trying to find just the right words to tell her to sit somewhere else, she uttered, in just the kind and joyful voice I imagined she would have, an apology.  She told me she was sorry that she insulted me by being insensitive and, though she really didn’t want to hurt my feelings any more than she already had, she really thought I needed a pencil.  Zing! I am sorry, and you are still a mess – please use a pencil and eraser.  Ouch! But she quickly introduced herself in great and rapid detail, while unpacking her neatly organized materials.  I felt like I was observing a tornado in reverse.  It was quite extraordinary really.  She swept me up as she rattled along and by the time class started I found myself chuckling inwardly.  She was a pretty likeable person- cheerleader not dance team but definitely a natural at spreading joy.  (She was right about the mechanical pencil by the way and I still use them almost exclusively.)  From that day, we became fast friends.  It was an unusual friendship because we were different in as many ways as we were alike.  She lived in the same small town her whole life. I moved around a lot as a kid. Her family was simple and consistent. Mine was complicated and flexible.  She was an artist. I was a scientist.  We both loved the Pink Panther, country music, and the wilderness. As with most enduring friendships, our differences led to a deeper appreciation of each other and of ourselves.  It feels good to connect with people as much when it is a single string that we share in common as it is when there is a whole web.  People are meant to connect, to find commonality and reconcile differences.  Our friendship continued through the school year.  We passed CHEM101 and I convinced her to sign up for Organic Chemistry.  She bought the textbook before school was out because she was convinced that she would bail if she didn’t invest in the course.  Our friendship weathered sub-zero temperatures and near constant darkness. We found time for each other even when distracted by boys or overwhelmed with homework. They were both a big distraction back then.  She tried to teach me to ride a motorcycle that summer.  It wasn’t my thing. That was one of the best things about our friendship.  Our differences didn’t matter.

As we were preparing to go back to school in the fall, she decided to take a short  trip with her brother and some friends to Anchorage.  On the way down, she and her brother were hit by drunk driver outside of Palmer.  Her brother died at the scene, but she made it to the hospital albeit unconscious.  Back then, it was easier to get information.  There was a very kind nurse who seemed as concerned about her patient as she was about her patient’s friend hundreds of miles away.  The nurse was hopeful but realistic and told me to send a tape of me talking to her or playing some music.  She said it was possible my friend might hear me and that could stimulate her.  I sent her a long and silly tape that ended with Corey Hart singing Never Surrender.  It didn’t wake her up.  She was the first person around my age to die who I knew.  I was devastated. Although I did all the healing things you do, like planning a memorial and just being with our friends and family, I was not healing. I could not fathom the unfathomable- how a beautiful, kind, joyful tornado could die at 19 at the hands of a careless drunk driver.  Death seemed so unpredictable – as of course it is.  As I write this, even 37 years later, I am weeping for the loss of her and all that she could have been. Would she be married and have a child as I do?  Would she have been an artist or nailed Organic Chemistry? Whose lives might she have touched?  Pointless questions really but haunting ones nonetheless.  I am reminded this week that there are so many ways the light of a young person (or an old one) can be extinguished that we can do nothing about. But there are many, many more that we can.  For years, I spoke on a panel for new drivers about the real impact drunk driving has on not just the victim but the survivors. It was a small thing. I cannot know with any certainty I made a difference. But it was something. And we have to do something, I think. Right now, we have to do something.

Going Home
Going Home
This photograph was taken in 1999 (pre-digital) on a trip to my friend’s childhood home outside of Glen Allen, Alaska. Alaska defines beauty to me. It wasn’t the same without her.

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Don’t Miss the Joy in Grief

I was sitting at Finaghty’s Irish Pub the night before we were to celebrate the life of my father. I was with my husband and daughter and surrounded by my sisters, most of their families and my stepmom. Family had been arriving from out of town and were still trickling in.  We are not a demure clan.  At all. We are story tellers. We are bear huggers. We are belly laughers. We are family. When I arrived with my youngest sister, I was greeted with the most amazing hug by a niece I had not seen in a while. And as each person arrived there was more. My brother in law is a great hugger so there was a bit of a line up for that one. It’s hard to describe what it means to be part of this boisterous family.  I imagine we are a bit overwhelming to newcomers trying to follow the four conversations happening at once – picture the floor of the stock market. I picture a new boyfriend or girlfriend trying to find an opening like a squirrel trying to cross a four-lane highway in rush hour.  It would be daunting but totally worth it when you get to the other side.  As everyone was catching up, someone asked how I was doing and I said, “I’m OK.”  I had this moment of guilt wash over me.  I shouldn’t be feeling OK.  I just lost my dad. But I realized that in that very moment I was absolutely OK. If my dad had been there, he would have been better than just OK. He would have been elated. He loved it when everyone was home for dinner. And I do mean everyone. The more the better. Every seat in the house taken. Every room swollen with laughter.  Everyone in each other’s space- figuratively and actually. So, I let the guilt go.  I enjoyed the night surrounded by people I love.  I soaked up the laughter. It heals your heart. Listening to my brother in law and daughter tease each other about spilled orange juice and dented bumpers stitched my heart right up. Sharing stories about past holidays, youthful indiscretions and those little things that we thought were the biggest things at the time- that is the medicine. So right then, I was better than OK.

It occurred to me that really this is why we all come together to mark the passing of someone we love. We come to share our grief and mourn the loss but in so doing there are moments of joy and laughter that heal us.  It reminds of our shared history.  How we are woven together through this person that we loved. At the time when we most feel like we could unravel from the sharp pain of loss, we know we will be ok.  While there is a tear in the fabric, it won’t unravel.    Every generation at the table can look around and see the people who will be there to stitch up the tear when the time comes. I think that the rituals that we have are so important.  I come from a Catholic and a Greek Orthodox tradition which have similar rituals to mark our passing.  It might seem morose, but I have never dreaded them. It is the time in between that I feel adrift. When everyone comes together, I feel like I am wrapped up in this big blanket.

I remember I was splashing in the tub on the day of my great grandmother’s funeral when my parents came in to say they were leaving.   I asked where they were going.  I suppose my parents were trying to shield us from the pain of loss or maybe they were trying to preserve our innocence the way parents do. They said that they were going to say goodbye to Big Grandma (as we called this tiny woman).  All I can remember is being really sad that I didn’t get to go say goodbye.  It must have made a deep impression as I still remember that moment nearly five decades later.  I remembered it when my grandmother died not long after my daughter was born.  When I went to lead the rosary, my sister held her tight and rocked her (she has a gift for rocking babies). During the mass, I held her to my chest. I listened to her tiny breaths, feeling them on my neck, and it eased the grief.  Afterward, when everyone was gathered, she made the rounds from aunts to sisters to cousins to sweet old ladies I did not know. She was part of the joy that balanced the grief that day. With every giggle she stitched together hearts.

As we go through the next few days, celebrating the life of a man we loved and mourning the sharp pain of losing him, there will be moments of joy. And we should savor every one of the moments. We will see people we haven’t seen in years and those years will not diminish our love for them. There will be joy in catching up. There will be joy in remembering. There will be joy just knowing we are part of a family and community. We should not miss one minute of that joy.

I chose this photograph because because it embodies joy to me.  I caught this eagle soaring over the Skagit River on a cold, clear winter morning just soaring- joyfully!

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Soaring
(1/1600 sec., f/6.3, 400 ISO, 450 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Looking at Life Through the Keyhole

Over the course of this week, as we prepare to celebrate my dad’s life, we have all been poring over pictures.  And I remember so much of what I forgot.  And I see things I didn’t know but they are so obvious to me now.  We know our family members because we have these long relationships with them.  We see some of them every day. We eat with them. We live under the same roof.  We work with them. We love. We fight. We heal.  And we form this picture of who they are as people. But it’s not complete- even if they are our spouse or our parent.  The truth is we see people like we are looking at them through a keyhole.  We see that focused bit of who they are right now, but we can’t see the whole picture.  Oh sure, it adds up and we think we have the whole picture. But really a person is like a jigsaw puzzle and, no matter how hard you try, you are never going to find all the pieces and where they fit together.  There are always going to be things we don’t see, or misunderstand, or are absolutely sure about and absolutely wrong about at the same time.

I should have known he was once a goofy little boy who probably annoyed his sisters regularly- you can see it in their eyes as they lined up for a fancy picture in their Sunday best.  I wish I had asked more questions about his childhood. He was a tough guy but he also had a soft side. I found several pictures of him through the decades crouched in a child’s chair, daintily holding a tea cup while playing tea party with his daughter, and later his granddaughter and great niece.  (Although I have to say there is zero chance there was actual or imaginary tea in those cups. Coffee. Black. I guarantee it.) He loved his babies and grandbabies.  He never missed a chance to hold one or toss one on his shoulders. As my youngest sister reminded me this week, the view was the best from there. I wish I had asked more questions about my childhood.    Why did he love dogs?  And what was the deal with Basset Hounds? Who taught him to fish?  How was it that he could just talk to anyone (seriously, he could carry on a rousing conversation with a rock)?  I know a lot. Don’t get me wrong. We talked.  But I wish I had asked more questions, assumed less, relied less on my keyhole vision.  Found the missing puzzle pieces.  Maybe that is always the way. We think we have time. We think we know.  We think we have talked about everything we needed to talk about.

Here is my challenge to you: pull out that old album, scrapbook, or box of pictures.  Look at them. Really look at them. Think about this person you have known forever and who they are in total. If you are lucky and they are still with you, call them up and ask them about the time that…  Ask them who is in that picture.  Quit looking through the keyhole and open the door.   My experience is that people love to remember and we should not forget.  But someday they won’t be here to tell us.

More than three decades apart, my dad had mad tea party skills.

386a David and Angie Shea

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Lean In

I was sitting on a plastic couch in a hospital waiting room sobbing in that heart wrenching way you do when you are racked with grief. I had just finished making those difficult phone calls to friends and family, when one of my sisters sat down beside me. She put her arm around me as I wept. She gave me a squeeze and said, “Hey. Come on. Lean in.”  And I did. And it felt so good at that moment, when I felt utterly alone despite being surrounded by family. I leaned in. It felt so good to share the burden. It did not stop my heart from breaking or the tears from falling.  But that simple touch, knowing she shared that grief with me and in some way (that defies algebra) adding her grief to mine, actually lessened it.  That simple phrase, “Lean in”, just stayed with me all night. I realized I need to learn to lean in more. I realized I don’t lean in enough and I wondered why.  It’s a problem. I live in a country built on fierce independence. Where we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Where we get back in the saddle. Where we rub some dirt on it.  Where we get up, brush ourselves off, and do it again. That ethic is in every line of my family and it runs deep. We come from strong people who crossed oceans with almost nothing in our hands and absolute determination, blind courage and deep faith in our hearts. Somehow, I don’t think leaning in was a strategy they used much, and it certainly wasn’t a strategy they passed down our line.  “Get up”, “move forward”, “never let them see you sweat”? Yes.  “Lean in”? Not so much.  Don’t get me wrong, that fierce spirit has served me very well. That is not going to change.   I even remind my daughter often “Shea Girls are fierce!”.  But there is a time to lean in. There is a time to accept support and help. There is a time to share the burden.  So, I am going to lean in when I need to.  I am even going to lean in without being told to.  Thanks to my little sister for reminding me to lean in.

This photo (though it is short one Shea Girl) really spoke to me for this post. I am the one on my dad’s lap.  My “Lean In” sister is smiling in the background (she was a really giggly, joyful little girl), trying to get to us.  My dad is reaching out to my oldest sister.  Every one leaning in with love.

285a David Angie Patty Catherine Shea 1967

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

It’s the Little Things

I think at the end of a life, it is the little things you remember most. The seemingly inconsequential moments become indelibly written on our minds and hearts.  Oh sure, every relationship has big moments.  There are marriages and births, graduations and new homes.  And every relationship has good times and challenging ones – even tragic moments.  But I think we are hard-wired, fortunately, to remember the good things and we are blessed to be designed to hold the little things closest in our hearts.  As my dad’s life has come to an end, I am flooded with these little things. They catch me off guard, my heart clenches, my breathe catches, and I am transported back in time. Sometimes I am moved to laughter and other times to tears but always I can feel these moments like they happened yesterday.  Like the other night, I was playing cards with my husband and daughter. As we are Irish and bilingual in sarcasm, the game was hilarious (This is a relief as our chief concern when we were pregnant was that our child wouldn’t have a sense of humor- turns out she has two dominant humor genes).  Will the Circle Be Unbroken came on the stereo and tears flooded my eyes.  It was like I was a child again.  My dad loved bluegrass music and this was his favorite album.  Soldier’s Joy came on with Earl Scruggs picking on the banjo.  I instantly remembered the time he took me to hear Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs play in Seattle. My love of Bluegrass music, especially the banjo and the fiddle, started that day. The chords plucked out in rapid succession, clear and loud, pounding in time with my heartbeat.  I could feel it propelling my feet and filling my heart. My dad gave me such a love for music of all kinds. To this day, traditional Irish music and Scottish pipe and drum bands move me to tears of joy.  He loved the words as well and I remember he kept the lyrics to John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads thumbtacked to his bookshelf.  I remember the time he took me to see Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge and they sang Me and Bobby McGee. My favorite line was But I’d trade all of my tomorrows for one single yesterday. I didn’t get it back then, but I do right now.

I remember all the things we made.  He liked to make things. He lived in a house he built with his own hands. He ate at a table hewn from wood he dragged across the country twice before he figured out what it was going to be.  He sat on a chair perched on feet he carved himself.   My daughter rocked on a horse he carved and sat at a desk he built.  But it’s the little things he made that I remember most. I remember one time we went all the way to Pike Place Market to buy a chunk of blue cheese, so we could make blue cheese dressing from scratch. I remember the time he found a recipe for mint chocolate pudding in the New York Times and together we melted Junior Mints to mix in. He taught me to cook. He taught me that I could learn to do anything.

I remember Sunday mornings, he would let me work on the New York Times Crossword with him as long as I found one across for every one down that I figured out.  I remember him reading “Child by Tiger” and “Chicago” to me and asking what I thought.  I remember our camping trip in Montana where we hiked into Flathead Lake to fish. It was such an adventure. He taught me to shoot a gun and cast a fly on that trip.  I remember going with him to Patrick’s Flyfishing shop in Seattle and watching him pick out feathers and thread. I was fascinated listening to him and the other men talk about what the fish were biting on.   Later I would watch him tie flies and he would tell me about the exotic places and animals that the pieces came from.  Then he would tell me stories about his own dad fishing.

I remember the time I found his shaving cream next to his bathroom sink and tentatively pressed the cap. Living in a house full of girls, shaving cream was new and exotic.  The foam came out with ribbons of blue and green and it was so fun that I kept doing it until I used up the whole can.  Of course, I lied about it fearing I would be in big trouble. But it was just him and me, so clearly he had me. I remember he told me that the day would come when I would want him to trust me and that trust was built on days like this.  I confessed (I always confessed).

In the end, our memories are made in the tiny, very real moments two people share. They define and shape our lives.  The little things are the big things in our relationships.  Blue Cheese Dressing and crossword puzzles were so much more than that. They were the moments when we talked and laughed, we learned about each other. They were the moments when I asked the big questions and got the honest answers- whether I liked it or not.  They were the moments when I learned where I came from and developed the dreams for my own life.

I chose these pictures of my father and each of his “Shea Girls” for this post. It seems like I have a million pictures of the man but none of these are mine of course. It seemed fitting to remember him holding each of us in his heart as we are holding him in our hearts now.

386a David and Angie SheaDavid and Catherine Shea372a David and Patty Shea 1967

dad with daughter 1970

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.